Government offers HIV amnesty for Zimbabweans

By Anne Beston

Zimbabweans who fled the Robert Mugabe regime and fear they may be HIV-positive, will be eligible for permanent residency in New Zealand even if they have the disease.

Yesterday the Government urged hundreds of Zimbabweans who fled the Mugabe regime to come forward and apply for permanent residency under a special scheme set up for them, even though part of the process is compulsory health screening.

Health Minister Pete Hodgson and Immigration Minister David Cunliffe moved to reassure the refugees their health status would not be taken into account as long as they met other standard criteria.

"We are doing this because it's the right thing to do to protect the health of New Zealanders and of those Zimbabweans seeking to become New Zealanders," said Mr Hodgson.

"When people know about their HIV status, we can be much more successful at containing the spread of the virus."

The special residency scheme, which came into effect last year, applies to Zimbabweans who came here on humanitarian grounds before October 2004.

Of 1300 migrants, 500 had applied and 800 had not. HIV infection in Zimbabwe is around 20 per cent.

Of the 500, 42 were found to be HIV positive (8.4 per cent).

Of the 800 people so far avoiding the scheme, up to 160 could be infected using the higher estimate of 20 per cent, said Mr Hodgson.

It was unlikely all would require antiretroviral treatment but if they did, it could cost New Zealand taxpayers $2.9 million a year.

There are 2474 HIV-positive people living in New Zealand.

Health status is normally taken into account when migrants apply to come here.

NZ First slammed the policy, saying the party had warned that failure to medically test migrants would lead to an added burden on the health system.

Compulsory health screening was not widely introduced until late 2004, but many Zimbabweans arrived before then.

NZ First leader Winston Peters, who is on extended sick leave in Rarotonga, yesterday said the Government did not have "the foggiest notion" of where the Zimbabwean migrants were and was being forced to "coax them out of the woodwork with the bait of residency with no questions asked".

The Government also had no idea "whether they are behaving like Zimbabwean refugee Shingirayi Nyarirangwe," he said.

Nyarirangwe was convicted in 2004 of having unprotected sex with four women. At least one later tested positive for HIV.

"The result of years of soft immigration is that these people and hundreds of other migrants will now be treated for free for the rest of their lives," said Mr Peters, who is also the Foreign Minister.

A spokeswoman for the Labour Department, Mary Anne Thompson, said the only way of tracking the Zimbabwean immigrants was through community meetings, Zimbabwean groups and with communications help from Government agencies. The Aids Foundation would also help.

She said the Zimbabwean situation was a "unique and complex case".

Howard Andrew, a Zimbabwean who came to New Zealand in 1994 and who has since helped other migrants to settle here, said he had not heard of people dodging authorities because of HIV. "But I can imagine it to be true in some cases," he said.

Zimbabweans applying under the special residency scheme must do so by February 28, next year.

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