The recent discussions about separating children from their parents at the U.S. border because of the adult's HIV status have put a spotlight on migrants living with HIV. While those arriving at the United States' southern border are mostly fleeing violence and upheaval in their countries of origin, Venezuelans are moving to Colombia in search of HIV medications, in particular. Eight thousand to 10,000 people living with HIV have left Venezuela, but about 40% of Venezuelans living with the virus are still in their home country, said Alberto Nieves of Acción Ciudadana Contra el SIDA during his presentation at the Community Forum ahead of the 10th IAS Conference on HIV Science in Mexico City.
Many of these migrants arrive in Colombia "without authorization," Miguel Barriga of Red Somos added during the same event. Initially, most people left with little information about how to reach HIV organizations in Colombia, Franco Rigual of the same organization added by e-mail. In the meantime, Red Somos has worked with Venezuelan groups to disseminate information about the services available in Colombia to potential migrants before they leave their home country. "Based on this, we can say that during the last year we have been receiving clients who are not improvising as much," Rigual noted.
Red Somos helps these migrants obtain asylum based on the threat to their lives from a lack of HIV treatment in their country. "The only treatment undocumented immigrants can get according to [Colombian] national regulations is emergency room care," explained Rigual. "Someone living with HIV needs ongoing care through a specialized HIV program. Because of this fact, we are in a situation where the main barrier to care for this illness, in particular, is the migrant's status."
It takes about three to six months for Venezuelans emigrating to Colombia to "regulate their status," according to Barriga. So far, his organization has been successful with each asylum application they have helped people submit. However, most of these migrants need more than legal status and HIV care, Rigual said. "Policies that pay special attention to this population are needed, and the community organizations deserve that public and private entities look at ways in which they can strengthen the services we offer, because, as I noted already, we are the entry point to care for this population."
In the U.S., priority for asylum interviews is given to the most recent arrivals, with the stated goal of removing people deemed not to merit asylum as quickly as possible. In an initial "credible fear" interview, migrants must show persecution in their home country before being allowed to proceed with the lengthy asylum process. Persecution based on HIV status can be a reason for asylum, but only if it is perpetrated by the police or other state organs.
Meanwhile, Central Americans waiting in Tijuana, Mexico, for a chance to apply for asylum in the U.S. are facing xenophobia and discrimination, but also help, Giuliani Alvarenga reported for TheBody earlier this year. He wrote about the aid provided by Albergue Las Memorias to anyone affected by HIV or substance use. Services include housing, food, and linkage to health care and medications.
Tijuana has its own HIV epidemic, with a 17% prevalence rate among men who have sex with men and 22% among transgender women, Annick Bórquez, M.Sc., Ph.D, with the University of California San Diego said at IAS 2019. It is fueled in part by the city's status as a transit hub both for migrants and people deported from the U.S. Without support networks or IDs, many deportees are forced to turn to the sex or drug industries for survival, while migrants may have suffered sexual abuse on their journey north. All of these factors make people more vulnerable to seroconversion, she explained.
While the situation seems dire for people living with HIV fleeing their countries of origin, be it for fear of persecution or lack of treatment, organizations such as the ones mentioned above provide practical assistance, as well as hope. Many of these groups are quite local, so if you want to help, contact your local immigrant aid or HIV service organization. You don't need to be in a border region to find such groups -- they exist in New York City and other locations, too.