South Korea Drops HIV Screening of Foreigners, but Stigma Remains

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The Ministry of Justice announced earlier this month that English teachers will no longer be screened for HIV during the visa application process to be eligible to enter and stay in South Korea.

The decision comes 10 years after the government changed its visa policies for foreign English teachers, in November of 2007. Motivated by widespread panic among South Koreans — a tipping point of which was the arrest of Christopher Paul, a teacher accused of serial child sex offenses — the Ministry of Justice said at the time that the new rules mandating HIV screening would “alleviate national anxiety” and “protect students.”

At the bottom of the 2007 policy guideline was a new “E-2 Applicant’s Health Statement,” which required applicants to check whether they had ever had an infectious disease, and whether they were HIV-positive.

The recent change reflects a positive turn for South Korean policy when it comes to HIV/AIDS, but the country continues to lag behind what international organizations recommend. The World Health Organization, in fact, emphasized the inefficacy of screening travellers as early as 1987 and said “no screening programme of international travellers can prevent the introduction and spread of HIV infection.”

Benjamin Wagner, a human rights lawyer who has closely followed HIV/AIDS policy in South Korea, told Korea Exposé in an email that the requirement was pulled “not because of controversy,” but “because it was illegal under Korean law as confirmed by the NHRCK [National Human Rights Commission of Korea].”

“[The restriction] harmed public health by amping up stigma around getting tested,” Wagner said, “and by depriving Koreans of accurate info on how HIV is spread (i.e. not by English teachers but by unsafe sexual practices).”

HIV/AIDS prevalence in South Korea is still relatively low — reaching 10,000 patients for the first time in 2015 — but has risen sharply since 2000. On the other hand, WHO findings show that global HIV/AIDS prevalence fell by 35 percent during the same 15 year period.

South Koreans are able to access HIV testing at any medical clinic, and in March of 2015, the city of Seoul began to offer free, quick and anonymous HIV blood tests at any of its 25 public health centers. According to Nanuri+ Solidarity for HIV/AIDS Human Rights activist Kwon Mi-ran, both South Koreans and foreigners are able to receive treatment at large hospitals — but price and insurance often get in the way for foreigners.

South Koreans receive state subsidy for medical expenses, but foreigners — especially those without proper health insurance — may be forced to bear the high costs of HIV/AIDS medication.

And while organizations like the Korean Federation for AIDS Prevention provides foreigners with HIV/AIDS resources and free, anonymous testing, HIV-positive foreigners are vulnerable to deportation out of the country, as potential “persons carrying an epidemic disease, narcotic addicts or other persons deemed likely to cause danger and harm to the public health” defined in Article 11 of the Immigration Control Act.

According to Michael Solis, a visiting researcher at the NHRCK, the government had deported more than 500 foreigners who were HIV-positive as of 2007. Kwon said that in 2010, following UNAIDS criticism of South Korean travel restrictions, the government stopped banning and deporting foreign teachers with HIV. But for those who test positive, it remains difficult to afford treatment or be hired as teachers and educators, she added.

Stigma around foreigners and HIV/AIDS remains. The NHRCK has estimated that people living with HIV/AIDS are 10 times more likely to commit suicide than those who are not, and a statement by the Anti-Homosexuality Christian Citizens’ Solidarity dubbed the recent change in policy to drop the mandatory HIV/AIDS screening of foreign English teachers “socialist” and “reverse discrimination” against South Koreans.

“The gov still isn’t in compliance with the Korean labor and rights laws because race-based drug testing continues,” said Wagner, who is still skeptical about the new policy. “[T]here’s another UN case in play now on the same issue and the ROK is still fighting against it.”

Multiple attempts by Korea Exposé to speak to relevant officials at the Ministries of Justice and of Health about the government’s policy on HIV/AIDS were unsuccessful.

Cover image: HIV blood test kits (source: UNICEF Ethiopia)

Editor’s Note: This article was revised on Jul. 24, 2017, to incorporate the view of Benjamin Wagner, a lawyer and HIV/AIDS advocate formerly based in South Korea.

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