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Q&A: How churches are leading the way in helping migrants with HIV

"We can offer a long-term perspective, which appears to be important for UNAIDS”

A man holds a red pillow in front of his face Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo/UNHCR

Reverend Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, took time out of a recent gathering to explain how faith-based organisations are forging better responses globally for migrants and refugees living with HIV/AIDS.

Representing 350 Protestant, Orthodox, and Anglican churches, the WCC is driving forward international collaboration on the issue. Last month, it held a workshop at its headquarters in Geneva aimed at building stronger partnerships to improve the international response.

In attendance were the International Organisation for Migration, the UN’s refugee agency, UNAIDS, faith-based groups, international and local NGOs, and representatives from civil society groups from around the world.

“We cannot ignore faith-based organisations,” Michel Sidibé, the executive director of UNAIDS, stressed as he spoke to IRIN on the sidelines of the event, pointing out that such groups are responsible for more than half the health assistance in Africa.

A major concern at the moment is Venezuelans living with HIV and, according to Sidibé, some 70 percent of health services for migrants at the Venezuela-Colombia border are provided by faith-based groups.

The economic collapse has decimated Venezuela’s healthcare system and left many, including those with HIV or AIDS, short of vital medicines. Politics is also preventing most international humanitarian aid from entering the country.

Read more on Venezuela: Millions at risk, at home and abroad

An estimated eight percent of the 3.4 million Venezuelans who have left since 2015 are living with HIV or AIDS – or  272,000 people – according to UNAIDS.

In the following interview, edited for length and clarity, Tveit discusses the oversized role the church plays in helping migrants and refugees living with HIV, how this role evolved, and what it is that faith-based groups can offer on this issue that other organisations can’t.

IRIN: How are churches working with migrants living with HIV?

Olav Fykse Tveit: Churches are often at the forefront of welcoming migrants, and work to ensure they are integrated into neighbourhoods in the local community. On the national and global level, we also raise our voices to defend the rights of refugees in particular, but we also raise issues related to migration more generally, such as unfortunate expressions of xenophobia and racism. On those issues, the World Council of Churches cooperates strongly with the Catholic church (not a WCC member), where it has become part of Pope Francis’ agenda.

IRIN: Within the current crisis in Venezuela, eight percent of those fleeing the country are people with HIV who are unable to find medication or care for their illness. How are WCC member churches working in the region?

Tveit: We have a history with partner organisations trying to address HIV/AIDS, not only as a disease but also within a contextual perspective, and even as an ethical and cultural issue. We know that attitudes within churches have been a challenge and a problem for HIV sufferers. Stigmatisation, exclusion, different moral attitudes have been an additional problem to their illness. A lot has changed, and we have been working consistently to make churches HIV/AIDS-friendly, and competent, by understanding the entirety of this challenge.

We have worked on this in Africa and in other regions, including Latin America. The approach has to do with knowledge, but also with capacities. Many of our partner organisations have strong capacities in dealing with urgent refugee situations. They are quite aware of who the most vulnerable are. It is part of their ethos, in the way they work. This is what you see in Venezuela and why they are aware of this particular combination of problems that HIV patients who have also had to flee are facing.

IRIN: What has the experience been for the WCC when working with more conservative churches on the issue of HIV amongst refugees and migrants?

Tveit: The churches have learnt a lot through this reality of HIV/AIDS, which as I said, is more than an illness. It is a cultural and moral issue. As churches, we are called to care for those who are excluded for any reason. We need to make sure they are part of a fellowship that involves caring for those people with respect and dignity. In many churches, in all continents, there has been an awakening and an awareness-raising that has changed a lot of the attitudes.

We hear from partner organisations such as UNAIDS that what we need now more than ever are faith-based organisations who are committed to work in a holistic way on these issues. In other words, not only to deal with just the medical dimension of the illness, but to consider the whole human being.

IRIN: How about your engagement with the Catholic church on this issue?

Tveit: The Catholic church is related to this programme through Caritas and its diaconal ministry, and has important initiatives. The programme that we developed is ecumenical, and we work with partners who are willing to work with us too, and share this commitment and objectives. It varies between country to country as to whom we are working with.

IRIN: How has it been to work on this issue with the Catholic church in some of the countries where the hierarchy may take a traditionalist approach to issues involving sex?

Tveit: It’s not just the Catholic church that sometimes is described as conservative. Some of our member churches also may have a conservative approach to some of these very important issues…

The churches in Africa are responsible for more than half of the health services and play an important role in developing health services that correspond to people’s needs and building confidence amongst local people...

IRIN: Are faith-based organisations then filling a gap left by other organisations that may be seen as too politicised, to act as more “neutral” humanitarian – and particularly health – aid providers?

Tveit: Christian churches have had a double contribution on this issue. On the one hand we have medical services, and therefore we are willing to contribute. We can also contribute in dealing with attitudes, dealing with stigmatisation both in the churches, but also outside within the communities. But we also have something to contribute together with others. We don’t say that we can fix what others cannot, but we can offer a long-term perspective, which appears to be important for UNAIDS. The medical dimension of it has been dealt with to a large extent, but now the issue is the implementation of it, to help people to live their whole life with this disease, in a proper way and with dignity.

IRIN: How is the WCC involved in the issue of HIV and migrants elsewhere in the world?

Tveit: Since 2002, we have worked in Africa on a programme called the Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative in Africa. It was later expanded to other continents. It was a response to a call from church leaders in Africa. We subsequently developed a programme focused on building understanding and competence among theological students who would become deacons, pastors, and servants to the church. As a result, we have seen important changes and another level of understanding and solidarity with HIV-positive people, in Africa and in other regions.

IRIN: Given the knowledge that your member churches have on the ground and the critical role they play in providing health services, what presence do you have within the international organisations?

Tveit: Since the establishment of the WCC in 1948 there has been a lot of cooperation with the UN and UN-based institutions. Cooperation with the World Health Organisation has been quite strong over the years, and we are now revitalising it…

IRIN: Where does funding come from for programmes helping migrants living with HIV, as churches on the ground may have limited resources?

Tveit: Some of the initiatives we are building, such as competence-building and networking, are funded through our partners who have this programme on their agenda. Funding comes from churches, but also from other donors, including state agencies. NORAD, the Norwegian government’s development agency, has supported our projects for HIV and AIDS, where it has seen the importance of taking a holistic approach to the issue, including changing attitudes, and a long-term perspective. Investing in churches and church-based health services is a very good investment. Most of those involved in this work are very committed, highly competent, and with the willingness to go the extra mile to offer their services, which adds a lot of value and pays off in an economic sense.

(TOP PHOTO: A Venezuelan migrant with HIV who left for Ecuador because he was being treated with expired retroviral drugs and his health was declining. CREDIT: Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo/UNHCR)

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