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EU raises HIV ban with US homeland security chief

Tony Grew June 20, 2008

The European Commissioner for Justice has raised the issue of people with HIV being banned from entry into the US visa waiver programme with Michael Chertoff, US Secretary of Homeland Security.

Jacques Barrot has asked for “information on the reasons why individuals carrying HIV are excluded from using the US Visa Waiver Programme.”

MEPs have kept pressure on the Commission over the issue as the EU is in negotiations with the US authorities to secure visa-free travel (a visa waiver) for EU citizens from all 27 member states.

The United States is one of 13 countries in the world, including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan, that bans visitors who are HIV-positive.

London Liberal Democrat MEP Baroness Sarah Ludford has been at the forefront of a campaign to overturn the ban on HIV positive people travelling to America.

“I’m delighted that the Commissioner for Justice is responding to pressure from MEPs like myself and giving this campaign the attention it deserves by taking it up with the US authorities,” she said.

“My colleagues in the European Parliament and I have fought hard to get this issue included in EU negotiations over US visa waiver policy and this represents a great leap forward for the campaign.”

In his letter to Michael Chertoff, Mr Barrot said:

“As you are undoubtedly aware this is an issue very sensitive to me and raising also some political concern at EU level in particular in the European Parliament.”

Under current US immigration law, any foreign national who tests positive for HIV is “inadmissible,” meaning he is barred from permanent residence and even short-term travel in the United States.

There are waivers available to this rule, but obtaining them has always been difficult.

In May the European Parliament passed a resolution demanding the ongoing negotiations include the exclusion of Europeans with HIV from the visa waiver programme, and ensure equal treatment of all EU citizens.

The Commission says there are no objective reasons for a travel ban for HIV infected persons.

In May the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) stated:

“There is no need to single out HIV for specific consideration as an exclusion criterion.”

The issue has been raised in the United States Senate.

The Committee on Foreign Relations discussed the ban after Senators John Kerry and Gordon Smith added a provision to repeal the ban to Senate legislation to reauthorising PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

The ban originates from 1987, when fear about the spread of the disease led US officials to require anyone with HIV to declare their status and apply for a special visa.

New regulations purport to speed up the waiver application process because consular officers would be empowered to make decisions on waiver applications without seeking Department of Homeland Security (DHS) sign off.

However, by using this “streamlined” application process, waiver applicants would have to agree to give up the ability to apply for any change in status while in the US, including applying for legal permanent residence.

Since the Amsterdam Treaty in 1999, the Council (EU heads of government) has been responsible for establishing the rules on visas, including the list of third countries whose nationals must be in possession of a visa or are exempt from the visa requirement.

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