During all my visits to Kurdistan –four so far- I have always been impressed by the people’s hospitality. Their gratitude after a week’s work – I am training local journalists through the Independent Media Centre of Kurdistan – is humbling. But when you visit the Asais, the security services, to extend your tourist visa you enter the world of the infuriating Iraqi red tape. All of a sudden you feel not so welcome anymore.
I always dread these visits. A friendly student is so kind to help me navigate the office’s cool corridors. He takes my green file from door to door, a total of at least eight different offices all of which have a picture of a young president Talibani on the wall when he was the leader of the Peshmerga’s, the Kurdish freedom fighters. Without my fixer I would be completely lost as nobody speaks a word of English. As I’m no newcomer –both in Erbil and in Suleimania they have my files-, extending my visa should be straightforward albeit time consuming. But sadly it never is.
A blood test? Are you saying I need to take a blood test to extend my visa by two days? I couldn’t believe my fixer when he was telling me that I couldn’t get the visa stamp unless I took a blood test. This time there wasn’t anything wrong with my paper work –the fact that it took the government almost a year to grant the IMCK its much needed licence was playing havoc each time one of the trainers had to renew their visa.
It’s a new law and it applies to all foreign passport holders, you just have to do it otherwise it would be corruption, my fixer explained. Without the blood test no exit visa. And without the exit visa you can not leave Iraq! I knew you needed an official document proofing you are HIV / Aids free if you are seeking permanent residence or a temporary stay. I would argue that this is already quite ridiculous. Iraq however, is not the only country doing this. But to ask aid workers, business men and a few tourists on a short visit for a blood test just in case they may have Aids is just plain stupid.
My problem with this new rule is not so much that I don’t like my blood taken by a total strange doctor in a strange country – visitors to Baghdad speak of dr. HIV- that my privacy is being violated or even that the test implies discrimination of people with HIV. The tests are complete nonsense because the results arrive when you have already left the country. HIV tests are only reliable three months after unsafe sex. And then still there are a lot of initial false tests. Do all visitors to Iraq have to do an HIV test every three months? And what about travelling Iraqi’s? They don’t have to take a test each time they have been abroad.
I would think that the Iraqi and Kurdish government have far bigger worries than to test the foreigners who are visiting to help and support the country, who are coming here to do business or invest money. On my next visit I will make sure I will not stay more than ten days to avoid this pointless blood test. And I know I am not the only one.