The federal Coalition government is proposing to bar the entry to Australia of migrants and refugees with HIV, supposedly to contain HIV rates.
National HIV rates have increased by 41% in the last five years. The Victorian rate has increased by 28% and Queensland had a 20% increase in 2004, with the rise continuing.
Victoria's Labor health minister Bronwyn Pike began the wave of bigotry. Under fire for the rise in HIV infections and her department's inaction over Michael Neal, a man charged with knowingly infecting gay men in Melbourne, Pike said that 70 new notifications of HIV-positive people in Victoria were due to "immigrants" to the state. In response, PM John Howard declared that Australia should have more stringent conditions in relation to HIV-positive migrants, adding only as an afterthought that humanitarian considerations should be factored in in certain cases.
Executive director of Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO), Don Baxter, said that Pike's suggestion that health checks on migrants were not rigorous enough was an "appalling" attempt to divert attention from Victoria's poor record on containing the HIV rate. He said that of the 20 HIV cases in Victoria believed to have been contracted overseas, about half were in Australian-born people diagnosed overseas and about five were thought to be New Zealanders.
AFAO points out that in Australia both public health and criminal law fall under the jurisdiction of the states and territories, and state and territory responses to HIV vary. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, criminal prosecutions relating to HIV transmission were rare. In recent years, however, reflecting an international trend, there has been an increase in such cases, involving different charges in different states.
AFAO says: "There is no evidence that the presence of laws which criminalise HIV transmission function to prevent or deter HIV transmission. Further, AFAO is concerned that prosecution of individuals may, in fact, have a negative effect on public health by increasing the stigma and discrimination faced by people living with HIV/AIDS and discouraging individuals to undergo HIV testing or to engage with health services. AFAO is also concerned by the potential for random or selective use of criminal sanctions."
All people seeking Australian residency already undergo rigorous health testing, and they are refused if they have HIV. The people who are not currently tested, says the government, are the 200,000 temporary immigrant workers and others (such as refugees) who arrive in Australia - inferring that they are responsible for the rising HIV rates in this country.
Many of the asylum seekers refused residency have gone underground, forced to import the medical drugs they need from overseas at great cost. If Pike and Howard get their way, even more HIV-positive people will be denied access to the health care they need.
Migrants and asylum seekers should receive health checks - not to demonise them, lock them up and then deport them, but to offer the best medical care. As a rich nation, Australia should do much more to help combat HIV/AIDS. As a beginning, the Australian government should:
stop refusing Australian residency to HIV-positive asylum seekers and migrants;
massively increase funding for HIV prevention, including restoring full funding to the Queensland AIDS Council;
show leadership on the "Make Aids History" recommendations for global funding for HIV prevention, treatment, care and support, including palliative care;
decriminalise sex work and drug use, and provide safe-needle programs;
remove all discriminatory sexual-orientation laws; and
institute positive same-sex sex education in the community and schools.