Controversy persists over HIV testing for English teachers

To teach English in Korea, Christina had to prove that she was HIV-free.

The US citizen was reluctant, but complied with the rule, taking a blood test for HIV and submitting the results to local authorities in order to get a job at a public school.

When she found out that the school’s Korean and Korean-American teachers were exempt from the test despite doing the same job, she was offended.

“It perpetuates the perception of foreigners as dirty, dangerous and unclean. I think it’s discriminatory and xenophobic,” said Christina, who first came to Korea in 2010 and now teaches in Gwangju.

“It also perpetuates stereotypes about HIV and people who have it,” she told the Korea Herald.

For nearly a decade, South Korea has made it mandatory for foreigners wishing to work here to take blood tests for HIV, rejecting those who test positive.

The policy, introduced in 2007 after complaints from locals about ‘dangerous foreigners breaking the law’, including English teachers, could end soon as the government considers a recent recommendation from the human rights panel. man of the country to eliminate it.

“The Ministry of Justice is taking the opinions of relevant ministries such as the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health and Social Care to decide whether or not to accept the recommendation,” he said in response to an investigation by the Korea Herald.

A recommendation from the National Human Rights Commission of Korea is not legally binding, but the government must decide whether or not to accept it within 90 days. In this case, the deadline is December 7.

Discrimination against English teachers?

When HIV testing for foreign language teachers was first introduced in Korea in 2007, migrant workers from Southeast Asian countries as well as those holding E-6 entertainment visas were also been subjected to the test.

Those applying for other types of visas – for example, the E-1 for university teaching jobs, the F-4 for ethnic Koreans with foreign citizenships, and the F-6 for marriage migrants – are not required to prove that they are HIV-negative. live and work here.

“We made health checks compulsory for some foreigners through a revision of the AIDS Prevention Act in 2007 after certain crimes committed by foreign language teachers and the use of illegal drugs led to social problems,” said a Justice Department official.

The Justice Department said it had officially lifted its blanket entry ban for most HIV-positive foreign nationals and eliminated mandatory testing for most visa applicants, excluding those applying for an E visa. -2.

“Even if we remove compulsory HIV testing, many are still being tested in accordance with the AIDS prevention law by the Ministry of Health or the law on the management of private institutes by the Ministry of Education” , the official said. “And we don’t turn away foreigners or refuse to issue foreigner cards when it’s proven they’re HIV-positive.”

But that’s not how foreign English teachers contacted by The Korea Herald saw the situation. Foreign language teachers are seen as the only group subject to the compulsory blood test for HIV.

“I had to take the test in the hospital after I arrived in Korea. If we test positive for HIV, our visa is canceled and we have to leave,” said a 30-year-old Canadian, who works in an elementary school. “I have a friend who contracted HIV in Korea and had to leave the country.”

He said he wanted to remain anonymous for fear it would “affect” his work.

In 2009, Lisa Griffin from New Zealand, who was then an English teacher at an elementary school in Ulsan, filed a petition with the NHRCK as well as the United Nations International Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination after that his school refused to renew his contract for his refusal to submit an HIV test result.

The UN committee ruled last year that HIV testing of teachers on E-2 visas constituted racial discrimination, saying the policy was not “justified by public health or any other pattern”. The committee urged the Korean government to compensate him for moral and material damages.

In September, the NHRCK also backed the UN decision, calling it “stigmatizing” and “discriminatory”.

Concern for student health and safety

Advocates of HIV testing, including parent groups, cite concerns about student health and safety.

“We want to protect human rights and prevent discrimination. But we cannot simply ignore public concerns about the health and safety of our students,” said Kim Kyoung-jin, head of foreign teacher management at the Seoul Metropolitan Bureau of Education.

Many Korean parents, whose zeal for their children’s education is known to be exceptionally high, fear that eliminating mandatory HIV testing will pose a threat to the health and safety of their children, although transmission be impossible due to the type of contact that teachers have with children.

A 49-year-old officer, who wanted to be identified only by his surname Park, said the safety of his children came before the human rights of foreign teachers.

“I don’t think it’s discrimination to treat foreign teachers and Korean teachers differently,” the mother-of-two said. “Without HIV testing, there is no way to screen foreign teachers and keep our children safe.”

But Lee Kyung-ja, who heads the parent rights group Student First, said foreign teachers and Korean teachers should be tested for HIV.

“It’s worrying that more and more young people are getting HIV-AIDS these days and we don’t know where they are getting it from,” Lee said. “To guarantee the health of children, all teachers – whether foreign or local – must prove that they are not infected with HIV.”

According to government data, the cumulative number of HIV and AIDS patients was 10,502 until last year, since the first case surfaced in 1985, with 92.7 percent of patients being men. There were 1,152 new cases recorded last year, of which 33.3% were in their twenties. Among them, 1,018 were Korean.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t have a problem with HIV testing if it was universal for everyone applying for a work visa,” said Emily Young, who started teaching English at a Seoul high school in 2010.

“But it is unfair for the government to single out E-2 visa holders for testing. He should test all visas, or no visas.

The Department of Education is expected to conclude the review of NHRCK’s recommendations this month.

Misperception of HIV

But experts believe that mandatory HIV testing for certain groups is not only a violation of human rights, but also ineffective in combating the disease.

“This is a flagrant violation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which Korea acceded to in 1979 and which has the same legal effect as national law,” Ryu said. Min-hee, a lawyer for a group of Hope public interest lawyers. & Straight.

“Different treatment is not always considered discrimination when there are just reasons for it. But there is no justification for selective HIV testing of foreigners,” she added.

And mandatory HIV testing of certain groups will only reinforce long-standing stigma and fear surrounding HIV and AIDS in the country, alienating and excluding people living with the disease, another expert said.

Patients living with HIV and AIDS are often discriminated against and find it difficult to access health facilities, travel and seek employment.

“The government’s health policies to prevent HIV-AIDS come from ignorance,” said Son Moon-soo, who heads an association of HIV and AIDS patients called KNP+. “The outdated measures create the false perception that HIV-AIDS is a foreign disease that foreigners have brought into the country.

In 2011, Kurbanova, an Uzbek woman who became a Korean citizen, was refused entry to a public spa in Busan. The owner of the establishment reportedly rejected her, saying that she looked different from Koreans and could have contracted AIDS.

It is now known that HIV is unlikely to be transmitted in daily life, as it is transmitted mainly through sexual contact, through the use of needles or syringes. But fears about HIV persist widely in South Korea, with many still associating the disease with death and individual morality.

The World Health Organization also opposes mandatory testing of individuals to “ensure lasting public health benefits” and “conform to human rights principles”.

“Rather than implementing discriminatory policies against foreigners, there should be more education on safer sex and how HIV-AIDS is transmitted and prevented to fight the disease,” Son said.

By Ock Hyun-ju (