IOM Statement to the 26th Special Session of the General Assembly

Mr. President, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

The International Organization for Migration estimates that, as we meet here today, some 150 million people in the world are migrants. Each year between two and four million people migrate permanently. Over 15 million people are refugees or are seeking asylum from wars and from abuses of human rights.

People migrate for a large number of reasons. Just last year we saw that nearly seven million people in 24 countries were forced to flee from their homes to escape conflict, social violence, repression and persecution. Others move much more happily to join family members. Still others are hoping to find a better life. Tragically, each of these reasons may come with factors that increase migrants' risks and vulnerabilities for HIV.

To take just the example of people who migrate in search of work: When they get to their new jobs, migrant workers often find themselves doing the work nobody else wants to do. They are frequently young, away from their families, and isolated from the community where they are living. Loneliness is not often mentioned as a vulnerability factor for HIV, but it is a vulnerability factor that certainly applies to migrant workers. An added risk factor is easy access to alcohol and commercial sex. Women may be especially at risk, as migrant workers themselves, or as partners of migrant workers who bring HIV back with them when they return home.

Some people who migrate in search of a better life discover that they have made a mistake - there are no jobs at the end of their journey. These would-be migrant workers are even more isolated. They live on the margins of societies. Some of the only ways available to support themselves, such as selling sex, may put them at high risk of HIV.

In recent years the world has been alerted to the importance of trafficking in human beings. Having been trafficked for sex work must be one of the biggest vulnerability factors of all as far as HIV is concerned. Girls and boys who have been trafficked for sex work have very little control indeed over what happens to them, including whether or not they will use condoms.

Much can be done to reduce the HIV risks and vulnerabilities faced by migrants and people who are mobile. Governments, non-government organizations - and also groups of migrants in almost every country - are working to prevent AIDS and to promote access to care and support for mobile populations.

To take some examples from IOM projects, in South Africa, IOM is using soccer tournaments as a way to reach out to migrants. Sports events bring people together, and can be an important venue for getting AIDS messages to people whose legal status in the country might not be in order.  The first of a series of soccer matches was held in April. Everyone who came received pamphlets and heard speeches. Condoms were handed out, and so were t-shirts. These are important, but what happened before the match is even more important. HIV/AIDS outreach workers met with the teams for long discussions. Misconceptions about the sexuality of people from other countries were explored, and quite a few misunderstandings about HIV and AIDS were cleared up. The first of the players who attended the discussions are being trained as peer educators, and many more will be trained over the coming months. But even more important for the long term is that links are now established between the soccer clubs, an HIV/AIDS NGO, and leaders of the migrant communities.

Another example is from Nigeria. There, IOM is working to find appropriate means and messages to reach women and girls who are at risk of being trafficked to Europe for sex work. The main objective is to prevent trafficking by giving information and to help trafficking victims, but the project will also focus on HIV/AIDS concerns.  Yet another project - this one in Ethiopia - targets people during their journey. IOM is working with national and NGO partners to set up mobile units in risk zones along major transit routes. The units offer information and voluntary counseling and testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections to mobile people and local residents.

National projects are important. But they are clearly not sufficient. People move across borders, and efforts to reach out to them with HIV/AIDS prevention and access to care must also cross borders. Several regional initiatives for mobile populations have been set up, for example in West Africa and in South East Asia. These must be extended elsewhere. IOM has recently helped officials in Caribbean and in Balkan countries come together to discuss the AIDS-related needs of migrants and people who are mobile in their regions.

The needs in this field are great. They include improving the evidence base that will help planners and policy makers defend the need for programs. They include training people who might be able to set up such programs, but who do not know how. They include establishing regional centers of expertise, so that such knowledge can be shared. Public health, knowledge, and experience must be able to move around the world just as easily as people now do.

Mr. President, today, the issue of HIV/AIDS and population mobility is not a national issue or even a regional issue.  It is a global issue.  That is why IOM welcomes the creation of a global fund to combat HIV/AIDS.  And why we also strongly believe that any such fund must take into account the special risks and vulnerability of migrant populations, and specifically provide for them.

Ladies and gentlemen, most of us in this room have traveled long distances to get here. Most of us are lucky. We will go back home. And our houses and families will still be there. We have jobs. We have access to information and to health services. Not all people who travel are so lucky.

Thank you, Mr. President.