Debbie* still remembers the first time she was told she had HIV.
This was in 2011, two years after she and her husband moved to Australia from Papua New Guinea as highly skilled migrants.
A mother of four is bedridden in a Queensland hospital and doctors are trying to figure out what is causing her pain.
When they did a blood test, the results showed that Debbie had the HIV virus.
“I was so surprised,” Debbie said.
“It was very difficult for me to understand and accept that I have the virus.”
Debbie’s husband was also tested and the results were the same.
Looking back, Debbie is grateful for the support of the doctors, nurses and counselors who helped her realize that HIV is no longer a death sentence as long as she takes her medication.
After being diagnosed, Debbie and her husband built their business to success and sent their four children to university.
However, when they applied for ‘permanent resident’ (PR) status in Australia in 2016, they were surprised that the process would not be easy due to their HIV status.
“It’s very stressful,” Debbie says.
“I have mental health issues like depression, stress and anxiety. It is so hard”.
What are the visa requirements for people living with HIV in Australia?
Today, Australia is one of 40 countries around the world that still has visa restrictions for people living with HIV.
The United States abolished this provision 10 years ago, as did the UK and New Zealand.
In 2021, UNAIDS criticized Australia for still having a “discrimination based on HIV status” provision.
“The Australian government must remove all barriers preventing people living with HIV from traveling freely to and from Australia,” said Darryl O’Donnell, CEO of Health Equity Matters.
This week, activists will use the International AIDS Society’s annual conference in Brisbane to urge the Australian government to lift the ban.
They say the current policy only prolongs the stigma and it will be difficult for Australia to root out the spread of the virus without changing the rules.
HIV case detection in Australia has halved in the last 10 years and will disappear within the next three to five years, according to data released last week by the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales.
But for that to happen, more efforts need to be made for migrant communities, which typically have poor testing rates and transmission rates that are not falling as fast as expected.
Darryl said that while those who wanted to live in Australia permanently were required to take the test, existing visa restrictions have made many visa applicants wary and reluctant to take the test early.
“If there is concern that they will test positive for HIV, this will be a barrier to applying for PR. They won’t want to do the test.”
For those who are HIV-positive, a cost estimate is required to determine if they will pass the “State Health Services Bill”.
“Antiretroviral treatment costs about $11,000 a year,” says Alexandra Stratigos, chief legal officer at the HIV/AIDS Legal Center.
That figure is double the government figure, he says, meaning that all people living with HIV are above that figure.
Alexandra assists many clients who present their cases to the Australian Administrative Tribunal.
According to him, current regulations force clients to disclose their HIV status to their employer, which could put them in a weaker position.
This is also one of the reasons why many do not want to take the test.
Rules do not meet community expectations
Activists say Australia is in many ways at the forefront of the fight against HIV and AIDS.
Collaboration between healthcare workers and vulnerable communities is key to success, with high testing rates and an emphasis on prevention and treatment.
Australia could become the first country in the world to eliminate the spread of the virus among its population.
But Darryl said Australia’s current immigration policy “hasn’t kept pace with science.”
“There is a gap. We are about 20 years behind when there was no good treatment for HIV,” he said.
“Now we have affordable and very cheap medicines. There are no longer huge economic implications for those who come to Australia purely for HIV, but many still have years of trouble applying for a permanent visa.”
In a statement, Immigration Minister Andrew Giles agreed with the health-related visa issues.
“Australia’s approach to healthcare requirements for migration is not up to community standards,” he said.
“I see it every week with a personal decision that I have to make to intervene in the visa system through a ministerial decree.”
Andrew said he had been discussing the issue with Health Secretary Mark Butler, as well as experts on HIV and HIV, since he took office.
Debbie’s fight to become a publicist in Australia lasted seven years.
He just received it earlier this year after winning an appeal in court.
“We are not a burden on the community. We tried to prove it, and it worked,” Debbie said.
*Name changed to protect privacy
This article was prepared by Sastra Vijaya of ABC News.