Close The HIV Loophole For Refugees

Ottawa Citizen

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Close the HIV loophole for refugees

By James Bissett

The news that 150 delegates to last month's international AIDS conference had applied for refugee status should not have come as a surprise. Canada's wide-open refugee system permits almost anyone from anywhere to make a refugee claim. Canada has the international recognition of being a soft touch for people wanting to get fast and easy entry to a developed country.

Once having gained entry, it is almost an automatic guarantee of remaining whether one is found to be a bogus refugee or not. Our deportation process is so tied up in myriad appeals and reviews that the removal of failed refugee applicants is the exception rather than the rule. It is estimated there are 50,000 warrants of arrest for people found not to be genuine refugees by the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). How many of these may be criminals, security risks or a public health danger is not known.

Of the delegates to the AIDS conference who have claimed refugee status, we know that at least one of those, a delegate from Eritrea, is infected with the HIV virus and has already started treatment in Toronto. His HIV infection will not prevent him from being accepted if the IRB finds him to be a refugee.

Canada does not prevent the admission of refugees because they have HIV. Consequently, the substantial medical and likely hospital costs for treatment will be borne by the Canadian taxpayer, as will his legal costs for the time-consuming and complicated refugee hearing process.

It is probable that other delegates who have applied as refugees will also have HIV. It has been reported that a Ugandan delegate to the AIDS conference has alleged that many members of the Ugandan delegation posed as delegates in order to gain access to Canada and had been coached on what to tell immigration officers by an “NGO” in Uganda.
In Canada, refugee status can be determined only at a hearing before the IRB, and this can take time. Therefore, claimants who arrive in Canada are supposed to undergo a medical exam within 60 days of their arrival, but many don't bother and there is little attempt to follow up. The claimant is free to accept employment and move anywhere in Canada, and because we have no tracking system, the authorities have no idea where the person might be located.

Many claimants don't even show up for their refugee hearing and remain unaccounted for. Some of these may be infected with HIV. They may not know they are infected, but they pose a risk to the public.

The Immigration and Refugee Protection Act prohibits the admission to Canada of any foreign national who is likely to be a danger to public health, public safety, or is reasonably expected to cause excessive demands on health or social services.
This seems a sensible and prudent policy. However, the act also expressly exempts refugees from theses prohibitions. Refugees, unlike immigrants, are permitted to enter and remain in Canada even if they are infected with HIV.

This exemption can have devastating results for Canadians who becomes infected by a refugee or refugee applicant with HIV. In Manitoba last April, a Sudanese refugee with HIV was charged with aggravated assault. He is alleged to have infected 45 women and girls from the Winnipeg and Brandon areas — one victim was only 12 years old. Police were concerned that some of these victims might have unwittingly infected other individuals.

There have been other cases of HIV being spread by refugees. These cases seldom get national media coverage presumably because it is not politically correct to suggest there is a down side to admitting refugees with the HIV virus.

Almost 10 per cent of Canada's AIDS/HIV population consists of newcomers from countries where the disease is widespread. Most of these newcomers have come to Canada either as refugees or as refugee claimants.

Health Canada's strategy for controlling AIDS is centred on prevention, but the current policy of admitting refugees with HIV works to undermine this strategy. There are more effective ways for Canada to contribute to the international effort to combat AIDS than to admit refugees with the virus.

If we are going to be able to control the AIDS epidemic and sustain the enormous costs involved, some sensible new strategies are needed. A first step might be to stop accepting refugees with HIV and concentrate on protecting the health of Canadians.

James Bissett is a former Canadian Ambassador and head of the Canadian Immigration Service