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What about the workers? (November 2003)

The Terrence Higgins Trust’s latest campaign is to fight any plans the government might have to institute compulsory HIV tests for asylum seekers.

We agree with the campaign. But we think a better one would oppose the automatic refusal of entry to anyone with HIV seeking to enter the UK.

Compulsory tests on entry would certainly be impractical, inhumane, make little difference to public health, and flout several international laws. Nonetheless, immigration minister Beverly Hughes has said, “I think we’ve got to consider [tests] for people seeking asylum.”

But while we support the THT’s campaign, we worry that it has a subtly wrong focus. Testing in itself is not the issue. The real issue is whether testing HIV positive becomes a reason for an automatic bar to entry - whatever a person’s immigration status.

The government wants to damp down the political furore over asylum seekers, but not prevent skilled immigrants staffing our schools and hospitals.

Their solution to this is to tighten asylum procedures, thus achieving a much-trumpeted reduction in the figures, while increasing the number entering on work permits. Home secretary David Blunkett has made it quite clear that his strategy on immigration is to ‘legalise’ it so the only people we let in are UN-sanctioned refugees, students and workers.

And the last thing he wants is to have those workers equated with ‘disease-ridden asylum seekers’.

So the real danger is that - while compassionately leaving asylum seekers alone - Blunkett will decide to test everyone applying for a work permit or a student visa for HIV, and apply a blanket exclusion to those who are positive.

What’s wrong with that? It’s what countries like the US and Australia do already, isn’t it? Well, what’s wrong with it is that it discriminates against people with HIV. It attacks their ability to be mobile, to escape poverty and the more insidious kinds of persecution, and to better themselves. It ignores the fact that immigrants contribute far more than merely economically to their new home.

We must resist the institutional trapping of positive people in their home state, whether that state be Tanzania, Thailand or Texas.

A blanket ban on any immigrants with HIV will effectively bar a section of the world’s population from a better life, more liberty and the pursuit of greater happiness, purely because they have a stigmatised condition. That is what HIV organisations should be campaigning against.

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