Delegates at Australian Aids conference seek asylum
They say anti-gay laws in countries like Uganda and Tanzania put them at risk if they go home
Some 25 delegates to an international Aids conference held in Melbourne last month fear returning home and will seek asylum in Australia, refugee and welfare agencies said yesterday.
HomeGround Services, which helps find crisis accommodation for homeless people in Melbourne, said 14 delegates from African nations including Uganda and Tanzania had sought their help.
"We've had 14 people so far come in," spokeswoman Cathy Beadnell said. "Obviously they have nowhere to live at the moment. They are all moving towards making asylum claims."
Up to 25 people have sought advice on how to remain in Australia once their visas had expired, according to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, also in Melbourne.
The issue of stigma and discrimination surrounding Aids - including in Uganda, where homosexuality remains illegal and punishable by jail terms - was repeatedly raised at the conference.
Participants heard that such laws targeted minorities who bore a disproportionate share of the global pandemic, and created conditions under which HIV could spread.
"Clearly they are delegates that come from countries where to work in the Aids field is a life-threatening proposition," the centre's Pamela Curr told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
"It seems that some of them have been considering whether they think they can survive in their countries of origin, or whether they should try to survive by getting refugee protection in Australia."
Australia's immigration minister Scott Morrison would not comment, saying through a spokeswoman that individual applications for asylum were not discussed for privacy reasons.
"All claims for protection are considered on their individual merits and according to law," the spokeswoman said.
Australia's hardline policies towards asylum seekers, particularly those arriving by boat, has come under intense scrutiny.
The UN refugee conventions have become a tool to facilitate people-smuggling "death voyages", Morrison said yesterday.
Under laws aimed at stopping migrants reaching Australia by boat, asylum seekers are sent to camps in Papua New Guinea and the tiny South Pacific nation of Nauru where they face detention while they are processed.
Morrison defended those policies in an interview with Sydney's 2GB Radio, arguing that years of poor legal interpretation had distorted the conventions.
"Our courts draw on all of their interpretations, and what started out being a pretty sensible document over time has had layer upon layer upon layer and it is now being used as a tool by people smugglers to basically run death voyages," he said.
The comments came in response to growing concern over the treatment of 157 Sri Lankan asylum seekers, transferred on Saturday from the Australian mainland to a detention centre on Nauru in what lawyers say was a secret nighttime airlift.
Hugh de Kretser, a lawyer for the group, said yesterday that when they were being held on an Australian customs vessel, they were offered lifeboats and told to make their own way back to India. The group apparently refused the offer.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse