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S. African AIDS
conferees seek refuge in Canada

S. African AIDS
conferees seek refuge in Canada

One hundred and thirty-seven South African women delegates to last month's AIDS conference in Toronto have reportedly sought refugee status in Canada, claiming that their country's HIV policies put their lives at risk, Agence France-Press reported. Another 13 delegates, many from southern Africa, are also believed to have stayed behind and filed refugee claims after attending the weeklong event, which drew more than 26,000 delegates from around the world.

Canadian immigration spokesman Karen Shadd-Evelyn confirmed to the Toronto Sun newspaper that up to 150 claims were received from participants at the August 13-18 conference. South African officials said they were awaiting official word from Ottawa on their nationals among that group.

Among the would-be refugees is Amanuel Tesfamichael, an HIV-positive AIDS activist and founder of Eritrea's 6,000-member association for people living with AIDS. Other refugees are believed to come from Zimbabwe and El Salvador, The [Toronto] Globe and Mail newspaper reported.

An immigration lawyer, Michael Battista, said the South African women face severe stigma and discrimination at home that amount to persecution--loss of homes, loss of jobs, and in some cases threats of violence, the BBC reported Tuesday. The asylum seekers are being housed in a Toronto hostel while their cases are investigated, a process that could take up to a year, the BBC said.

It's not clear how many of the would-be refugees have HIV/AIDS. But South African president Thabo Mbeki's AIDS policies were the subject of stinging criticism at the Toronto conference.

Stephen Lewis, the Canadian U.N. special envoy on HIV/AIDS, told delegates that South Africa's was the only government on the continent "still obtuse, dilatory, and negligent about rolling out treatment," the Globe and Mail reported. Lewis added that South Africa "is the only country in Africa whose government continues to propound theories more worthy of a lunatic fringe than of a concerned and compassionate state."

South Africa's health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, has been derided at home and abroad for advocating a diet of garlic, lemons, beetroot, and potato as an alternative to antiretroviral drugs.

The BBC, quoting South African media, reported Tuesday that Tshabalala-Msimang's ministry has instructed officials to have nothing to do with Lewis, whom South African AIDS activists had invited to visit their country. The trip has apparently been canceled, the BBC said.

Some 5.5 million South Africans are HIV-positive, a number second only to India, according to United Nations health officials. South Africa's government did not provide antiretroviral drugs until 2002, after activists sued to force it to do so. The government now has more than 140,000 people on the drugs, the largest such program in the world. A further 80,000 South Africans pay for the drugs themselves at a cost of about $315 a year.

Such figures are dwarfed by the 700,000 South Africans in urgent need of the drugs, the Globe and Mail reported. More than 330,000 South Africans died of AIDS in the past 12 months alone, the Associated Press reported last week. (The Advocate)

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