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Zoë Robert's picture

If you’ve been following the news in Iceland in recent days you will have come across the story about the man who was arrested on suspicion of having knowingly/intentionally infected women with HIV.

From the beginning, the media highlighted that the man was a foreigner—an asylum seeker from Nigeria to be specific—and that the women who have had relations with him are young Icelandic women. One or two (reports vary) of the women have reportedly contracted HIV while police have been trying to contact up to 20 others.

The individual in question has since claimed that he did not know he had HIV. He appealed the Reykjavík District Court’s ruling that he is to be held in custody for four weeks but the Supreme Court has ratified the original ruling. Yesterday it was reported that the police do in fact have grounds to suspect that the individual knew that he was HIV+ but despite no clear evidence having yet being reported, the media have continued to run headlines like ‘Suspect Knew He was HIV+.’

That first story on Thursday morning and the many others published since have sparked debate—both online and off—about asylum seekers and immigrants in general. A story like this is sadly good news for media outlets. There’s only so many poop stories—yes, it’s a slow news month—one can publish before it gets a bit old.

Almost one week since the HIV story appeared in the media, the coverage and comments continue, and as Kristín Loftsdóttir, professor in anthropology at the University of Iceland, points out, people seem to think they can write whatever they want, no matter how discriminatory.

Pastor for immigrants Toshiki Toma was quick off the mark in cautioning against prejudice towards asylum seekers and HIV+ individuals in general. Haukur Már Helgason has also written a long piece detailing some of the wrongs of the reporting on this case.

It is important with a story like this to remind ourselves, as Toshiki has done, that asylum seekers, just as immigrants in general, are not one big homogenous group. Asylum seekers are individuals with diverse backgrounds. In Toshiki’s words, the only thing they have in common is that they have fled their country of origin and have applied for international protection in Iceland. Each individual has their own history, personality, personal qualities and skills, which all too often get lost when the term ‘asylum seeker’ is used to describe them. Is the term relevant in this case? If so why?

As Ásgeir H. Ingólfsson pointed out, a local woman was in 2011 suspected of having infected numerous individuals with HIV through shared needles. In that case, the court ruled against her detention instead insisting that she cease all risky behavior. The media did not run photos of her—as has been done in this latest case—or publish information that could identify her—like photos of the person’s residence, as has been done now.

When a case like this comes up—and remember, proof indicating whether or not he knew he had HIV has not yet been reported on and medical tests had apparently not been carried out since his arrival in Iceland—all individuals, in this case asylum seekers, are painted with the same brush.

The authorities may have additional information that they are not revealing at this stage but until the media are provided with that information, journalists should exercise a lot more caution.

Zoë Robert - zoe(at)icelandreview.com

As a side note, the rules on medical examinations for applications for residence permits (the information concerns foreigners applying for a residence permit, there is no mention of asylum seekers) as stated in English on the website of the Directorate of Immigration are interesting: applicants from Central and South America, including Mexico, non-EEA European countries, Asia or Africa must undergo a medical examination, unless the individual has a medical certificate from abroad issued less than three months earlier. People coming from the EEA, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, the USA, Canada and Israel do not have to submit a medical certificate. As for HIV, information (again this concerns foreigners applying for residence and does not mention asylum seekers) on the website of the Chief Epidemiologist for Iceland states: “Screening for HIV shall be conducted unless the applicant in question intends to stay less than one year in the country.” Why the different rules, based on country of origin, and why testing only after one year?

UPDATE: The Chief Epidemiologist Haraldur Briem said in an interview this afternoon that the work procedures on this issue will be reviewed.

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Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.