A SCANDINAVIAN man who has been visiting Australia every year for 22 years was denied a tourist visa because he is living with HIV.

Eric* has been living with HIV since the 80s and along with his partner have visited Australia every year since 1994.

They spend at least three months here every year and have bought an apartment in Sydney.

In October 2015 Eric and his partner began planning their yearly, three-month holiday to Australia but Eric’s tourist visa application was denied until he completed a medical check, including a HIV test.

It was during the medical check, which cost about AUD$800, that Eric began to face stigma because of his HIV status.

“Australian immigration authorities only say yes to this one place (to complete the medical check),” Eric said.

“He was looking down on me. Normal doctors (who are not HIV specialists) are not so positive.”

In December, the Medical Officer of the Commonwealth (MOC) concluded Eric should not be granted a tourist visa because he did “not satisfy” a section of the Migrant Regulations and his “disease or condition (HIV)… would be likely to require health care or community services”.

“Provision of these health care and/or community services would be likely to result in a significant cost to the Australian community in the areas of health care and/or community services,” the MOC said in their findings.

Eric told Star Observer he takes one medical pill daily for his HIV treatment and brings enough with him for his entire visit to Australia.

“Even though I have HIV, I am a healthy person,” he said.

In 22 years he has only once needed unexpected medical treatment after contracting a stomach bug in Laos, where he received an IV drip for a few hours at St Vincent’s Hospital in Darlinghurst, Sydney.

The 60-year-old was outraged by the MOC’s findings and wrote to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) contesting the assessment. He was eventually awarded the tourist visa on January 4 this year.

“I had a doctor in Sydney assess my health and she said for someone with HIV my health couldn’t be any better,” Eric said.

“I don’t understand how you can’t standardise someone who has HIV but can with something like rheumatoid arthritis, they can be basically healthy and that person is totally different to someone crippled in a wheelchair.

“Isn’t this a singling out if it’s HIV?”

Eric said he expected a country like a Australia to be more progressive towards HIV and he felt he had been discriminated against. 

“Someone’s saying: ‘you’ve got HIV, we don’t want you here’,” he said.

“It was a real blow.”

However, the DIBP told Star Observer it “does not deny tourist visas because of an applicant’s HIV status“.

A spokesperson from the department admitted it had made an error while processing Eric’s visa.

“The department’s contracted medical service provider made an error in assessing the applicant incorrectly for a permanent stay in Australia rather than a short-term temporary stay,” he said.

When Star Observer told Eric about the error, he said: “If it’s an error, well, then it feels a lot better. But of course who can guarantee that the same mistake won’t be made again?”

For Eric, the damage has been done. He and his partner will sell their Sydney holiday home and will now spend their annual holidays in Europe.

“I did feel hurt, very hurt, actually… the immigration department sending me to the medical checkup felt very degrading and at that time discriminatory,” he said.

“We will still have a positive view of Australia but deep down inside of me I felt a bit hurt.

“The immigration laws according to me, are crap.”

Eric said whether or not it was an administrative error, the experience dredged up a lot of the stigma he has experienced over the years a person living with HIV.

Positive Life NSW’s Treatments Officer David Crawford said “this experience tends to reinforce the broader community’s perception that HIV is still something to be feared and the myth it can restrict you from having a next to normal life compared to someone else with a chronic condition, for example diabetes”.   

“This is an example of the incorrect application of policy at the consumer level,” he said.

“People are subjected to this on a daily basis where a public servant has made up their own mind and not followed protocol.

“It causes psychological damage, damages self-esteem, anxiety and a range of other negative emotions and reactions.”

Crawford added that incidents like this discourage people from disclosing HIV, particularly in circumstances where they are required to by law, and increases the risk of its transmission.

HIV/AIDS Legal Centre coordinator and solicitor Suzanne Castellas said Australia’s immigration laws were discriminatory against people living with HIV, “particularly in relation to visas for terms greater than two years, and certainly in relation to permanent residency”.

“Although recent changes to immigration policies and practices in Australia have generally improved from the perspective of people with chronic health conditions which HIV is considered to be, the impact on HIV positive applicants still presents a variety of other challenges including additional costs, lengthy processing times and breaches of privacy,” she said.

The DIBP spokesperson said it would be contacting Eric “shortly to apologise and explain the details of the initial error made”.

In regards to reimbursing Eric for the costs incurred the spokesperson said “may wish to apply for compensation through the Compensation for Detriment caused by Defective Administration (CDDA) Scheme if he believes he has suffered detriment due to the defective actions or inaction of the Commonwealth Government”.

*Eric is a pseudonym. Eric did not want to use his real name, country of residence or profession for fear of being recognised by his clients.

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