Thousands of refugees from countries around the world are seeking asylum to escape homophobic persecution. But is Australia doing enough to help LGBTI refugees? Jesse Jones reports.
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Ronnie Mugisha was forced to flee his home country of Uganda because he feared for his life as a gay man.
“It was the toughest life I have ever lived,” the 25-year-old says.
“If they suspect someone is gay they will kill you, or you face lifetime imprisonment.”
Mugisha’s mother supported and protected him, but after her death and being abandoned by his father he “had to face hell”.
“It was terrifying as they had started stalking people’s social media platforms,” he says.
“It was too terrible. People were ready to kill me.
“I was mistreated, tortured, and harassed.”
Unable to stay with friends, who were afraid of also being persecuted for their association with him, Mugisha made his way to Kenya to seek asylum.
Another man took him on the 12-hour drive to Nairobi, but took advantage of him sexually along the way.
Once he arrived, Mugisha faced further homophobic persecution in Kenya during the four-year wait to have his asylum application processed.
“I lived in fear every day and night, because in Kenya they know every Ugandan refugee is gay,” he says.
Finding the refugee camp too dangerous, he had to live in the city, and moved repeatedly after attacks on the houses where he stayed.
“There are a lot of LGBTI refugees living in Nairobi facing hardships,” he says.
“Some have no hope, some think of committing suicide.”
As a refugee seeking asylum because of his sexuality, Mugisha was required to share intimate details about his personal life.
“I had to tell them my story from my childhood,” he says.
“It was difficult because sharing my story to a stranger is hard.”
Many other LGBTI Ugandans are still waiting in Kenya to have their applications for asylum assessed.
With limited financial support available from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and employment hard to find, some are surviving by doing sex work or other informal work.
Charles Asiimwe Itwara, a trans Ugandan, has also found the refugee camp in Nairobi unsafe.
Along with a small group of other gay and trans refugees, Itwara sells crafts to make ends meet in the city.
“[The] camp is a very unsafe place for LGBTI refugees,” says Itwara.
“I lived there in the past but had to move out after I was attacked.”
Anna Brown from the Human Rights Legal Centre says LGBTI people face particular hardships in refugee camps, from the bullying of gay men to the rape of trans women.
“The systemic failure in Australia’s processes and policies means that some of the most acutely vulnerable people seeking asylum are denied justice when it comes to the processing of their claims and discrimination by service providers,” she says.
“LGBTI asylum seekers can also find themselves caught between lack of acceptance from diaspora communities and lack of understanding from mainstream LGBTI communities.”
Brown says that the current system can be culturally inappropriate and unhelpful at best.
“The people that process and decide claims don’t have proper training, and interpreters can be unhelpful or even hostile due to homophobic or transphobic attitudes,” she says.
“Alarmingly, some people have felt compelled to produce footage of sexual encounters to prove their claim [of homosexuality]. Transgender applicants tend to experience fewer problems but reform is required across the board.
“And then there’s the shocking cruelty of sending men, who have sought safety because they are gay or bisexual, to be warehoused in camps on Manus Island, where homosexuality is criminalised, and where there is no hope of a safe or secure future.”
Lawyer and advocate Kon Karapanagiotidis from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre agrees that LGBTI refugees often encounter “entrenched homophobia” throughout the system.
“There’s a total lack of understanding of homosexuality, very outdated ideas of what it means to be gay,” he says.
“People go to interviews where they have to prove that they’re gay. You have decision-makers at all stages of the legal process asking people: do you call gay chat lines, do you go to beats, do you know certain [gay] slang? And if you don’t, you mustn’t be gay.”
Karapanagiotidis says that gay and bisexual asylum seekers are often expected to prove their sexuality by demonstrating that they are in a same-sex relationship—even though most are from countries where such relationships are illegal.
“There’s a huge, long way to go,” he says.
“While there’s slow progress being made—I don’t want to say that it’s not evolving at all—what is so troubling is these caricature ideas of sexuality, and incredible barriers for someone to identify [as LGBTI] and actually be believed.
“There’s still a really broad continuum of discrimination based on very outdated, demeaning tropes around the LGBTI community.”
Mugisha’s story has had a happy ending. He was finally granted asylum and a permanent visa, arriving in Brisbane last month.
He has already found Australia to be a wonderful place to be an out gay man.
“I think here it’s okay for a gay man to live his life proudly,” he says.
After working with gay refugee groups in Nairobi, Mugisha hopes to continue his social work studies and build a career helping others in Australia.
“I have got dreams,” he says.
“I would love to see everyone live his life, and see African countries accept gay people to live their lives.”