Migrants want Equality and Dignity

Ishdeep Kohli - CNS
Many developed countries in Asia and the Middle East rely on migrant workers to keep their economies functioning. Migrants send back valuable economic resources to their origin countries and contribute to the economies of the destination countries. Migrant populations are vulnerable to violence, discriminations and lack of social and healthcare services.  In some countries the policy and practice of mandatory HIV testing for migrant workers is discriminatory and violates the migrant’s human rights.

Mara Quesada-Bondad,  Executive Director, Action for Health Initiatives (ACHIEVE), Inc. speaking on behalf of migrant workers at ICAAP 11 said, “One of the biggest issues we are facing is the slow movement of legal reforms related to mandatory HIV testing and related deportation among migrant workers. In many contexts, migrant workers are excluded from laws and policies that allow them to access health services in general and HIV treatment in particular.”

Elena Felix, is a woman living with HIV from the migrant community. Her origin country is Philippines and she was working in the Middle East, where once diagnosed with HIV she was deported back to Philippines. She said, “We were once considered as the ‘New Heroes’ as were bringing back money to our country but now face stigma discrimination, all I want is to live with equality and dignity.”

In Thailand, there is a new health insurance policy for migrants but the insurance premium is costly which makes service providers reluctant in providing services.For the Malaysian government the health issues of migrants are considered a threat. Migrants are registered and tested but deported when found to have the illness or when women migrants are pregnant.

Male workers from other countries are stopped and questioned at immigration in Hong Kong if they carry condoms; this makes them reluctant to carry condoms in the future. Women working as domestic workers are most vulnerable in Singapore as pregnancy and HIV are causes for deportation.

Some 2.5 million Burmese migrant workers live in Thailand—about half of whom are estimated to be undocumented—Burmese sex workers cannot use condoms because their employers do not want them to do so. In hospitals they face discrimination. The healthcare providers treat the Thai patients first. Even with health insurance they only get paracetamol regardless of their health condition. For migrant workers who are able to access Anti Retro Viral drugs, the system is too bureaucratic and difficult to navigate.

The communities explained that there is an intersection of the populations; there are migrants who are also MSM, PLHIV, sex-workers, young people, transgenders and women who inject drugs. The migrant community at ICAAP 11 discussed some key issues and recommendations needed to promote HIV prevention and treatment services for migrants. There should be no termination from work and deportation as it violates right to work and right to move and stay. Rather access to HIV prevention, treatment and care must be provided.

Any health testing should be accompanied by the 3Cs (counselling, consent, confidentiality), and should be connected to treatment. Make voluntary counselling and testing services more accessible to migrants in their language. At the policy level advocate for more progressive and inclusive policies that mandate non-discrimination in accessing health services for migrant workers. Governments of both origin and destination countries, should provide funding support for HIV prevention and treatment. Community-based organizations that assist migrants should be given funding support to sustain their work.

Ishdeep Kohli, Citizen News Service - CNS
November 2013

Note: This article was first published in 11th ICAAP INSIGHT, the official daily conference newspaper of 11th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (11th ICAAP) in Bangkok, Thailand. This newspaper was managed by Inis Communication and CNS.