How should we respond to LGBT asylum seekers from Africa?

AfricaOn Apr 4, 2014 San Diego Gay and Lesbian News reported: Desperate calls from clergy in Los Angeles and social workers in San Francisco seeking some advice on prospective LGBT asylum seekers from Nigeria and Uganda have certainly increased since the passage of the hateful anti-gay legislation.

One Lutheran pastor had a congregant who interviewed a gay Ugandan couple and their gay brother for NPR about the increased persecution since the passage of the bill and more publication of names and addresses of LGBT leaders. Soon after the interview, the three men were forced to leave their community and seek a safe refuge in a hotel at $50 a night. Frequent calls and Facebook messages prompted the pastor to send funds over to Uganda on a weekly basis. This was his and his congregation’s first exposure to the fallout of the increase of anti-gay persecution in Africa. What to do? How could this support be sustained?

Every case is different and demands time, resources and people to help

St. Paul’s Foundation has helped three people seek asylum in the past three years. Each case is very different but it is clear from our experience that it does take a village, or a congregation, to receive and support just one of these people. My Lutheran pastor friend was not only running out of money but was not sure what he could do that was sustainable and could actually help these guys. Could they get on a plane and just come to Los Angeles to begin a new life? Not likely. Although most activists and human rights defenders in difficult and violent contexts like Uganda often have updated visas in their passports and could leave the country quickly if urgently required, the vast majority of ordinary LGBT citizens and even straight allies who provide support and services to the LGBT community do not have access to a quick and safe exit strategy. This needs to change urgently.

The reasons are complicated. Some are very practical in asking the primary question: “Can this person prove they have been persecuted or have suffered violence or discrimination at a level where they cannot remain in the country in safety?” If there is a compelling reason, they can be moved to another country (within Africa but not to the USA) where they enter the UN refugee program and have to begin the arduous process of seeking asylum from one of the 20+ countries who are willing to receive them. The St. Paul’s Foundation had one of our three asylees escape by bus from Uganda to navigate this frightening terrain from Nairobi in Kenya. In Kenya, his monthly allowance was so small he could not live on it and the Foundation had to support him for his year in Kenya, where he waited in line to get to the USA. Canada did not want him. There was great secrecy and a profound lack of information when his case might be heard, or even when he could arrive here. Even though we were the sponsoring agency, we all spent a year in the dark while the wheels in Nairobi turned ever so slowly. God knows why? However, once arrived in the USA, the Foundation had to continue to sponsor him and we were assisted by Catholic Social Services in San Diego with healthcare, training and orientation programs and social welfare assistance like food stamps. This was great and Catholic Social Services staff were very sympathetic to this gay man’s plight. He still needed free housing and support from the Foundation for the first six months he was here. But the system still took over a year to get him out of harm’s way.

The refugee camps in Nairobi are not safe for LGBT people and we have heard stories of up to 100 young LGBT asylee seekers with low social and employment skills, having to wait years for their case to be reviewed in Nairobi alone. Unable to work, many fall in with the wrong crowd or practice survival prostitution. There is clearly a need for some case management and teaching work and social skills even before these people might arrive here, but there is no political capital to make this happen. For some LGBT people fleeing persecution in a country like Zimbabwe or Uganda who might be relocated to South Africa, thinking it may be a safer and more tolerant society, many have had their expectations crushed. The rising levels of xenophobia and homophobia in South Africa often means these asylee-seekers are caught in a kind of no-man’s land. They have little contact with the local gay community in South Africa and remain extremely isolated and desperate. Their options are exhausted. They cannot return home safely and cannot settle in South Africa, while it is nearly impossible for them to get to Europe or North America because the asylum process is so broken.  Continued


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