updated 4/13/2007 2:30:57 PM ET 2007-04-13T18:30:57

Prime Minister John Howard said Friday that Australia should bar immigrants with HIV, and his government was examining ways to make its tough restrictions even stronger.

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HIV-AIDS workers accused Howard of xenophobia and promoting the racist belief that immigrants — particularly Africans — were responsible for bringing the disease to Australia. Advocates also said they were puzzled by the idea of tightening laws when the vast majority of HIV-positive prospective migrants and refugees were rejected under the current rules.

Howard was asked in a radio interview in Melbourne, the capital of Victoria state, if he thought people with HIV should be allowed into Australia as migrants or refugees.

Howard replied that while he wanted more advice on the issue, “my initial reaction is, no.”

“There may be some humanitarian considerations that could temper that in certain cases, but prima facie — no,” he told Southern Cross Broadcasting. “I think we should have the most stringent possible conditions in relation to that.”

He said Health Minister Tony Abbott was “examining ways of tightening things up.”

Many countries, including the United States, restrict immigration and visa approvals for people with HIV, though there are often exceptions. Australia has long had rules that can be used to block people with communicable diseases such as tuberculosis from entering.

Exceptions can be made in some circumstances, such as when an HIV-positive prospective migrant is related to an Australian citizen. AIDS activists say there are few countries, such as Qatar, Russia and the United Arab Emirates, that impose outright bans on immigration by HIV-positive people.

Don Baxter, of the non-governmental group the Australian Federation of AIDS Organizations, said prospective immigrants are given HIV tests and most HIV-positive applicants were rejected on the grounds that they could place an unfair burden on the public health system.

“It’s very tight already,” Baxter told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

‘Hysterical overreaction’
Chris Lemoh, an infectious disease specialist who is researching HIV-AIDS among African immigrants in Victoria, said a ban on people with HIV would be a “hysterical overreaction.”

“It mixes racism with a phobia about infectious disease,” he said. “To not allow people to come on the basis of any health condition is immoral, it’s unethical and it’s impractical to enforce.”

Pamela Curr, an advocate at the Asylum Seeker Resource Center, said Howard’s comments promoted an “untruth” that foreigners — particularly Africans — were to blame for the HIV problem in Australia.

“The mud is thrown, so everyone thinks, ‘those filthy refugees,’ particularly ‘those black refugees,”’ said Curr.

The Victoria state health minister said this week that 70 of the 334 new HIV infection cases reported in Victoria in 2006 were among immigrants who had arrived in the country with the virus.

The National Center for HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research said in an October 2006 update that since HIV was first detected in Australia in 1982, 25,703 infections had been reported, of which 9,827 had developed into full-blown AIDS and 6,621 people had died.

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