A NIGERIAN delegate set to give a keynote address at the Global Forum on MSM and HIV (MSMGF) was one of many delegates reportedly denied visas by the Australian Government, raising questions about access to the conference.

Gay rights and HIV activist Michael Ighodaro was due to give a keynote speech this morning at the MSMGF, the pre-conference to AIDS 2014, on his experiences in Nigeria as a young gay man living with HIV.

Although on resubmission to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection a visa was granted, the delay meant the speech had to be cancelled, with Ighodaro due to arrive a day late on Sunday.

MSMGF executive director George Ayala told the Star Observer Ighodaro was told he did not provide sufficient evidence to prove he would return to his home country of Nigeria, or to the US where he now resides.

“We advised him to reapply, and then he subsequently got his visa approved, so it’s a strange thing,” he said.

The Star Observer contacted Immigration Minister Scott Morrison for further information on why Ighodaro’s first visa application had been denied, but did not receive a comment at the time of print.

Ayala said Ighodaro was not the only delegate unable to attend due to a denied visa application, and questioned the suitability of a location for AIDS 2014 where many from communities affected by HIV were not able to attend.

George Ayala

George Ayala

“Immigration policies are just really strict in Australia, and for people living in the global south, or whose countries of origin are in the global south, I think there’s a particular kind of scrutiny of those applications,” he said.

“We have heard of others who were just not able to get into Australia, and it’s a shame from my perspective.

“This is an international AIDS conference, and we should really be working and having these kinds of functions in countries where it’s not such a challenge to come in and connect with colleagues and to share information and to learn.”

Ayala said the International AIDS Conferences in the past had been effective forums for putting political pressure on local governments to change policy, citing the positive impact that the 2012 Washington DC conference had on US foreign and domestic policy around HIV and AIDS.

He argued Australia was looked to as a model nation in the response to the epidemic.

“What the Australian Government does and decides to do from a policy perspective matters, because the rest of the world is watching. This is an opportunity for Australia to model for the rest of the world,” Ayala said.

He said global HIV organisations would be watching when Prime Minister Tony Abbott speaks at the opening of AIDS 2014 on Sunday night for some indication of how Australia will respond to being in the global spotlight around HIV and AIDS.

Earlier this month, UNAIDS welcomed confirmation by the Australian Government that people living with HIV would not be treated any differently than those with other chronic health conditions for visa and immigration purposes.

UNAIDS executive director Michel Sidibe took the opportunity to reaffirm freedom of travel as a fundamental human right of individuals, including those living with HIV.

(Main image credit: Rod Spark)

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