Waiting for the world to change: Travel restrictions

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Feature story

Waiting for the world to change: Travel restrictions

23 November 2010

A version of this story first appeared in 2010 UNAIDS OUTLOOK report

For many of the millions of people living with HIV around the world, travel restrictions are a daily reminder that they do not have the freedom to move internationally—or, even worse, that they may have to leave the place they call home.

Some 49 countries, territories and areas currently impose some form of travel restriction on the entry, stay and residence of people based on their HIV status.

When Mark Taylor,* a Canadian citizen working for a company in New York’s financial sector, fell in love with his life in the Big Apple, he never gave it a second thought to apply for permanent residency in the United States of America. It was 1995 and he was thriving both professionally and personally.

“My new employer said it would sponsor my permanent residency, and we began the process of obtaining all of the required approvals,” Mr Taylor said.

In early 2002, with his residency paperwork completed, Mr Taylor was advised to have a medical exam in Canada to speed up the process.

“When I went to pick up the results, I was told that the HIV test had come back positive. As you might expect, I was devastated. I had been HIV negative the last time I took the test in Canada. Not only did I have to worry about my health and well-being, but I was sure that I would be forced to leave New York, my job and all the friends I had there. I immediately sank into a deep depression, feeling hopeless and helpless.”

For the 22 years the USA had a travel ban on people living with HIV. Life stories like Mr Taylor’s were not uncommon. It started in 1987, when the USA added HIV infection to a list of conditions making a person ‘medically inadmissible’, effectively banning people living with HIV from the country. It was a hardship imposed on many people.

“A huge range of frustrations and ridiculous restrictions weighed on people’s abilities to visit the United States, to do business in the United States, to see family, to see friends and to go to weddings or funerals,” said the Executive Director of Immigration Equality, Ms Rachel Tiven.

Over the years her not-for-profit organization received an average of 1500 phone calls each year on its hotline, a quarter with questions about HIV travel restrictions.

“People called us to say,” she said “I am at JFK Airport and they found my meds when I went through customs and they are telling me I have to get back on the plane—is that true?”

Too often it was true. People would have to get back on the airplane. For the United Nations General Assembly High-level Meeting on AIDS held in 2006 in New York a special waiver had to be sought for delegates living with HIV to visit the country to participate. It’s one of the reasons that the Executive Director of UNAIDS, Michel Sidibé, made lifting travel restrictions a priority.

I could only remain in the USA if I was employed by my sponsoring company. During the turbulent times in the financial industry in the past eight years, I always feared that I was one round of layoff s away from having to leave the country

“Mark Taylor”

“To not be able to participate in the very discussions about your future is not acceptable,” he said. “Everyone should have equal freedom of global movement,” he added.

Ms Tiven added, “It’s simply not an effective way to limit the spread of the virus. We know that it is not just rhetoric. It is good public health practice for people to know their status and to seek treatment, to be clear about their status with the people they are intimate with, and  to not make travel restrictions the reason people don’t test to find out their status or not disclose their HIV status.”

It’s this very situation that Mr Taylor found himself in—he didn’t take routine HIV tests in the USA and in the end feels fortunate to have taken the test in Canada, where under the law his results could not be released to anyone without his consent. Mr Taylor put on hold his hope for permanent residency, but learned he could remain in the USA on his existing visa for an extended period of time. It was good news, but with a caveat.

“I could only remain in the USA if I was employed by my sponsoring company. During the turbulent times in the financial industry in the past eight years, I always feared that I was one round of layoff s away from having to leave the country,” he said.

While Mr Taylor sought medical care and counselling, he believes his career suffered significantly. He tried to live as normal a life as possible, but always felt he was one misfortune away from having to leave the life he had established.

“I was reluctant to disagree or challenge colleagues on business matters. I always had the underlying fear that I could not do anything that might jeopardize my job,” he added. “During this time I also became involved in a serious relationship, and the thought of being torn away from my partner was a source of even more anxiety.”

Some 49 countries, territories and areas currently impose some form of travel restriction on the entry, stay or residence of people based on their HIV status. The International Guidelines on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights state that any restriction on liberty of movement or choice of residence based on suspected or real HIV status alone, including HIV screening of international travellers, is discriminatory.

International commitment to the issue is growing. In October 2009, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution calling for the elimination of restrictions. The Inter-Parliamentary Union at its 186th session in April 2010 adopted a statement to encourage “parliamentarians in countries with restrictions to play a leading role in their elimination, by reforming laws and by monitoring the regulations, policies and practices of relevant authorities in their countries. It urges parliamentarians to advocate for the right of their citizens living with HIV to have equal freedom of movement and to press senior officials in their governments to take up the issue with countries that have such restrictions.”

China lifted its travel ban on people living with HIV just days before the opening of the Expo 2010 Shanghai. Justice Edwin Cameron of the South African Constitutional Court, who is living with HIV, had travelled to China twice in the previous 18 months to and met with government officials to discuss the travel ban.

“I am particularly delighted to hear of this decision, as the visa restrictions were illogical. They nearly led to the cancellation of my last trip to China because of a misunderstanding between government departments. I am relieved this will never happen again to anyone living with HIV,” he said.

In early 2009, with signs of movement towards regulatory changes in the USA, Mr Taylor decided to reactivate his application for permanent residency. It was a risky roll of the dice, as he was betting that new regulations would be in place by the time his application made it through the system.

“Throughout the year, I followed the regulatory process closely. I would check the government web sites obsessively throughout the day for any new news,” he said.

The news came in late 2009—the USA lift ed its entry, stay and residence ban, with President Barack Obama saying at the press conference, “If we want to be a global leader in combating HIV/AIDS, we need to act like it.”

It’s an announcement Mr Taylor remembers well, “I breathed a sigh of relief that had been pent up for over six years. A few weeks later, I received notification that my application had been approved, and a week later my permanent resident card appeared in the mail.”

And for organizations like Immigration Equality it means a shift towards outreach and to educating the public about the repeal. The organization will also monitor its implementation in the USA to ensure that all people living with HIV can enjoy the positive impact of the lifting of the ban.

And for Mr Taylor the announcement came just as he accepted a buy-out severance package from his company. He now has the freedom to think about what to do next in New York.

Mr Taylor added, “I finally feel like everyone else.”


* Some names have been changed.