Faith at AIDS 2018

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Debunking myths and serving all: People on the move and HIV

Debunking myths and serving all: People on the move and HIV

Msgr Vitillo speaks at Faith Building Bridges. Photo: Albin Hillert/WCC

23 July 2018

We are a world on the move. While many seek new opportunities, the unprecedented levels of forced migration bring additional vulnerabilities to refugees and migrants, including risks related to HIV.

The reality of migration, asylum and HIV were addressed by faith-based and UN representatives at the interfaith event “Faith Building Bridges” on 22 July, convened by the World Council of Churches – Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance (WCC-EAA).

“We are all migrants to some extent,” said Mamadi Diakite, special adviser, Security, Humanitarian and Fragile Countries at UNAIDS, citing statistics that almost 260 million people currently live in a country other than the one they were born.

But over 65 million people have been forcibly displaced from their home countries. As Diakite noted, “Crisis and migration often compound risks faced by the most vulnerable members of society to forms of abuse and violence including human traffickers.”

While the number of people on the move is unprecedented, Msgr Robert J Vitillo, general secretary of the International Catholic Migration Commission, debunked two myths. Noting that western countries fear “floods” of migrants, the vast majority of migrants are in Africa and Asia. Europe only receives 6 percent of the migrant population, for example.

The second myth Vitillo addressed was that refugees and migrants bring diseases. “While migration itself is not a health risk, being on the way to where you are going might very much be. But the majority of migrants are actually infected after their arrival,” said Vitillo.

However, what is undeniably true is that migrants and refugees face multiple levels of discrimination and highly variable access to health services.

Rev. Dr Nyambura Njoroge, coordinator of the WCC Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative and Advocacy, said addressing sexual and gender-based violence together with HIV is vital in all contexts.

Faith-inspired people take action when they see a need, said Njoroge. Citing international action around the “Thursdays in Black” movement, she said, “We do not wait for statistics. The statistics are the people we encounter.”

The important role of faith-inspired peer support groups was further highlighted by Laura Ngobadjeck, who came to the Netherlands from Cameroon and was later diagnosed with HIV. “It was hard to ask questions, “ she said, “even if the nurses were very understanding. But she discovered “Positive Sisters” with Spirituality, HIV and AIDS (Shiva).

“One of the hardest things is knowing if you can tell, and feel safe afterwards, especially for African women,” Ngobadjeck said. But she was so happy with all the sharing enabled by Positive Sisters that she became one herself.

Faiths building bridges key to pushing ahead

Gary Jones, senior AIDS security and humanitarian advisor at UNAIDS, commended faith-based organizations for the innovations and services they provide for people in transit and in countries of settlement, but hoped they can do more. “In addition to getting dignity into the dialogue, “ he said, “faith groups are essential in the day to day work of setting the moral climate.”

People respect people of faith, said Jones, but we also need to respect the social worlds of migrants, especially those of young people.

Katy Ajer, program director for health and sustainable development at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, highlighted the global compact on safe, orderly migration due to be adopted in December as both a tribute to concerted advocacy by faith-based organizations as well as a call to work together with all the systems.

And while policies are important, it is also important to continue to bring in transformative justice, said Ajer. “Migration itself is not a risk factor – there are other factors that we are being called to look into as justice issues.”

Dr Azza Karam, senior advisor at the United Nations Population Fund, also challenged participants to be more representative and collaborative within the world of faith and religion in the response.

“We have an opportunity to continue the transformative impact of faith,” she said. “Diversity has to inform our debate and our actions.”

The challenge and opportunity was established by Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp in sharing his personal experiences around World War II via video.

“Interfaith saved my life,” he stated. “When we are together and our will is really to do good and improve the state of the world, then there is compassion. Where there is compassion, this gives us indomitable spirit.”

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Building bridges between the HIV and TB responses (press release of 22 July 2018)

“The materials are us” - Faith building bridges in the HIV response (press release of 21 July 2018)

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