Inter Press Service: RIGHTS-SINGAPORE: Deportation of People with HIV Stirs Row

Wednesday, May 24, 2000

SINGAPORE, May 24 (IPS) - Singapore sees its deportation of nine foreign women with HIV this month as a self-protective step, but critics say the move only heightens the stigma against people living with the virus and violates their rights.

The nine, married to Singaporean nationals, were reported to have been deported as "prohibited immigrants" in a news report by the English-language newspaper 'Sunday Times' on May 14. A source said they were probably deported earlier on the same week.

The repatriation of HIV-positive foreigners is "necessary", said the health ministry's spokesperson, "to ensure that they will not pose a threat to the public health in Singapore".

Action for AIDS (AFA), a local non-government organisation, sent a letter of appeal to Singapore's President S R Nathan last week. "We hope the government will accept some flexibility in enforcing these regulations," said AFA president Dr Roy Chan.

Roger Ang, a volunteer coordinator of a support group for HIV patients and one of letter's three signatories, added: "I feel that it is not necessary (to repatriate them). I understand the government's views, but on a humanitarian side, these are people with families, with children."

He says the government should consider the situation from the viewpoint of people with HIV. It seems the government is taking a "cautious stand," he said. "Perhaps they think that their number is too small to make an issue of it."

Singapore's tough policies do not impress AIDS activists elsewhere, who say the city state's immigration rules are not a sound way to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS pandemic anyway.

Singapore's hard-line approach may help prevent the indiscriminate spread of HIV by foreign commercial sex workers, but the deported married women -- some have children -- are not likely to spread the disease, says John Ungpakorn, a senator and secretary to Access Foundation, a Thailand-based NGO that works with people with HIV/AIDS.

"The government would be building a false assurance. People would think that just because these HIV-positive foreigners are deported, Singapore is safe," he said in an interview.

Apart from the nine deportees, another 10 foreign women mostly from Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, are to be deported and separated from their families when their social-visit passes expire, news reports say. These passes allow stay in Singapore from two weeks to one year, often obtained by foreigners who wish to live with their families in the city state.

The families affected by the deportation were distraught when interviewed by the 'Sunday Times'. Daniel Wee works in the marine industry. His wife, Phay, a Thai national, is expecting their child in September. "I'm afraid they will be separated. She also won't be able to take care of the baby and the child will not have the chance to know the mother," he said.

Nan, a Thai national, seems resigned to her helplessness. She said: "We can't do anything but hope. Hope that the laws can be changed and we can live with our families."

Under amendments announced in February this year, all applicants for permanent residence or for immigration passes valid for more than six months must undergo compulsory HIV testing.

This is part of the country's attempt to "further strengthen the control of communicable diseases like HIV infection," said various government ministries in a joint statement released in February.

But critics of compulsory HIV-testing say the procedure violates human rights and compromises the confidentiality of medical information.

According to figures released by the Ministry of Health, more than 3,000 foreigners have tested positive for the HIV virus since 1985 in Singapore, compared to 1,200 Singaporeans in this country of 3.8 million people. Likewise, an amendment to the immigration law in 1998 made non- citizins with HIV or AIDS "prohibited immigrants".

People who work with those with HIV/AIDS say this month's deportation is a sign of a bigger problem -- Singapore's policies that give inadequate sympathy to people with HIV despite the need to approach it more as a human problem, and not an immigration problem or less vital one simply because it affects fewer people.

For instance, the lack of fair treatment fpr Singaporean HIV patients was discussed in a recent 'Asiaweek' article. It says all deceased people with HIV are double-bagged and incinerated within 24 hours.

Singapore's authorities claim that the HIV virus remains active for several days in the body of the deceased. As such, embalming is outlawed to minimise the risk of transmission, said a health ministry spokesman.

Without embalming, a body decomposes rapidly in Singapore's tropical heat, thus justifying the 24-hour cremation ruling, he added.

This rule however is "contrary to the norms of internationally accepted practices", argued AFA president Chan.

It typifies the "widespread stigmatisation and discrimination of PWAs (people living with HIV/AIDS)," he said in his message for the 10th Candlelight Memorial observance for deceased who had HIV/AIDS held on May 21.

Likewise, apart from standard health care subsidies that all Singaporeans are given, those with HIV do not receive additional subsidies for anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs, which the health ministry considers "non-standard".

When administered appropriately, ARVs can significantly reduce the amount of HIV virus in a patient, says Ungpakorn.

However, a Singapore health ministry spokesperson said the long- term effectiveness of ARVs is still unknown, and treatment is also "expensive". He added: "It is better to channel our subsidies to more cost-effective treatments for the benefit of the majority of our patients."

Patients who "require financial assistance can approach Action for AIDS or other charitable organisations for help," the spokesperson said.

AFA honorary secretary Brenton Wong was nonplussed about the government's stand. "We boast about our high foreign reserves and wonderful economic development, yet we can't take care of our own people."

He also believes that people with HIV here are discriminated against because there is no law that prevents companies from firing employees because they are HIV-positive. An employee of a local hotel was recently dismissed when his HIV status was discovered, he says.

Because the government does not subsidise "non-standard" forms of treatment, HIV patients need protection from unwarranted dismissal in order to afford the often-expensive treatment.

Wong also said that despite government efforts to reduce HIV transmission, rates of infection have not fallen in Singapore, though they remain far below harder-hit countries like Cambodia where one out of every 50 people between the ages of 15 and 49 have HIV. In 1998, 199 new cases of HIV/AIDS were reported in Singapore.

"The government tends to put a moral judgement on AIDS. They are loathe to deal with it realistically," Wong added.

In his message for this month's candelight ceremony, AFA's Chan said: "While we have been able to avoid an epidemic on the scale seen in some other neighboring countries, we cannot rest because people are still getting infected through ignorance, negligence and complacency." (END/IPS/ap-hd-he/kn/js/00) .