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A year ago, South Korea announced at the 19th International AIDS Conference that it had eliminated immigration regulations that discriminated against people living with HIV and prevented them from entering, living, and working in the country. But that announcement, celebrated at the meeting of more than 20,000 scientists, presidents, business leaders and grass-roots activists from around the globe, hardly tells the full story.

The conference was the first time the meeting was held in the US since 1990. It had returned to the U.S. in response to the end of a 22-year ban on admitting people living with HIV to the country. Understandably, HIV-related travel restrictions got particular attention.

Worldwide, about 45 countries have some form of restriction on the entry, stay and residence of people living with HIV. These laws and policies have no basis in public health. The World Health Organization first concluded in 1987 that screening international travelers was not an effective strategy to prevent the spread of HIV. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that restrictions based on HIV status are discriminatory and violate human rights. UNAIDS and the Global Business Coalition on Health presented a pledge at the conference by the chief executive officers of 24 multinational companies opposing HIV travel restrictions.

At the meeting, the Republic of South Korea co-hosted a session with UNAIDS on the issue. Kim Bong-hyun, deputy minister for multilateral and global affairs, in the Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry acknowledged that discrimination based upon HIV status violated human rights and announced: “I am pleased to state, on behalf of my government, that the Republic of Korea has no HIV-specific travel restrictions under the Immigration Control Act and its implementing regulations. Lifting travel restrictions is a small step on our long journey to realize a society where there is no discrimination against people with HIV.”

Unfortunately, the rhetoric of that pledge does not quite meet the reality that foreigners face in South Korea. The problem is that while claiming to have addressed HIV travel restrictions makes for positive international relations at AIDS conferences, at home xenophobia, stigma and discrimination get precedence. Despite international calls for South Korea to end HIV-specific travel restrictions, including from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the government is trying to play both sides. At international AIDS conferences they claim to have removed all barriers, but to nationalistic audiences within South Korea, they blame foreigners as the source of HIV.

Not everyone is buying the double-talk. Just before last year’s AIDS conference, the UN committee that monitors the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination accepted a complaint against South Korea’s mandatory HIV tests for foreign teachers. The complaint says the requirement is racial discrimination, plain and simple. The committee gave the government three months to respond. Nearly a year later, in April, the government finally did.

The government neither denied that foreign teachers face mandatory HIV tests nor claimed the tests were necessary for public health reasons. In fact, it said nothing about the testing of foreign teachers upon entry, and countered that Education Ministry guidelines no longer require re-testing upon renewal of annual contracts.

This evasive, and incomplete, response is in stark contrast to the promises made about lifting all travel restrictions. If the government of South Korea is sincere about ending discrimination against people living with HIV, it could start by ending its own discrimination against people living with HIV. Foreign teachers say the bottom line is the same as it has always been: they are required to be tested for HIV when they enter the country.  If they want to renew their contract they are almost always required to be tested again. If they are positive, they could be denied a teaching contract and a residency permit. 

The expansion of access to HIV treatment has been heralded around the world. Promising research suggests that universal treatment can lead to sharp drops in HIV transmission. Top officials speak of how we can “end AIDS.”

Yet being infected with HIV still carries considerable stigma in many countries, including South Korea. Blaming foreigners for transmitting HIV prevents South Koreans from recognizing that HIV is not the problem of “others” but, as in every other country, it is transmitted locally and should be addressed with accurate information and compassion. UNAIDS, instead of co-hosting meetings with South Korea, should press them to abandon HIV policies that violate human rights and have no basis in public health.  

South Korea’s policy of HIV testing of foreign teachers has real consequences for the country’s success in addressing its domestic HIV epidemic. The high levels of stigma caused by linking HIV to foreigners has made many ethnic Koreans choose to forgo testing due to fear of prejudice. One lesson learned early in the HIV epidemic by many countries, but not yet by South Korea, is that pandering to nationalistic and xenophobic groups in the response to HIV makes for bad public health policy. HIV in South Korea is not being transmitted in classrooms, and cannot be fought by mandatory HIV testing of teachers.

The number of countries around the world that have eliminated HIV travel restrictions steadily increases. In addition to the U.S., in the last few years China, Namibia, Ukraine, Armenia, Fiji, Mongolia and the Republic of Moldova have lifted these travel bans.

If the Republic of South Korea makes good on its promises, and matches rhetoric with action, it can rightfully join these countries, and the 133 other countries, territories and areas around the world that do not impose any HIV specific travel restrictions. Ending mandatory HIV testing of foreign teachers will help South Korea address HIV transmission and accomplish the goal of a society without discrimination – against people living with HIV and against foreigners. 

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