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U.S. Holds Up "You Are Not Welcome" Sign to Sex Workers and Drug Users at the IAC

July 5, 2012

U.S. Holds Up 'You Are Not Welcome' Sign to Sex Workers and Drug Users at the IAC. Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

Sex workers and injection drug users will be dangerously scarce among the 30,000 advocates and scientists from around the globe arriving in D.C. in two weeks for the International AIDS Conference -- because they are legally barred from entering the country. "People do not want to run the risk of attending the conference in a country where they are told they are not wanted or desired," says Allan Clear, the Executive Director of the Harm Reduction Coalition. "It sends the message that people who have a history of drug use or sex work are not actually included in the dialogue at all and is a serious setback in the fight against AIDS."

The International AIDS Society's decision to hold the conference on U.S. soil for the first time in 22 years occurred after the government finally ended the ban on HIV positive people entering the country in early 2010. The administration, however, did not change the discriminatory immigration policy banning drug "abusers" or "addicts" or anyone who has been involved in sex work -- which the clause defines as "moral turpitude" -- in the past 10 years, regardless of the legality of the behavior in the traveler's own country. The stigmatizing policy against two of the three populations most affected by HIV persists despite the U.S. pledge to involve communities affected by HIV in making the policies that impact their lives and agreeing with a 2011 UN statement "that no one should face violence or discrimination in access to public services based on ... their status as a person in prostitution." "I don't think the U.S. government has any particular interest in actually involving sex workers or drug users in policy or programming," says Clear, who sent a letter along with about 40 other global advocacy organizations to the President of the International AIDS Society asking him to move the conference out of the U.S. unless the ban was overturned.

The necessity of including the loud and proud voices of those on the front lines of the epidemic to host a successful AIDS conference has not been lost on all and the Global Network for Sex Work Projects has organized an IAC sanctioned alternate conference event for sex workers in Kolkutta, India, where they can discuss submitted abstracts without facing discrimination. "How much productive dialogue can be created when the voices so key to this issue are missing?" asks Lily Alexander, from the International Center for Research on Women. In addition, The Best Practices Policy project has issued a "A Call to Change U.S. Policy on Sex Work and HIV," drafted by U.S. sex workers and advocates, demanding the U.S. government change global and domestic policies that harm sex workers, and is asking that supporters sign on.

Despite objections to the conference's locale, the Harm Reduction Coalition and other harm reduction advocacy orgs have been working overtime to ensure drug users' interests and voices are represented at the conference. Clear signed on to the Community Programming Committee, which he says has proposed an amendment to the IAC charter requiring that all immigration restrictions affecting impacted populations be changed before any future venue request is granted. In addition to official conference harm reduction programming, The Harm Reduction Coalition is setting up a needle exchange van and other harm reduction services in the global village, along with a mock up representation of a safe injection site in Vancouver, where, unlike here, a real one is legal.

The U.S. does provide an option to apply for a pricey visa waiver ($545), but there is no guarantee it will be granted, and even if it is, the person's visa will then be branded with the reason the waiver was necessary, which could prove dangerous upon their return to their home country. If a person chooses to protect their privacy and not disclose the information, they risk being turned away at the border, or if they make it across, being made to feel like they have to curb their commentary at the conference. This is especially troubling considering peer focused programs often prove the most successful in combating the epidemic in both populations. The SANGRAM project, one of many in India training sex workers to lead prevention efforts, was even named a best practices model by UNAIDS. SANGRAM however, turned down USAID funds since they come with a requirement to sign the U.S. Anti-Prostitution Loyalty oath.

And why would the International AIDS Society and other advocates agree to hold the conference here, despite the ban undermining its effectiveness? "Money," says Clear, stating that the move was made to shore up a U.S. commitment to global AIDS funding. "Maybe we do just need to pump money into medication, but the issues around the lives of MSM, injection drug users and sex workers don't change with better meds. We are moving away from social justice and trying to medicalize our way out of AIDS crisis."

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This article was provided by Housing Works. It is a part of the publication Housing Works AIDS Issues Update. Visit Housing Works' website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
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AIDS 2012 Pre-Conference News & Information

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