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Thursday, 5 May 2011

In UK, Border Agency's attitude on HIV/Aids under fire

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By Paul Canning

The UK Border Agency have told an asylum seeking doctor from Senegal that he can avoid persecution on removal from the UK if he stops seeing gay patients.

The Senegalese man worked for an agency in Senegal which treated patients with HIV, including homosexual ones. His evidence says that there was a choice involved in treating them, and the doctor claims to have suffered persecution from vigilantes as a result. The rejection letter accepts that he was persecuted for treating gay patients but simply says this would stop "if you ceased working with gay HIV patients".

It goes on to say:
"If you do wish to work with gay HIV patients in the community you are free to seek employment overseas following your return to Senegal." 
The rejection letter says that the evidence provided that he had worked with homosexual patients did not establish that this constitute 'gay activism' in Senegal. His asylum claim has not been accepted for a variety of other reasons effecting his credibility.

His rejection letter cites a US State Department human rights report which - citing 'NGO observers' - says that official persecution of gays in Senegal had "eased" and that people living with HIV/Aids "were increasingly accepted in society". It notes the passing of a law last year to protect persons with HIV/AIDS against all forms of discrimination.

However the same 2010 Human Rights Watch report cited by the State Department noted that the 2008 arrests, publicity and denunciations of nine members of AIDES Senegal, an HIV/AIDS association, "surpassed anything Senegal's gay population had faced before, and the effects continue to be felt."

Joel Nana, Executive Director, African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (AMSHeR), told the International AIDS Conference in Vienna last July that as a result of the attacks on AIDES Senegal:
"[In] Senegal, you can barely see organizations providing services to men who have sex with men and I am talking about MSM [Men who have Sex with Men] led organizations. All of them are afraid, many Senegalese MSM have left the country, their neighboring countries, some of them have applied to asylum in Europe and this put a stop to some of the services that people were accessing already." 
"In Senegal also where the Minister of Health says it is fine, we will address HIV in your communities, but the Minister of Justice arrests them and throw them in jail."
Senegalese interviewed by Human Rights Watch described being insulted, beaten, stripped, threatened, and tortured in jail as well as attacked and blackmailed in the community, with no recourse to justice or protection from the police or from community members and religious leaders.

Senegal has a HIV prevalence rate of only 1% in the general population but research by the Population Council found a prevalence rate of over 21.5% amongst MSM.

More criticism of UKBA's attitude on HIV/Aids came in a Guardian report 29 April. It said that the treatment of UKBA detainees with HIV/Aids at a West London hospital had led to its sexual health unit being turned into a prison.

It treats detainees from two immigration removal centres near Heathrow airport.

Hillingdon hospital HIV specialist consultant Ben Holden said:
"The unit is now a prison for us all. Our windows only open two inches but UKBA have installed chunky locks on them. We were told they would bring removable window restraints but these are permanent." 
"No detainee has ever absconded or attempted to abscond. As doctors we believe that to keep immigration detainees restrained or locked in is discriminatory. I don't want to be part of a process that treats people in a less than human way."
An audit conducted by the hospital revealed that none of the detainees removed from the UK were dispatched with a full three month supply of anti-retroviral drugs (in accordance with British HIV Association/National Aids Trust guidelines) because in many cases doctors at the hospital were not notified by UKBA prior to their removal. UKBA frequently cancelled appointments and some HIV+ patients were removed before they were seen at the hospital.

A report last month by Medical Justice found that most of the HIV+ detainees helped by them had been denied life-saving medication in detention.

As a result of denial of medication some detainees have developed drug resistance, necessitating more complex drug combinations which are inaccessible to many in the country they are being deported to.  Without these drugs they may die within a few years, the report said.

Jenny Willott, the Liberal Democrat MP for Cardiff Central, described detention centres as "a dangerous place for someone with HIV" and that "lives are even being shortened.”

A spokesman for Hillingdon's local health service trust said:
"The UK Border Agency has told us that they do not believe our open ward environment is suitable for the treatment of individuals who may be failed asylum seekers and under restraint. However, a large proportion of the patients who are brought to our sexual health department by the agency are later discharged into the community and are not subject to the criminal law."
Medical Justice are holding a meeting on the medical care detainees with HIV/Aids receive while in immigration detention Monday 9 May between 1-2pm at the Institute of Race Relations, 2-6 Leeke Street, London WC1X 9HS

  • Theresa Schleicher - Medical Justice
  • Jon Burnett - author of Detained and Denied: the clinical care of immigration detainees living with HIV
The meeting is aimed at lawyers, campaigners, ex-detainees, individuals and organisations interested in how asylum seekers with HIV/Aids are treated in detention. As places are limited it is essential to reserve a seat. RSVP to

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