Accessibility links

Activists Urge Lifting of HIV Travel Bans

  • Jeff Swicord

Speaking at the International AIDS Conference in Washington D.C. that concluded Friday, more than 20 top executives of major multinational corporations called for an end to travel bans for people living with HIV. This is the first time the conference was held in a U.S. city in 22 years because of a ban restricting HIV-positive persons from entering the U.S. President Obama lifted the ban two years ago. Many hope remaining countries with bans in place will follow suit.

Marma Palma is an Aboriginal HIV/AIDS advocate from New Zealand who has been living with the virus for 19 years. She defiantly traveled to the U.S. six times while the entry ban for HIV-positive persons was in place. She says her status is a personal matter and no business of any government.

"There [are] only three ways of getting HIV," said Palma. "You can only get it from unprotected sex or sharing needles or mother-to-child transmission. And I am not going to do either of those three things while I am in America. And I felt quite offended that I had to declare that I had HIV."

The U.S. lifted the ban two years ago. There are currently 46 countries that apply some restrictions on HIV-positive people. Many travel bans were put into place in the early days of the epidemic when little was known about the virus.

Advocates argue the restrictions are unnecessary and violate basic human rights.

"Travel bans are bad public policy because they only make people hide who they are," noted Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV Legal Network. "And they also keep people who are key to the HIV response from actually being able to come to a conference like this one and be a part of the fight against AIDS globally."

Michelle Tobin, from Australia, applauds the U.S. for lifting the travel ban. Tobin declared her status to U.S. immigration in 2006 while in transit through Los Angeles to Canada and was pulled aside for questioning.

"To justify the reasons for me being in that particular country, it wasn't a nice feeling," recalled Tobin. "It was like you are being treated like a criminal."

But two questions on U.S. visa applications have come under scrutiny. One asks if the applicant has ever been a drug user or addict. The other asks: have you engaged in prostitution in the past 10 years? Advocates say drug users and sex workers are an important part of the fight against HIV and should be allowed in the country.

Quincy McEwan, a transgender sex worker advocate from Guyana, says the questions discouraged many of her friends from attending the conference.

"They already knew that there is a system in place that if they were going to get the visa, if they were going to put sex worker on it, they would not have gotten the visa," McEwan said.

Advocates argue today's treatments allow HIV-positive people to live normal lives. In many cases, new drug regimens make the virus undetectable in a patients' blood, making transmission unlikely.