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BAHRAIN: No Change Seen in Ban on Entry of People with HIV

MANAMA, Sep 6 2010 (IPS) - Bahrain may be dependent on expatriate labour, but that has not stopped it from deporting migrant workers who are found to be HIV-positive.

The bigger surprise, though, is that this tiny island nation is only one among the 31 or so countries that have such a policy. In fact, the United States used to be on that list as well, and started allowing in travelers with HIV only early this year. In April, China too announced that it was lifting a ban on the entry of foreign visitors with HIV.

All Gulf countries, along with Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, Jordan, and Syria, still refuse entry to people living with HIV. India and Bangladesh, which have tens of thousands of its nationals working abroad, both have a similar policy as well. Here in Bahrain, Indians and Bangladeshis make up the biggest migrant communities, with the former reaching 300,000 and the latter 90,000.

Half of Bahrain’s 1.05 million-strong population is actually made up of expatriates working in a wide range of jobs, from domestic workers to engineers, to corporate chief executives.

Yet officials say Bahraini employers remain picky enough to reject HIV-positive migrant workers.

Somaiya Al Jowder, head of Bahrain’s National Anti- Transmitted Sexual Diseases Programme, told IPS recently: “We are aware of the approach of the World Health Organisation (WHO) of linking HIV with human rights principles to avoid discriminating the rights of carriers of the virus.”

“But,” she said, “we cannot do much as current efforts to change the policy will meet strong rejections from the public.”

HIV, which causes AIDS, can be transmitted sexually. The virus can also be passed on through the sharing of infected needles and tainted blood products.

Bahrain has had an HIV awareness campaign for years to disseminate correct information about the disease and discourage discrimination towards people with the virus. Yet many Bahrainis continue to consider those living with HIV as probably having done an “un-Islamic” activity, primarily because it can transmitted through unprotected sex.

Official data show that infected needles as the top transmission mode of HIV in Bahrain. In the last 20 years, 325 Bahrainis and some 500 expatriates have been recorded as having the disease.

A total of 161 AIDS-related deaths have been reported in Bahrain since 1986. The deported HIV-positive migrant workers have all been new recruits. The discovery is usually made during the medical check-up all newly arrived workers from overseas are required to undergo as part of the work-permit process.

Bahrain has 50,000 employment health checkups annually, which used to reveal as much 400 HIV cases each time. But after overseas labour recruits were required to have medical tests first in their home countries as well, that figure dropped to about 70.

Menakshi Kumar, a private laboratory nurse, said that the few HIV positive cases she has encountered are memorable because all members of the sponsor family visited the lab afterwards to be tested as well.

“Most of such cases are for maids who spent days with the families,” said Kumar, “but because of the ignorance they think HIV could be transmitted by air.”

As of June 2010, Bahrain had about 83,439 domestic workers, many of whom came from other countries such as India, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. Labour recruiters know about the deportation policy, which has not elicited any protest from the expatriate community here. Rona Aviles, a Filipino working for an agency that deploys contract workers overseas, even told IPS, “I support the policy, especially with HIV-positive domestic workers, as they are living with their sponsor families.”

“We don’t often supply domestic workers with HIV as all our workers are tested in their hometowns,” she added. “But the discovered cases are being deported without hesitation.”

Al Jowder said that personally, she feels only those who cannot handle their job should be deported. She pointed out, “Many of our local patients are leading normal lives as the medication controls the virus.”

But she said that so far, there is “no intention” to change the current policy, adding, “(Even) if people will be more open to recruit HIV patients, it will require a long period to amend labour legislation that (forces their deportation).”

“Most of Bahrainis infected with the virus are keeping their ailment secret from their children and close relatives to avoid being cast away,” she observed, “so accepting foreigners with the aliment wouldn’t happen soon.”

She also argued that Bahrain cannot afford the high costs of treating a foreign worker who has HIV. At present, the state provides free treatment for Bahrainis with HIV, and spends 3,700 dollars a month on each. No private clinic offers medication for HIV.

Commented Abdullah Al Derazi, general secretary of Bahrain Human Rights Society: “Social misconception and high treatment cost couldn’t be excuse of the government for not changing its policy as it is a member in the WHO and signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Among Gulf countries, only the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar seem to have entertained thoughts of ceasing to deport foreigners with HIV. In a 2008 United Nations summit in New York, both nations announced that they were considering to get rid of their laws that enforced deportation of expatriates with HIV.

UAE said that its policy was already under review. Qatar said there were discussions on revising the policy towards deporting only those expatriates whose conditions pose a threat to public health. Both countries, however, have yet to change or get rid of their respective policies.

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