AIDS conference delegates from Ethiopia seek asylum in Australia
“It’s hard though when people do not have any money at all,": Heather Hoist. Photo: Getty Images
At least 25 delegates who attended Melbourne’s high-profile AIDS conference intend to seek asylum in Australia after failing to board their flights home last week.
The men and women, who are mostly from African countries including Tanzania, Uganda and Ethiopia, decided to stay in Melbourne after the week-long conference finished on July 25.
Many of them are now homeless and have been put up in motels, backpacker hostels and rooming houses across the city.
Fairfax Media has spoken to three male African asylum seekers at length, but has chosen not to identify them over concerns for their safety if they were forced to return to their home countries.
One of the men said he had been imprisoned multiple times because he was a member of an opposition political party. Another has faced violent persecution because of his ethnicity. ''People told me ‘you should go back to your own country’,'' he said.
About 13,600 delegates from more than 200 countries visited Melbourne in late July as part of the 20th International AIDS conference, an event headlined by former US president Bill Clinton.
It is understood Melbourne refugee support agencies have since been contacted by 25 delegates who attended the conference.
Heather Holst chief executive of homelessness service HomeGround, confirmed the organisation was assisting 14 delegates to find and pay for accommodation.
She said the asylum seekers’ tourist visas had expiry dates in either August or October. HomeGround has funding to house the group for at least three weeks.
“It’s hard though when people do not have any money at all,” Dr Holst said.
It is not yet clear if any of the group are living with HIV, as was the case in 2006 when more than 130 HIV-positive South African women sought asylum in Canada after the Toronto AIDS conference.
Nor is it the first time delegates attending major world events in Australia have failed to make the trip home. Similar bids for asylum were made after 2008 World Youth Day festivities in Sydney and the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.
Following the 2008 Homeless World Cup in Melbourne, 49 soccer players from Africa and the Middle East sought refugee status.
At the time Lord Mayor Robert Doyle said there was always a risk delegates who visited for major world events would not want to return home.
“While we could never condone people overstaying their visas, it would be quite overwhelming to come from some of these trouble-spots, these war-torn spots in the world, into beautiful Melbourne,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Scott Morrison declined to comment on the latest case.
“For privacy reasons we do not discuss individual applications. All claims for protection are considered on their individual merits and according to law,” she said.
Some in the group of asylum seeker delegates say they have left partners and children in Africa. One man said: ''Now I am feeling free, but I’m feeling worried about my family.''