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Victims of HIV-related Travel Restrictions in Korea
Two women tell their stories of discrimination
Michael Solis (msolis)     Print Article 
Published 2009-10-21 12:59 (KST)   
This is the second part of an OhmyNews article series on HIV-related travel restrictions in Korea. The first article can be found here.  <Editor's Note>
In light of Korea's E-2 visa restrictions that have made HIV-testing mandatory for all instructors who wish to teach or maintain their jobs in Korea, two women have stood up against policies that they believe to be discriminatory. But at what cost?

Andrea's Story

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Andrea Vandom, a 31-year old from the United States, first came to Korea in February 2006. Using her Master of Arts in Education, Vandom mainly taught English to freshmen college students at Chung Ang University. She also created an outdoors class experience where students could learn vocabulary and language while playing sports and co-published two textbooks through the university.

Andrea's first contract was for two years, and during that time Chung Ang University never had an HIV testing policy. It in 2008 when Vandom noticed that her school was beginning to enforce the testing that the Ministry of Justice had put into place in 2007.

"My visa renewal came up in March 2008," writes Andrea. "I had heard of the new regulations through the grapevine. I thought surely they wouldn't be targeted towards me - I'd been living and working in Korea for two years. I cleared immigration the first time, had good standing with my university and my job in no way was related to the transmission of AIDS."

"Given how long I was in the country already, it was illogical to require me to submit these documents. And I was being pinpointed as disease carrier simply because I am not of Korean blood. Suddenly they saw me as morally suspect and a threat to the community because I was a foreigner."

A year later, Vandom's visa was up for renewal. She was in the process of applying to PhD programs in Korea when the Korean Immigration Service asked her for her AIDS and drug test documents, which she did not have. They granted her a 30-day extension and threatened her with deportation if the paperwork was not received.

Vandom felt like the actions against her were illogical and discriminatory.

"Suddenly they saw me as morally suspect and a threat to the community because I was a foreigner. I was very offended. In addition, the regulations were implying that people with HIV were also morally suspect and a threat to the community."

Given spotlight in the HIV/AIDS testing debate with a landmark case that has gone all the way to the Constitutional Court, Vandom has been attacked by both Koreans and foreigners who accuse her of breaking the law. However, the law as she interprets it, should be based on Korea's Constitution and the treaties Korea has signed, which include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, among others.

Vandom will continue to fight her case until Korea's Constitutional Court rules on the constitutionality of foreign instructors' mandatory submission of proof of HIV status. If the Court decides that the policy is unconstitutional, Korea will have to do away with its HIV-related travel restrictions.

Lisa's Story

Lisa is a 40-year old from New Zealand who lived in Ulsan for one year, teaching at an elementary school, where she was beloved by her students, co-teachers, and principals.

Lisa had no objections to compulsory drug testing or criminal background checks for all teachers. Her objection was to the fact that the tests in question, HIV and TBPE, were for foreign teachers on E-2 visas only.

"I believe that you must provide a solid reason backed up by irrefutable proof that tests, such as HIV/AIDS, that infringe upon one's right to privacy and dignity are absolutely necessary to protect society and that you must show a direct correlation between what you're testing for, HIV/AIDS in this case, and the function of teaching," Lisa writes. "I think the Ulsan Education Office and Korean Immigration Service have failed miserably in this."

Lisa's decision not to take the tests was difficult given the responsibility she felt towards her students. Emotionally, the day she signed off on refusing to submit to the tests, which meant the Education Office would not renew her contract, was both saddening and frightening.

"Later that day, some of the grade 5 and 6 students asked me if they had done something to upset me," Lisa comments. "I told them no and they asked if there was anything they could do to make me feel better. That was the only time when I felt I'd made the wrong choice in not taking the tests."

The response from Lisa's co-workers and bosses was wholly supportive, once they understood her reasons. One co-worker told her, "I hope you fight and win."

When Lisa arrived to Korea in August 2008, she took the HIV and drug tests, though she was shocked by the lack of privacy and professionalism during the testing process. She reported that the waiting room was packed with foreigners holding lidless urine samples. She also never saw the doctors who processed the samples and carried out the blood tests wear gloves or wash their hands, even between patients.

Lisa's reservations peaked when she returned to the hospital with her Korean co-teacher to collect her results. The hospital personnel handed the results to the co-teacher, unsealed, and had a brief discussion about the results before Lisa took the paper from them. Lisa presumes the Education Office also received a copy of her results.

"I found the whole process humiliating and was relieved to think I wouldn't have to do it again, even if I decided to stay for longer than a year," she writes.

Lisa was offered a second contract and agreed to it. At the time, she was not aware of the repeat testing policy. Soon after the Ulsan Education Office informed her that retesting was part of the re-contracting process.

Lisa wanted to know why she needed to take the tests again if she had already been through the immigration process. She also wanted to know if her Korean co-workers were subject to the same policies. When asked, the Education Office was not forthcoming with answers, and one representative sent her a message saying, "I think foreigners are caught in drug and ADIS (sp) are not qualified well as teacher."

At that point Lisa contacted Kyung Hee University Law Professor Ben Wagner, who informed her that Korean teachers did not have to take HIV/AIDS and drug tests. Wagner also told Lisa about the international treaties that Korea had signed and how by violating those treaties Korea was violating its own Constitution through mandatory testing.

Following the release of Wagner's report to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, Lisa filed her own complaint at the Commission. She also put in a request with the Korean Commercial Arbitration Board for mediation, a case that has recently been accepted for arbitration.

On Discrimination and the Future

"My objection was to the fact that I was treated differently simply because I was foreign," Lisa states. "To me, it's not 'just a test'. It's perpetuating this absurd idea that foreigners are a danger to Korean society. When does this type of mass hysteria about the nature of foreigners stop and common sense prevail?"

"Stigmatizing those with AIDS and pushing it off as a 'foreigner's disease' does nothing to stop its spread,' Lisa adds. "It simply pushes the issue underground and discourages people from taking responsibility for their sexual health by getting tested regularly."

Vandom echoes Lisa's thoughts, supporting confidential counseling, education, and treatment in the case of an HIV-positive result.

"Making threats and ruining the credibility, careers, and lives of HIV carriers will only discourage testing and allow undiagnosed people living with HIV to continue spreading it," Vandom writes. "This seems to be the approach the Korean Ministry of Justice has taken."

Both Andrea and Lisa remain confident that the Constitutional Court will rule in favor of eliminating the current testing policies. It could take up to two years for the final decision on HIV-related travel restrictions to be made. If and when that happens, perhaps qualified teachers like Andrea and Lisa will consider returning to Korea to offer their much-valued skills.
©2009 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Michael Solis

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