Mandatory HIV test for foreigners – from beginning to end

Constance Williams  Published 2017.07.10  17:57  Updated 2017.07.10 18:07


The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) lifted a decade-old requirement for HIV testing for foreign language teachers on Saturday, yielding to growing criticism over its discriminatory nature.

Under the revised rules that took effect July 3, those who come to Korea with an E-2 visa, a permit for teaching English in Korea, has only to take a mandatory test for drugs and syphilis, the MOJ said.

For the past couple of decades, increasing demand for native English speaking teachers, as part of Korea’s globalization drive, has led to the inflow of an estimated 24,000 English teachers in Korea.

But the growing social contacts between foreign English teachers and Korean women have produced fears of cultural contamination and miscegenation with occasional incidents of xenophobia, according to a 2012 Journal of Korean Law “HIV/AIDS Tests as a Proxy for Racial Discrimination?”

The MOJ introduced HIV and drug tests for foreign English teachers in 2007, claiming they were necessary to “ease the anxiety of citizens” and “assure the parents” of children being taught by foreigners.

Also facilitating its introduction were a media hysteria and moral panic caused by the high-profile arrest of Christopher P. Neil, a pedophile who taught English in Gwangju, South Jeolla Province. Neil was detained in Thailand for the sexual abuse of Thai children after an international manhunt was ordered by the International Police Organization (Interpol).

Although Neil’s offenses have occurred outside of Korea and there were no Korean pedophile victims, locals were outraged by the fact that Interpol identified Neil as an English teacher working in Korea just before his arrest. Importantly, however, Neil was not HIV-positive, involved with drugs or an E-2 visa holder.

“Drug use and other criminal activities committed by foreign English teachers have been a social issue for some time, and have built up to dangerous levels in recent years,” said an MOJ news release issued in November 2007. “For example, sex crimes committed by native speaking instructors, who are high on drugs, are disrupting society.”

There have been several more official statements made without providing any objective data or evidence which backed up the “dangerous levels” of criminal activity.

Of the 49 countries in the world that have some forms of HIV-related restrictions in place for foreigners, only about six -- Belarus, Cuba, Malaysia, the Republic of Moldova, Mongolia, and the Turks and Caicos Islands -- have restrictions so extreme as Korea’s, which require in-country testing for foreign workers repeated on a regular basis, according to Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) in June 2009.

In 2010, the Korea Herald reported that the Prime Minister’s Office conducted an opinion poll, finding “80.7 percent of ordinary citizens” who supported the mandatory HIV tests for foreign teachers.

The rising support was due to the influence of a civic group called the “Citizens’ Group for Upright English Education,” which succeeded in swaying the public’s opinions against foreign English teachers.

Choi Won-seok, director of human rights affairs at the Foreign Ministry, also said the change was made in response to concerns raised from various sectors, including the U.N. and the National Human Rights Commission of Korea.

As early as 1987, the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded that “no screening program for international travelers can prevent the introduction and spread of HIV infection” and, in 1988, WHO advised that such screenings would be “ineffective, impractical and wasteful.”

According to the International Guidelines on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights, in July 2006, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and UNAIDS stated, “Based on suspected or real HIV status alone, HIV screening of international travelers are discriminatory and cannot be justified by public health concerns.”

Not all foreigners seem to be against the practice, however.

“On the one hand, I agree and understand why the HIV test was needed; in a world where diseases and viruses can spread quickly, protecting your fellow countrymen is most important,” said Matthew Adams, an Australian English teacher in Asan, South Chungcheong Province. “Though when I first had to go through the visa process, I did feel slightly singled out and disagreed with it.”

But after living in Korea for some time, he grew to understand and realize the test wasn’t done to offend but to protect.

“I have mixed feelings on the scrapped mandatory requirement and would prefer consistency with who takes the HIV test over just discriminating a select few,” he said.

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