PAKISTAN: Workers with HIV deported from Gulf States

Photo: Maria Font de Matas/IRIN
Nearly two million Pakistanis, mostly young men employed as labourers, are working in the Gulf States
Karachi, 18 December 2008 (PlusNews) - Like thousands of Pakistanis, Fida moved to Saudi Arabia in search of a better life 10 years ago. He found work as a labourer in the coastal city of Jeddah, but because he was supporting his family back home, could not yet think of marrying.

He visited prostitutes in Jeddah as well as in Pakistan. "Like any normal man, I needed release," he told IRIN/PlusNews. Now in his mid-thirties, Fida started suffering from persistent fevers and diarrhoea in 2006.

All legal migrant workers in Saudi Arabia are required to have a biannual medical check-up that includes being tested for infectious diseases like HIV. "The doctor told me that I have a lethal infection, and the Arabs are going to give me a death injection. He said it was best for me to go back home," Fida recalled.

The doctor did not actually show Fida the test results, but he was sufficiently convinced to pack his bags and leave for Pakistan immediately. "I knew I would be deported if my kafeel [sponsor] or anyone got the news of my infection," he said. "Once I got here, I got myself [re-]tested and the tests came out positive."

Fida had married a girl from his tribal family in 2005. After he learned of his HIV-positive status, his wife was tested and discovered that she was also positive.

He has told his immediate family about his status and that of his wife, but not his in-laws because he is afraid it would create a tribal rift. "I have also decided not to have children, and my wife agrees. At this point, our priority is to stay healthy."

According to government estimates, 1.7 million Pakistanis, mostly young men employed as labourers, are working in the Gulf States, usually in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), from where many send some of their earnings home to their wives and families.

In the office of New Light AIDS Control Society, a non-governmental organisation that supports people living with HIV in Pakistan, Fida recalled his experience as a foreign worker in Saudi Arabia.

"In KSA (Saudi Arabia), foreign workers - especially those belonging to the labour class - are treated as outcasts. We were called Kharjee [aliens], we had no rights: our passports were with our kafeel and the state hospitals are a no-no for us," he said.

''The doctor told me I have a lethal infection, and the Arabs are going to give me a death injection. He said it was best for me to go home''
Brother Khushi Lal, who runs New Light, said the threat of a lethal injection was a common scare tactic used by the authorities in the Gulf region to intimidate migrant workers with HIV-positive test results.

"Foreign workers in the Gulf region cannot buy ARV drugs there because they are not allowed," he told IRIN/PlusNews. "A lot of people get their tests in Pakistan and if they test positive, they take their yearly supplies [of ARVs] from Pakistan."

To avoid detection in the regular medical check-ups, many HIV-positive workers resort to either sending a brother or friend in their place, or paying a bribe. "It's all a matter of 500 to 1,000 Riyals [US$133 to $266], bribe the officials and you walk away." Lal said.

Mazhar Anjum, a transgender man, fell ill while working as a housekeeper at the Hilton hotel in Dubai. He told IRIN/PlusNews that Pakistani, Indian and Bengali workers, the bulk of labour force in the Gulf States, were scared to be tested for HIV while in those countries.

"They know it would mean instant deportation if they are found positive." Anjum went for an HIV test after returning to Pakistan on the insistence of his HIV-positive friend and discovered that he too was infected.

According to Lal, many migrant workers are deported from Gulf countries after testing positive for HIV or hepatitis without even being informed of their condition. "They do know they have some infection, but they don't know anything about it, and once they are back home they end up infecting their spouses or partners," he said.

"The governments there think they are getting rid of the disease; the fact however remains that they are ultimately playing with human lives."

The UAE is currently reviewing its policy of deporting HIV-infected migrants and considering a draft law that would make it illegal for employers to discriminate against people based on their HIV status.

Fida was very ill and depressed when he first came to New Light, and although his health has improved since he started taking free antiretroviral (ARV) drugs, his financial circumstances still put a strain on him, said Lal.

"Like many HIV-positive people he has found the strength to live, thanks to medical advancements, yet it's the society around us that rejects these individuals."

See also: Migrants find the greener grass has higher risks

Theme (s): HIV/AIDS (PlusNews), Migration, Stigma/Human Rights/Law - PlusNews,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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