Britain accused of sending HIV refugees to die

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The Independent Online

Ministers have been accused of condemning failed asylum-seekers who are HIV-positive to death by deporting them to Africa.

Campaigners have called for them to be treated as a special case as antiretroviral drugs, which could extend their life expectancy indefinitely, are not yet available in their home countries. They argue that the deportation policy contradicts the Government's commitment to tackling Aids in Africa.

But the Home Office has rejected the pleas, arguing that allowing them to stay could create a "pull factor", attracting other "health tourists" to Britain.

Several hundred HIV-positive refugees are in the UK. The majority are receiving treatment, although hospitals are under no obligation to provide it once an asylum-seeker's claim to remain has been refused. Nearly all are from countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria or Zimbabwe which have scant or no supplies of antiretrovirals and are unlikely to receive them for another five years.

A Home Office spokeswoman said: "We're not convinced that a special dispensation needs to be made for victims of HIV/ Aids because that would create inconsistencies in how we treat individuals with other serious illnesses."

But Anna Reisenberger, the Refugee Council's acting chief executive, said: "This approach seems to totally contradict the Government's commitment to tackling HIV at a national and global level. "No one should be returned to a situation where their life is in danger. That includes people who are HIV-positive being removed to places where they are unable to access treatment." Lisa Power, head of policy at the Terrence Higgins Trust Aids charity, said ministers seemed more concerned with being tough on immigration than acting humanely in a handful of cases.

She said the trust was helpinga Malawian couple who had discovered they were HIV-positive after arriving in north-east England. Their four-year-old son, who was born in the UK, is free of the virus.

Although all 13 of the man's brothers and sisters have died from Aids, the family have been earmarked for deportation. Immigration officers went as far as to force the woman on to a bus taking her to the airport. She received a last-minute reprieve and the family is now mounting a judicial review of the decision to remove them.

Ms Power said: "The Government is sending people back to their death. There is a great deal of fear among people who have exhausted the appeals process, but haven't yet been deported. What's the difference between fleeing a tyrannical regime or fleeing a virus that is going to kill you?"

Campaigners have repeatedly lobbied the Government on the issue, most recently in a meeting six months ago with Tony McNulty, the former immigration minister. They said they drew some encouragement from his promise to look into the situation. However, the Home Office yesterday confirmed it would not change the treatment of HIV-positive failed asylum-seekers.

In a report today, the Aids charity Crusaid calls for a package of action to enable HIV-positive asylum-seekers to escape poverty. Measures include allowing refugees to work after six months in Britain, an amnesty for those who have been in the country for several years and for subsistence payments to rise in line with income support.

Crusaid is also calling for local councils to give priority to the housing needs of all people living with HIV and for HIV-related hate crime to be addressed.