After the conclusion of the 20th International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2014) this past month in Melbourne, Australia, reports of attendees seeking asylum have spread across the Internet. Approximately 13,000 delegates from more than 200 countries attended AIDS 2014 in late July. Media reports suggest that anywhere from 25 to 30 delegates failed to board their flights home and subsequently reached out to refugee support agencies in Melbourne for assistance. The delegates are believed to be mostly from African nations, including Tanzania, Uganda, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Rwanda.
One of the agencies apparently helping some of the delegates is the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) based in Melbourne, as Campaign Coordinator Pamela Curr explained to the Guardian Australia:
"Our case workers are assisting them with the housing agencies to make sure they have somewhere safe to sleep," Curr said.
"Once they've lodged a claim for a protection visa then it will depend on the conditions of the visa whether they have any sort of support or whether they've got work rights."
According to Curr at the time of her interview, the delegates were still on valid visas, but those would eventually run out, some sooner than others.
"We would hope [the delegates] would all seek legal advice," Curr said. "The process is people put in an application for a protection visa. Once they're lodged they are issued a bridging visa, but because they have entered the country legally by air they are not in the same position as people who come by boat."
There are three basic requirements for asylum seekers in Australia. The first is establishing the applicant's fear of persecution. Secondly, applicants must prove that they would be persecuted on account of one of five protected grounds: race, nationality, religion, political opinion or social group. Lastly, applicants must prove that the government of their home country is either doing the persecuting or unable to control the conduct of private actors.
This isn't the first case of delegates not wanting to leave the host country. The International AIDS Conference is hosted every two years by a different nation. In 2006, the conference was held in Toronto, and it was reported that 130 HIV-positive South African female attendees sought asylum in Canada following the conference. In addition to the South African women, the Toronto Sun newspaper reported on other asylum seekers from El Salvador, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Eritrea. During that era, one in two applications for asylum in Canada would have been successful and rulings could take up to one year.
Not every host nation draws the attention of people living with HIV who are seeking asylum. There were no reports of delegates seeking asylum after the 2008 conference in Mexico City. As part of its coverage of the conference, NPR spoke to Mexicans living with HIV who were seeking political asylum in the U.S., largely due to anti-gay violence.
Two years later in Vienna, at AIDS 2010, there were few reports of delegates seeking asylum -- but that doesn't mean the numbers were low. For the safety of those seeking asylum, maintaining privacy is of high importance. It's also believed that, in an attempt to not encourage more applications, countries that do offer asylum don't make that information as publicly available as some feel it should be.
During AIDS 2012 in Washington, D.C., two Nigerian LGBT activists reached out to a Housing Works employee during the conference. They shared their desire to stay due to fear for their lives as gay men at home. The Housing Works employee realized that they needed permanent housing as well as additional support. Through this experience, Housing Works formulated a plan and started the Housing Works Asylum Project.
"The Housing Works Asylum Project is providing housing, health care, legal support, financial support, volunteer work, job training, and employment to LGBT activists from Nigeria, Uganda, Jamaica, and other nations who seek sanctuary in the U.S. to escape imprisonment and violence for who they are and who they love," Housing Works explains on its website. "The Project began with the two initial individuals from Nigeria, but has since blossomed into a program providing support for nearly two-dozen asylum applicants."
What will happen at AIDS 2016, which will be held in Durban, South Africa? A decade after South African delegates sought asylum in Canada after the 2006 conference in Toronto, will South Africa be seen as a refuge for a new set of asylum seekers? South Africa is a country with a rich, complicated history regarding HIV, as well as a large population of asylum seekers from elsewhere on the African continent. In 2012, an estimated 6.1 million people in South Africa were living with HIV, with a shocking 240,000 South Africans dying from AIDS-related illnesses, making its HIV epidemic the largest and perhaps the most high-profile HIV epidemic in the world. The country now invests more than $1 billion annually to run its HIV programs, but non-citizens have been turned away from treatment after being told they would have to bear responsibility for the costs.
As for the AIDS 2014 delegates currently awaiting asylum in Melbourne, their fate is unknown, and decisions could take months. For some who left families behind, the wait could feel like a lifetime. Delegates who are granted asylum in Australia may be eligible for family reunion visas, but at the discretion of the immigration department.
Scott Morrison, Australia's immigration minister, declined to comment to dot429.com. A spokeswoman for his office told SRS Radio that due to privacy reasons, individuals' asylum applications are not discussed, but added that "All claims for protection are considered on their individual merits and according to law."