Travel Restrictions on HIV People Unacceptable, Say Religious Leaders

The faith community will continue to advocate for the lifting of travel restrictions on people living with HIV until the rule is removed worldwide, vowed religious leaders at the 17th International AIDS Conference.

"For both the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) and the Lutheran World Federation this (travel restrictions on HIV+ people) is both an issue of faith and of human rights," said the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, presiding bishop of ELCA and president of LWF on Monday.

"As a religious leader, I am convinced that lifting discriminatory travel restrictions is a responsible act of justice and mercy. Most of those restrictions are born out of fear and ignorance," Hanson said.

Hanson suggested religious groups consider to not hold national conferences in countries with HIV-related travel restrictions.

Others that joined Hanson on the panel included Per Miljeteig, president of HIV Norway; the Rev. Christo Greyling, chair of ANERELA+, African network of religious leaders living with or personally affected by HIV; and Mariangela Simao, director of Brazilian AIDS Program.

Greyling, who is also a staff with World Vision, shared that he has been HIV-positive for 21 years and the travel restrictions have hindered his work for the Christian relief group. His job recently required the Dutch Reformed Church pastor from Johannesburg, South Africa, to relocate to an Asian country, but he found it nearly impossible to enter several nations because of his medical status.

"HIV-positive people are resource people who can provide the face of HIV and the people who can give correct information to respond to HIV and AIDS," Greyling said in response to the travel restrictions.

Meanwhile, panelist Miljeteig highlighted the travel restrictions have no medical basis, and called such rules "legalized phobia" and "humiliating treatment."

During the International AIDS Conference on Tuesday, Dr. Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS, also stated there is no public health justification for the restrictions, according to The Associated Press.

Currently, more than 65 countries impose some travel restrictions on entry for HIV-infected people, and seven nations outright ban such admission. The seven nations that ban HIV affected people from entering are: Brunei, Oman, Qatar, Sudan, South Korea, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

Some 30 countries deport foreigners once they are discovered to carry the virus, including North Korea, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Hungary, Egypt and Russia.

But the United States has begun to reverse its two-decade ban on HIV-positive people entering the country. U.S. President George W. Bush signed last week the PEPFAR (President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) reauthorization bill, which has a clause that calls for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to write new policies that remove current restrictions on people with HIV entering the country.

Hanson praised the U.S. Congress and Bush for the PEPFAR reauthorization and said ELCA's Washington office will be "vigilant" in its monitoring of the process of lifting the ban.

Craig McClure, executive director of the International AIDS Society, is hopeful that other countries will follow in the U.S.'s footsteps regarding travel restrictions on AIDS infected people.

"The U.S. always sets the tone," McClure said. "This is huge not only for the people who have not been able to enter the U.S., but finally these laws might be overturned throughout the world."