Policy of Mandatory HIV Testing of Sex Workers Repealed in Greece

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Europe Regional Correspondent

According to a report at Human Rights Watch (HRW), Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, on the 2nd of April, repealed the health regulation used to justify roundups and forced HIV testing of people alleged to be sex workers.

In April 2012, in response to a massive rise in HIV rates following health sector budget cuts due to the Greek economic crisis, police in Athens arrested drug users and suspected sex workers and forced them to undergo HIV testing. According to HRW, those found to be HIV positive were charged with causing intentional grievous bodily harm (a felony) or attempted bodily harm (a misdemeanor), for allegedly having unprotected sex with clients while knowing they were HIV positive. At least 12 sex workers had their names and private information published first on the police force’s website, then in newspapers, TV and by the Greek Center for Disease Control who disclosed their HIV-positive status.

Then Health Minister, Andreas Loverdos introduced legal provision 39A in April 2012, which made it mandatory to conduct forced HIV testing on suspected sex workers, undocumented migrants, and drug users. Human Rights Watch, UNAIDS, and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS had raised concerns about the regulation, which was reinstated the following year.

Most of the women were acquitted of all charges but, having spent up to ten months in detention, some felt lasting trauma and shame at having been publicly outed. In December last year the Greek press reported that one of the women had committed suicide.

In spite of the repeal of such a harmful health policy, HRW reports that sex workers in Greece continue to face other challenges. A new policing plan for the centre of Athens was announced on the 12th of March. The plan includes targeted operations against “women sex workers,” among others. “Many women selling sex on the streets,” writes Human Rights Watch, “fall afoul of the strict regulations governing legal sex work and face daily harassment by the police.” 

“Repealing a health regulation that led to such terrible abuse is a good first step.” HRW continues. “But the Greek government should also implement a genuine public health approach to people who exchange sex for money, drugs, or life necessities. And this means ensuring that police operations respect the rights of women whose lives are hard enough already.”

A documentary film about the crackdown in Athens was released in 2013."Ruins: Chronicle of an HIV Witchhunt” was directed by Zoe Mavroudi was interviewed by VICE about the film.