Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on World AIDS Day, 1 December 2003
(Check against delivery)
Dear Friends and Colleagues,
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Fighting Stigma and Discrimination". This is a good opportunity for us to pause and reflect on what this means for refugees and other persons of concern to UNHCR.
Refugees suffer from stigma and discrimination in two main ways. First, they are sometimes stigmatized as a group as "HIV carriers" and are accused of spreading HIV to populations in other countries. Second, they are often excluded from multi-million dollar HIV/AIDS programmes designed to combat the global scourge.
Stigmatizing refugees as HIV carriers is morally repugnant. It is also grossly unfair. Recent studies show that in some AIDS stricken countries, refugees have lower HIV prevalence rates than the surrounding populations.
What are we doing to address the problem of HIV/AIDS? Over the last few years we have greatly increased the level of resources - both human and financial - committed to HIV/AIDS programmes. In Africa, we now have regional HIV/AIDS Coordinators Eastern, Southern and Central Africa, and we have expanded our activities significantly in each of these regions. Next year, we are planning to expand our activities in similar ways in West Africa and in Asia. Recently, we also played a key role in the development of new guidelines for HIV/AIDS interventions in emergency situations.
But on its own, this is not enough. Host governments are ultimately responsible for the protection and well-being of refugees on their soil. A top priority for UNHCR, therefore, is to ensure that refugees are included in host countries' efforts to fight HIV/AIDS.
Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Of the 29 countries in Africa that host more than 10,000 refugees, only a third have outlined activities for refugees in their National Strategic Plans. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the Multi-Country HIV/AIDS Programmes of the World Bank have funded HIV/AIDS projects in the majority of these countries, but less than half of these projects benefit refugees, even though these countries collectively host millions of refugees. What this means in practice is that large numbers of refugees are still excluded from policies and programmes that benefit the populations that host them. Excluding them from such programmes is not only discriminatory but counter-productive in a public health sense, as one cannot seriously combat the spread of HIV and at the same time ignore a segment of the population within a country affected by it.
Donors also have a responsibility to ensure that refugees are not excluded from HIV/AIDS programmes. The development of integrated HIV/AIDS strategies would be given an enormous boost if donor governments would loosen current restrictions on funding so money can be used more flexibly to provide HIV/AIDS programmes to both refugees and local communities.
In fighting the global scourge of HIV/AIDS, no social group should be left out, and certainly not the world's 20 million refugees.
HIV/AIDS is also a serious issue for UNHCR staff. Stigma and discrimination are rife in all settings, including the workplace. It is still often the case in UNHCR that staff who have contracted HIV/AIDS are afraid to discuss this, uncertain of how their colleagues will react and unsure they will be heard with a sympathetic and caring ear. You will soon receive a copy of the ILO Code of Practice on HIV/AIDS and the World of Work. I encourage you to apply this code in your offices and to facilitate its use among our implementing partners.
Let us use this opportunity, on World AIDS Day, to commit ourselves to continue working to better inform, educate and support refugees and UNHCR personnel in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Above all, let us play our part in fighting stigma and discrimination by stopping for a moment to examine our own assumptions and prejudices about HIV/AIDS.