Free to travel – but only if you’re healthy
Many countries don’t welcome the HIV-infected
Bonn, March 2005. I have the honour of participating in a consultation meeting of the German ministry for economic cooperation. The purpose is to discuss a draft bill on the subject of “Solutions for the government on HIV and Aids”. I landed up in this illustrious company by sheer coincidence, and now scan the briefing documents before me. I am surprised at the statements put forward by the Church’s aid organisations represented here. They are wasting a golden opportunity to make binding recommendations in the decision process.
At some point I can’t hold myself back any longer. A chapter on the issue of travel freedom for HIV-infected people is so vague that I simply have to enter the discussion. I propose that the German government clearly and unambiguously endorse this freedom – a right, after all, which modern societies take for granted. Anything less should be regarded as discrimination. When I’m done, there is much murmuring in the inner circles; the official representatives are conferring with each other. After a while I am advised that unfortunately such an explicit recommendation would fall outside the scope of the bill, because the state could not always abide by it. From their rather fuzzy clarifications I understand that it seems to be not necessarily desirable that HIV-positive applicants should be allowed to study in Germany.
Saarbrücken, almost exactly a year later. I’m visiting a family which has taken in a South African child. The relevant government department, the foster parents say, has made it clear that the adoption of an HIV-positive child would not be approved. The international Hague Adoption Convention, signed by Germany and about 75 other states, does not authorise such restrictions. But the bureaucrats don’t care one bit about that.
These two examples illuminate why it is so difficult to fight against discrimination. It isn’t just individuals who discriminate, but also states and their organs. A particularly notorious example is Australia’s rigorous deportation policy. In April 2007 then-Prime Minister John Howard proposed to deny all HIV-positive asylum seekers and migrants entry into Australia. Likewise, the United States used to turn away HIV-positive asylum seekers at their port of entry and abolished the rule recently. Other countries, such as Germany, apply veiled restrictions.
All of these forms of discrimination are politically intolerable and ethically repulsive. And yet increasing numbers of state take these types of measures and restrict the travel freedoms of HIV-positive people. They are treated like outcasts. Regrettably, my Church has yet to register its vociferous protest, even though it calls for the prevention of stigmatization and ostracism. The average citizen should be made conscious that infected people are as human as other people.
But in real life there is a collective fear of infected people, and these fears manifest themselves bureaucratically in travel bans, in forced testing and in the refusal of work and study permits. The official excuses are always the same: the burden on the health system, the spread of the pathogen through accident or sexual contact, and so on. If they don’t want HIV-infected people coming to their countries or adoptions of HIV-positive babies, then these states and political decision-makers should just unequivocally say so and stop playing their hypocritical games. In doing so, they would say bluntly: we are acting to protect our population. But medically, that would be nonsense, as a 2004 UNAids study has shown so eloquently.
Here in South Africa, every child is taught at school that HIV-positive citizens must be treated like any other. But in practice it’s a different story altogether. That’s why I keep asking myself how we might get people to not stigmatize and discriminate. How can we persuade relatives, friends, colleagues or bosses to follow the standards of equal rights? And how are we to interpret a bishop’s dutiful Sunday sermons if he never raises his voice in defence of the stigmatised? Most of our Church leaders are relentlessly silent on that injustice. After all, there are more important matters to get worked up about, such as same-sex partnerships. These issues sap their strength; so how can they still be expected to muster the energy to intervene on behalf of their ostracised and disempowered brothers and sisters with the virus in their blood?
But if one doesn’t let them into the country, then there is no need to deal with the problem. What a merciless, globalised world in which everything moves – commodities, capital, services, information – except 40 million HIV-infected people who are told to stay where they are. For a South African baby in Germany or a Kenyan student at a European border the message is clear: Keep out! And all that happens, as I found out at the consultation in Bonn, with the silent consent of those who represent our Church.
In October 20057, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited together with a delegation the HOPE Cape Town Association. Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, who was part of the visit, promised to approach the then German Minister of Interior Wolfgang Schaeuble to clarify the rules of visa applications in connection with the problem of HIV and AIDS. The consequent correspondence between the two ministers clarified that there are no legal grounds to reject a visa application on the grounds of HIV and AIDS. This makes the named cases even more unjust, as civil servants seem to take the law in their own hands and taint them with their own prejudice.
In August 2008 I approached officially the German Catholic Bishops Conference to enquire about their dealing with this highly ethical issue. I was told that there has never been any statement in this concern but I was promised that one would look now into the matter. A year later I received news that the German Bishops Conference does not see any need to deal with travel restrictions.
Translation from the book:
Gott – Aids – Afrika
Hardcover: 207 pages – Publisher: Kiepenheuer & Witsch GmbH (August 31, 2007)
Language: German – ISBN-10: 3462039253 – ISBN-13: 978-3462039252
Gott – Aids – Afrika
Paperback – Bastei – Luebbe –
Language: German – ISBN-10: 3404606159 – ISBN-13: 978-3404606153