S Africa probes Aids asylum bids
The Aids conference was held in Toronto in mid-August
By Martin Plaut
BBC Africa editor
South Africa says it is investigating reports that 137 women among its delegation to an Aids conference in Canada are applying for refugee status.
A total of 151 delegates – including El Salvadorans, Eritreans, Zimbabweans and Ugandans – have applied, a Canadian newspaper reported.
An immigration lawyer said the women were facing severe discrimination.
South Africa's Aids policy came under scathing criticism at the global conference in Toronto.
An immigration lawyer, Michael Battista, said the women were facing severe stigma and discrimination that amounted to persecution – loss of homes, loss of jobs and in some cases threats of physical violence.
“Our high commissioner has been in contact with the Canadian authorities… We cannot respond or comment on the matter until we have verified the nationality of these people,” said Ronnie Mamoepa, South African foreign affairs spokesperson
The asylum seekers are being housed in a Toronto hostel while their cases are investigated – a process that could take up to a year.
South Africa's approach towards Aids – backed by President Thabo Mbeki and controversial Minister of Health Manto Tshabalala-Msimang – promotes alternative therapies.
This has been blamed for the slow provision of anti-retroviral drugs and was a policy attacked during the conference.
The UN's special envoy on Aids, Stephen Lewis, denounced what he called theories more worthy of a lunatic fringe than a concerned and compassionate state.
Now it is reported in the South African press that the ministry of health has instructed its officials to have nothing to do with Mr Lewis, who had been invited to visit the country by Aids activists.
The trip has now apparently been cancelled.