Ashraf Mahmood has just turned 30.
He celebrated his birthday stateless and unemployed in Melbourne, waiting for the Refugee Review Tribunal to hear his appeal against the Immigration Department’s decision that he is not a genuine refugee.
Ashraf has a master’s degree in chemistry and several other technical qualifications. He has the kind of skills that this country ought to value in a migrant.
But Ashraf came here because his situation as a gay man in Pakistan was unbearable. And he has the scars to prove it.
In April 1994 my friend Jamil and I had just finished our exams, and we went to his house in the afternoon and made love in his room, Ashraf recalls.
We were not careful enough and someone looked in and saw us. When Jamil’s parents found out they threatened to kill me.
Ashraf’s parents agreed that he would have to face the local jirga (customary court). He was sentenced to 40 strokes of a cane and to be burned on the arm with a red-hot pipe. This punishment left him in hospital for a month.
If I had refused to agree to this punishment, Jamil’s family would have reported me to the authorities, Ashraf says. That would have resulted in a much worse punishment, maybe death. Nobody goes to the police in Pakistan if they can help it.
The jirga also ordered Ashraf to get married, and in 1997 he married Shazia, a local girl. Ashraf genuinely tried to make the marriage work. In September 1999 the couple had a son, and they decided to come to Australia -“ Shazia on a student visa and Ashraf and their infant son as dependants. They arrived in Melbourne in March 2000.
For a while in Australia I tried to repress my homosexuality, Ashraf says. But towards the end of 2001, I met a Pakistani man in Melbourne, and we have continued our relationship since then.
Because Ashraf loved his wife, he confessed to her that he was seeing a man. The consequences were disastrous. Shazia’s parents arrived and whisked her and their son back to Pakistan, where Ashraf now has no hope of contacting them.
Because he was legally in Australia as his wife’s dependant, he was left in a legal limbo.
I am very fearful that if I am forced to return to Pakistan, I will be severely punished. My in-laws will use my homosexuality against me out of revenge. I am sure that I cannot keep my homosexuality a secret, nor do I think it is fair to ask me to do so.
Ashraf is one of many gay men from countries such as Pakistan who are seeking asylum in Australia because of very real fears they will be persecuted if they return to their countries.
The government seems to think these fears are groundless.
Ashraf Mahmood has the scars to prove they are not.