Feature story

HIV and refugees

23 February 2007


According to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, "A refugee is a person who, owing to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country". Conflict,
persecution and violence affect millions of people worldwide, forcing them to uproot their lives and seek refuge in a different country.

At the end of 2005, there were 8.4 million refugees worldwide. Of these, approximately 30% were in sub-Saharan Africa, 29% in Central and South-West Asia, North Africa and the Middle East and 23% in Europe.

Displacement of people from their country of origin has an enormous effect on their lives, as well as upon the lives of host communities.

Conflict and displacement make women and children highly vulnerable to the risk of HIV.  As refugees struggle to meet their basic needs such as food, water and shelter, women and girls are often forced to exchange sexual services for money, food or protection.


“Women and girls are often disproportionately affected by displacement. They need special attention in terms of HIV including protection from violence and exploitation,” said Dr. Purnima Mane, Director of Policy, Evidence and Partnerships at UNAIDS.

Among other problems, refugees often do not have access to HIV prevention commodities and programmes. Access to basic HIV-related care and support is also rarely given adequate attention. Despite improvements in the availability of antiretroviral therapy in low- and middle-income countries, very few refugees have access to it.

“We advocate for refugees to access HIV services in the same manner as that of the local population. Some countries in Southern Africa provide both refugees and the host population free antiretroviral drugs using Government services,” said Dr. Paul Spiegel, Head of HIV Unit, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Many host countries are already overburdened by the impact of HIV, and are often unable or unwilling to provide the HIV-related services refugees need and to which they have a right under international refugee and human rights law. 


In order to reduce the risk of HIV infection and improve access to HIV-related prevention, treatment, care and support of refugees, UNAIDS in collaboration with one of its Cosponsors, UNHCR, has developed a new policy brief that focuses specifically on actions required to prevent HIV and mitigate the effect of HIV on refugees and their host communities.

The policy brief focuses on emergency and post-emergency phases and suggests actions for governments, civil society and international partners in order to ensure that refugee and human rights laws are applied, and that the needs of refugees are included into national HIV policies and programmes.

All photo credit: UNAIDS

Read the policy brief on HIV and refugees