Author note: The names of the interviewed subjects have been changed to protect their identities.
Thirty-five year old Senzia migrated to the United States to escape genital mutilation in Tanzania, East Africa. In July, she walked on foot through woods at the infamous Roxham Road in upstate New York to seek refuge in Montreal, Canada, 40 miles away. Kojo, age 45, and Dimante, age 39, took the same route on the same day. The two men from Congo, Central Africa, lived unlawfully in Ohio for nine and five years respectively. Senzia, Kojo, Dimante, and thousands of others fled out of fear of deportation by the Trump administration.
Another troubling fear binds these three migrants: taking the first-ever compulsory HIV-AIDS/Tuberculosis/Syphilis medical test required for Canadian asylum seekers.
According to the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada Agency, all asylum seekers, most of whom come from poorer nations, must undergo a mandatory HIV-AIDS/Tuberculosis/Syphilis blood screening soon after arrival. This is a strict requirement to obtain a work permit and, even more crucially, a social security number. Temporary work permits are supposed to be given within 60 days on the condition that the asylum seeker undergoes a medical examination. The blood screenings used to test for these diseases are administered free of charge at specific laboratories selected by the Canadian government. That’s where the comfort ends.
“This is a shock for me. I never knew this,” Senzia says. “My partner will accuse me of infidelity and walk away from me if I am found to be positive with HIV virus in my blood.” According to UNAIDS, her home country has one of Africa’s most troubling HIV infection rates—5.5% of women aged 15-49 live with the virus. Senzia is still summoning the courage to undergo the test.
“Just to book the immigration doctor, I fear. Canada Immigration booklets demand that within 60 days I must inform my partner if I’m found to be infected. I can be jailed for years if I keep the results away from his knowledge and sleep with him.”
Not only do asylum seekers face criminal penalties for failing to disclose health status to sexual partners and spouses within 60 days, they may be refused as refugees. Given this reality, forced disclosure of one’s HIV status can be very traumatic, especially for women who are battling the mental anguish of rape, genital mutilation, or other violence.
“When they arrive here, they are scared, they cannot trust anyone. We must give them time to breathe,” Sister Allesandra Sandopadre, the Envoy of the Archbishop of Montreal, told me in her office. Sandopadre is driving Montreal Church’s efforts to provide refugees support, a task that includes administering $145,000 in funds to sponsor Syrian refugees.
Kojo summoned strength to do the test last week. “I fear the results,” he says. “Every morning I freeze when the postman walks up to our door. What if he brings a khaki color envelope letter from Canada Immigration saying, ‘We have found problems with your blood test screening?’ It would shatter my world.”
Kojo, who was treated for tuberculosis while an undocumented immigrant in Ohio, is unsettled by the conduct of one of the immigration nurses. “During the free HIV test, she kept repeating, ‘Mr. Kojo, if we find HIV in your blood samples, you sir, you’ll pay $250 for further diagnosis, this time from your pocket.’ It felt like a promise of punishment.”
His friend, Diamante (pictured left), has his own fears. Diamante underwent the immigration HIV test and applied for a work permit on the spot. “Today, the work permit has not been issued; the response has not come.” He feels humiliated. “Friends whose permits are issued whisper to me that if work permit is delayed, then Canada immigration doctors noticed Syphilis or HIV in your blood tests,” he says. “I fear to believe the gossip. I’m now working under the table inside a food-sale kitchen at a car-garage in Montreal at 50% below the minimum wage.”
Unlawful workers like Diamante receive no insurance protection. In March, reports emerged of amateur refugee laborers who had their hands sliced in meat factory accidents while using industrial machinery that they were not trained to operate. When such injuries and fatalities happen, the law says labor agents or factories have no responsibility to compensate workers who are hired without permits. This means injured refugee workers fall back onto Canada’s strained welfare system, facing the prospect of permanent disability and a blot on their asylum claim due to the offense of “working under the table.”
“My biggest fear is not the HIV blood test results,” Diamante says. It is having his asylum claim rejected and being unable to obtain medication, which he calls “a death verdict.”
According to the Canada Aids Treatment and Information Exchange, eligible asylum and refugee claimants are exempted from being considered a burden on the state if they live with the HIV virus. But among fragile refugees like Diamante, rumors override facts, and so the anxieties about tomorrow persist.