Originally published by New York Times
Last month, Botswana’s High Court unanimously struck down key sections of the country’s penal code that punished homosexuality with up to seven years in prison. “Human dignity is harmed when minority groups are marginalized,” Judge Michael Leburu, one of the three ruling judges in the panel, concluded. Human rights activists are celebrating the move as a victory.
While a step forward, Botswana’s decriminalization of same-sex relations also underscores the life-threatening, deeply entrenched inequalities L.G.B.T.Q. people confront across the continent. Homosexuality is illegal in 34 of Africa’s 54 countries — four countries employ the death penalty — so lesbians, gay men and transgender people flee their homelands in search of safety. Once they claim asylum in another African country or apply for resettlement outside the continent, they are funneled into a system that exposes them to the same persecutory treatment they sought to escape.
Take the case of a gay Nigerian man, “Amobi.” Amobi was born and raised in a small village in Anambra, a state in southeastern Nigeria. In 2013, Amobi was in his mid-20s. He awoke one night to a knock at his door. His family had summoned the local pastor and over 100 villagers to walk him to a nearby river where they subjected him to a violent exorcism meant to convert him to heterosexuality. When it became clear he had not been “cured,” his family expelled him.
Amobi fled to South Africa, one of the few countries on the continent to offer constitutional protection on the basis of sex, gender and sexual orientation. But he soon found that even asylum centers were not safe. In Johannesburg, while he was waiting in line to renew a temporary permit, another asylum seeker approached. “I’ve been watching you,” he said. “I can see you are gay; I will kill you.”An L.G.B.T.Q. refugee held a placard outside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees compound in Nairobi in May.CreditSimon Maina/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Violence against L.G.B.T.Q. asylum seekers and refugees is common. In a refugee camp in Kenya, L.G.B.T.Q. refugees have reported attacks by fellow refugees and local groups. After a particularly violent incident last year left several refugees hospitalized — and one in a coma — many L.G.B.T.Q. residentswere relocated to a safe house in Nairobi. There have been documented cases of invasive and biased questioning by interviewers, and deliberate mistranslations by interpreters appalled by the asylum seeker’s gender or sexual identity.
Such mistranslations can put L.G.B.T.Q. asylum seekers’ claims at greater risk of rejection, according to John Marnell, a migration scholar at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. “I remember a Congolese gay man whose translator told him, ‘you’re disgusting and a shame to your country — I won’t say this.’” Later, Mr. Marnell told us, the Congolese man learned his translator had said he was applying because he’d been a child soldier. “This happens all the time,” Mr. Marnell said.
All of these factors make receiving refugee status — a prerequisite for resettlement in another country — difficult and dangerous.
Our current asylum system wasn’t designed with L.G.B.T.Q. people in mind. Those seeking asylum on the basis of gender or sexual identity are not recognized as an independent category needing broader protections. In order to protect L.G.B.T.Q. people, the asylum system requires a complete overhaul.
Rather than forcing L.G.B.T.Q. asylum seekers to go through the traditional resettlement process, we propose that safe countries like Belgium, Norway, Ireland and Canada expedite their resettlement — for example, by granting special visas — which would allow them to circumvent the resettlement process entirely. While they are awaiting resettlement, L.G.B.T.Q. refugees should be housed separately from other refugees as a precautionary measure against violence.
This idea is not new: In 1990, the United States passed the Lautenberg Amendment to help individuals suffering religious persecution in the Soviet Union, where the Communist government was imprisoning and killing members of minority religious groups. The amendment was created with Soviet Jews in mind, but also extended to other marginalized religious groups. Rather than having to prove individual persecution, applicants needed to prove their membership of a persecuted group — facilitating their rapid resettlement.
“When people are denied one of the most fundamental aspects of their lives, then international communities who recognize that fundamental right have a duty to look for solutions,” said Melanie Nathan, the executive director of African Human Rights Coalition. “That’s what happened with the Soviet Jewish émigrés.” With L.G.B.T.Q. refugees, she said, “they should do the same.”
Canada has created another potential solution, offering citizens the chance to sponsor refugees privately. Groups of Canadians provide financial and logistical support for a year to a refugee who has been approved for resettlement. Since 2015, more than half of the 62,000 Syrian refugees in Canada have been privately sponsored.
While the Canadian sponsorship program has become increasingly restrictive, it could easily be expanded to other countries where governments could introduce private sponsorship programs for L.G.B.T.Q. refugees who have already been approved for resettlement.
Until such programs take shape, tens of thousands of L.G.B.T.Q. people across Africa will face the daily threat of sexual assault, mob violence and even death. It is our duty to make sure that their stories do not go unheard.