Feature: Is South Africa failing gay asylum seekers?

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

With South Africa facing a flood of LGBT refugees from all over the African continent, a creaking asylum system is exposing them to corruption, homophobia and the risk of attack.  In this feature article we investigate the gravity of the situation, its sources and possible solution.

A little over a week ago, Rachel, a 28 year-old asylum seeker from Uganda had her room in a home in a township by Cape Town, broken into and vandalized.

The burglary on 21 May, saw her lose almost all her belongings.

The police filed a report and sent Rachel (whose real name we are withholding for safety reasons) her crime number by text, but so far she’s heard nothing further from them.

‘People have been pointing a finger at my neighbour, who works night shifts and stays in the home all day long’, she tells me.

‘He avoided me for three days and then made up some story. I know he dislikes me as I overheard him once saying to friends in derogatory manner that I like women.’

She stated: ‘There is a lot of violence against gays and lesbians here, especially asylum seekers. Even my lesbian South African friends do not feel safe here. So I don’t tell anyone about my sexuality because I am scared.

‘They also call us names for being foreigners, I get called “makwerekwere,” meaning alien, all the time.’

I asked her if the South African authorities treat her well to which she replied: ‘They don’t care and make it very hard to get refugee status.

‘They tell me I have to work but don’t allow me to work as a soccer player, which is my profession, saying you don’t have the right papers.’

Rachel fled from Uganda three years ago after her father was murdered by state security forces and the rest of the family faced death threats.

Despite the poverty and hardship she faces she puts on a brave face. Laughing, she said: ‘I know everything will be alright, I am strong. I lose my father, and if I find my place broken into, I say “ah, I don’t have a father, no work, so what?”’

Stabbed and beaten

On Friday (25 May), at approximately 9.40pm, Miteo Kalonji Junior, a 29-year-old gay man from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who is also seeking asylum in South Africa, was returning home from a party and was approached by ‘four guys walking a dog’.

Trembling he told me: ‘They shouted “you are gay, give us money!” They only found 100 Rand ($12 €9.50) on me and said: “You’re gay and we’re going to kill you! You are a foreigner”.’

They stabbed him severely with a knife, hit his legs and threw him from the train platform to the rails. He was hospitalized and after receiving treatment he’s still unable to walk.

‘Homophobia and xenophobia is a big problem in South Africa,’ he said. ‘I was already attacked on 3 January by the same gang, and was so badly hurt I had to undergo surgery and as a result I lost my job because I was hospitalized, having been made homeless.’

I ask him if he received any help.

‘Well, I went to a shelter in Cape Town and they gave me accommodation for a month and then asked me for money, but as I didn’t have any they threw me out to the streets,’ he told me.

‘White South African LGBT organizations don’t really care about us black people.

‘I am only receiving help now from friends, a bit of food, and I stay with a friend of mine, I am sick, traumatized, have no money even for my medicine, I don’t know what to do.’

Junior, who is also a gay activist, has been in South Africa for three years after his family chased him and threatened to kill him if he didn’t leave Congo because of his sexuality.

Upon his arrival he went to register as an asylum seeker at Department of Home Affairs, and was asked to pay a bribe of 2,600 Rand ($307 €247), even though registration is supposed to be free.

A growing crisis

Homophobia is on the rise in Africa, with more states passing anti LGBT legislation and both state and social persecution on the increase, according to a recent report by Amnesty International.

‘There are countless people who leave their homes around the African continent where their lives are at risk simply because they are gay. The easiest place to flee is to South Africa,’ David Von Burgsdorff, program coordinator for People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty (PASSOP), he told me.

He fully expects numbers fleeing to South Africa to increase steadily as the waves of homophobia continue.

‘But, when xenophobia is compounded with homophobia, it leaves many LGBT people in conditions not unlike those in the countries they fled from in the first place,’ he said.

Burgsdorff also told us that until now there has been little help offered to gay refugees in South Africa.

He said: ‘The problem we found is that these people come here and are not helped by anyone.

‘On the one hand you have organizations that support refugees, but they don’t know how to deal with cases of homophobia. And on the other hand, we have the LGBTI support groups, but many don’t understand the rights of refugees or know how to assist victims of xenophobia.’

Burgsdorff clarified it is not a case of the LGBT groups being xenophobic, but rather a lack of capability: ‘They don’t know about refugee rights, so they don’t know how to help them.’

Activist Junior Mayema, himself an asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and a volunteer with PASSOP complains that the ‘LGBT community live in their own corner, they don’t care about the abuse that black South Africans face, far less we refugees.’

Like Miteo Junior, he recounts: ‘There is a gay shelter in Cape Town where they only allow white LGBT people to stay longer, I stayed there only one month and was kicked out.

‘The priority of South African LGBT organizations and community is to help South African LGBTI individuals, but LGBTI refugees like myself have less access to support groups and assistance.’

Humiliation, barriers and corruption

The other major obstacle gay and trans refugees face, according to Burgsdorff, is humiliating treatment and discrimination by officials at the Department of Home Affairs (DHA).

‘We have reports of officers who have laughed at transsexuals and transvestites,’ he said, adding that this points to a lack of training by the department.

Burgsdorff would also like the department to keep track of the number of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender refugees in South Africa, and be open about how many cases are accepted and denied.

Department of Home Affairs spokesman, Ronnie Mamoepa, said it is unconstitutional to deny an asylum seeker their rights due to their sexual orientation and that the department investigates any reported cases of discrimination and homophobia by its officials.

Mayema, however, doesn’t place much confidence in these assurances and wants stronger action against xenophobia and homophobia in South Africa, pointing to other barriers put up by the DHA.

He told me: ‘Firstly, asylum seekers are only allowed to work at low income menial jobs, and these are anyway hard to come by. That’s why Rachel is not allowed to work as a soccer player.

‘This pushes many LGBT people into sex work, thus putting them at risk of contracting HIV, or even worse, out of desperation they turn to crime. When they are caught they face jail sentences. Once in prison there are many cases of rape and homophobic violence is not uncommon.

‘Secondly, the whole DHA asylum-refugee system doesn’t work adequately here.’

DHA states that upon arrival an asylum seeker must immediately ask for an interview with a refugee reception center officer. If they pass that hurdle they are issued with an asylum seeker’s permit – often referred to as a ‘section 22 permit’ which allows them to stay in South Africa.

This doesn’t recognize the person as a legitimate asylum seeker, it merely gives them the right to stay for three months, and must be renewed after that.

This continues until the person is invited for a ‘status determination hearing’. If they are then found to be genuine, they are officially recognized as a refugee and can apply for official identification papers and a travel document. Five years after being recognized as refugee the person can be naturalized as a South African citizen.

In reality neither Rachel, Junior (both living in South Africa for over three years) and Mayema (for over two years) have even got to the stage of a ‘status determination hearing’.

Mayema said: ‘You must renew this permit 22 every time and the DHA can decide at any point that you are not a refugee and immediately deport you back home, there is no refugee status for most of the asylum seekers here.’

Meanwhile applicants face corruption along the way, often, like Junior, being forced to pay large sums of money for receiving or renewing their section 22 permit. A report by UN humanitarian news agency IRIN earlier this year backed these claims of corruption and red tape ensnaring asylum seekers.

New hope

LGBTI rights group, the Triangle Project, identified these problems and set up its first support group for LGBT refugees late last year, according to director Jayne Arnott.

She says the support group focused on accessing employment opportunities and housing, and on finding safe places where gay refugees do not need to hide their sexual orientation.

To this end PASSOP, with the help and expertise of Junior Mayema, are setting up a Gay Refugee Program which will provide support to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex refugees, advocate for their rights and strengthen the network of gay and trans asylum seekers living in South Africa.

‘Through this program, PASSOP wishes to join in the efforts of many other organizations dedicated to LGBTI rights in South Africa,’ Burgsdorff said.

The refugees are hopeful this will make a difference but with so many gay asylum seekers coming to South Africa there is still the possibility that this new initiative will soon be swamped.