Sex Workers Not Welcome Here

"Where are all the red umbrellas?" a conference attendee asked in the busy corridors of the 2012 International AIDS Conference. She was referring to the international sex worker community, which has adopted the red umbrella as its symbol. Others also wondered why sex worker and drug user activists from around the world, who have actively participated in past conferences, were largely absent this year.

The reason? Visas. When the U. S. Government issued a travel ban in 1987 that prevented people with HIV from entering the country, activists and scientists criticized the move as both a violation of human rights and an ineffective response to the epidemic. After a 22-year battle, the ban was finally lifted; however, the victory was only partial. Applicants for U.S. visas must still answer the following two questions:

  1. Are you or have you ever been a drug abuser or drug addict?
  2. Are you coming to the United States to engage in prostitution or unlawful commercialized vice or have you been engaged in prostitution or procuring prostitutes within the past 10 years?

Based on these questions, sex workers and drug users remain barred from entering the U.S. unless they are issued a waiver at the discretion of their country's consulate. This means they must either lie on their forms -- which is against the law -- or risk being denied a visa. Yet, how can two of the communities most at risk for HIV worldwide be left out of an international conference on AIDS? And how can we hope to end AIDS when such blatant social exclusion persists, driving the epidemic?

These U.S. immigration laws are just one example of the many ways national and international laws, regulations, and policies directly affect groups at risk for HIV. In July, the United Nations Global Commission on HIV and the Law released a report calling for the removal of all discriminatory and punitive laws, policies, and state practices which are fueling the global HIV epidemic. It explicitly recommends the decriminalization of consensual adult sex work and drugs for personal use. The U. S. should take note and bring its actions in line with the freedom, tolerance, and nondiscrimination it preaches. We can end AIDS, but only if those most affected are at the forefront of the response.