This report was written by Juliet Linderman, a freelance journalist based in New York.
Washington, D.C. – It’s no accident that the biennial International AIDS Conference, which attracts more than 25,000 attendees from around the world, is being held in Washington D.C. this year, marking its return to the United States after a 22-year hiatus. In 2009, President Barack Obama lifted a longstanding travel and immigration ban that had denied anyone with HIV or AIDS travel clearance since it was signed into law in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan.
“Let me say five words we have not been able to say for too long,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her conference address on Monday morning. “Welcome to the United States.”
Because the location of this year’s conference commemorates the lifting of the U.S. ban, a critical light is now focused on countries that still enforce barriers to entry based on HIV status.
A variety of corporations, government agencies and international organizations are mobilizing around the cause. On Sunday, UNAIDS and GBCHealth, formerly called the Global Business Coalition, launched an initiative calling for the end of HIV-related immigration and travel bans in countries that still enforce them.
“Travel restrictions for people living with HIV are blatant discrimination,” said Virgin Unite Founder Richard Branson, who signed the initiative, in a release. “Everyone should have a chance to travel freely…. I urge governments around the world to repeal their bans and encourage business leaders to join me in taking a stand.”
Since the United States lifted its ban — and China its ban in the same year — eight countries including Fiji, Armenia and the Republic of Moldova have followed suit. According to UNAIDS, of the 45 countries that still apply some level of HIV-related immigration restrictions, 20 deport foreign individuals discovered to be HIV-positive, five require proof of negative HIV status to qualify for even a short-term stay, and five observe a complete and total entry ban on HIV-positive individuals.
“There is no evidence that these restrictions protect public health,” said UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe in a statement. “They are discriminatory and violate international human rights standards. People living with HIV should have equal access to opportunity and freedom of movement in today’s globalized world.”
On July 22, Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention co-sponsored a satellite session at the conference to announce the country’s commitment to removing HIV-specific travel bans. Among the many representatives of countries that observe travel bans was Executive Director of the Egyptian Youth Association for Health Development Ahmed Tammam, who explained that these policies serve only to further stigmatize HIV and AIDS sufferers, and are ultimately damaging to both those affected by the disease and the countries that bar them from entry.
“Our organization is working with the National AIDS Program to work on the issue of travel bans,” Tammam said. “The world is becoming a global village — immigration bans promote stigma — and its wrong to discriminate and restrict movement, period.”