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Migrants Vulnerable to HIV

Times of India
06 December 2010
By Rema Nagarajan

Migrants Vulnerable to HIV
Migrants from South Asia who send billions of dollars as remittances to their home countries are extremely vulnerable to HIV infection as a large proportion of them migrate under conditions that expose them to greater risk of such infection.

Over 40% of the $44 billion in remittances received by India in 2008 was contributed by the increasing number of unskilled and semi–skilled Indian workers employed in the Gulf states and Malaysia. It is just these unskilled and semi–skilled workers who are most exposed to the risk of contracting HIV.

This was revealed in the report HIV/AIDS and Mobility in South Asia of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), UNAIDS and the International Labour Organisation released on World AIDS Day on Wednesday.

While data is not available for all South Asian countries, what is available paints an alarming picture. About 67% of the identified HIV positive cases in Bangladesh are returned migrant workers and their spouses. In Nepal in 2007, 41% of reported cases of HIV were among migrant workers. More than 40% of the women who have tested positive both abroad and in Sri Lanka are, or have been, migrants. Out of more than 7.2 million people living with HIV/AIDS in Asia Pacific, 5 million are in South Asia.

Of the 849,000 low–skilled Indian workers who went abroad for work in 2008, over 96% went to the Gulf countries. Of all migrant workers, unskilled workers, particularly domestic workers, and workers who migrate through illegal channels are the most vulnerable to exploitation and in these countries there is little or no mechanism to protect these workers, stated the report Since migrant workers tend to buy sex when they are away from home, several million of them will be at risk of infection, said the report.

It pointed out that most South Asian countries did not have any process for reintegrating HIV–positive migrants who have been deported or have returned home on their own. HIV–infected returnees often preferred to hide their positive status for fear of exclusion and humiliation, said the report calling for stronger support systems to facilitate migrant reintegration.

While migration itself is not considered a vulnerability factor for HIV infections, the unsafe conditions under which people migrate exposes them to a greater risk of infection, said Caitlin Wiesen, UNDP Country Director in India. Protecting and promoting the right to health of migrants including access to HIV services is vital for safe mobility, urged the report.

Vulnerability to HIV is often an outcome of external factors, including language barriers, prejudice, discrimination, lack of access to health care facilities and support mechanisms.

Countries that send migrants out, as well as host countries, have important roles in protecting migrants rights and access to health services. However, to date, a general absence of support services and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, throughout the migration cycle is evident in all countries of South Asia, stated the report.

In Bhutan, basic primary health care is provided free to everyone who accesses the health care system. Pre–departure training for migrants in Sri Lanka includes a two–hour session on HIV prevention and protection.

Such measures apart, the reports recommendations included measures to ensure safe mobility and migration under international labour standards and conventions, improved access to HIV services, welfare, security and safety as well as information, and protection from deportation on grounds of HIV positive status.

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