LGBTQ refugees face hostility at Home Affairs

Staff Writer | Jun 17, 2019
Sexual orientation has emerged as a key stumbling block for gay asylum-seekers counting on South Africa to provide refuge from persecution.

LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and queer) migrants, refugees and asylum seekers find it particularly difficult to attain legal documentation from Home Affairs and to acquire refugee status, according to a new study.

The report, The Voice: Life experiences of LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa, by human rights NGO Access Chapter 2, finds that LGBTQ people are often refused asylum status for the most absurd reasons.

The study revealed that 86% of the LGBTQ migrants, refugees and asylum seekers interviewed said they were asked to prove their sexual orientation by Refugee Centre officials. Access Chapter 2 notes that while it is notoriously difficult to prove one’s sexual orientation, this is often the basis on which applications are rejected.  The study also found that 56% of respondents experienced hate-crime incidents inside or outside Refugee Centres.

The plight of LGBTQ refugees has been highlighted by the rejection of Kenyan LGBTQ activist George Barasa’s application for asylum. 

Barasa has made a name for himself as a human rights activist, and campaigns particularly for LGBTQ equality in Africa. In 2016, Barasa and his band, Art Attack, released Kenya’s first gay music video, titled Same Love, earning more than 300 000 views. 

Barasa was also one of the first people in Kenya to come out on the country’s national television as gay and HIV positive. His activism and his public declaration of his sexual orientation made him a target of threats, and prompted a warrant for his arrest being issued. Same-sex sexuality in Kenya is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. 

This forced Barasa to leave Kenya and seek asylum in South Africa on the basis of his facing imminent danger because of his sexual orientation.

Despite being a prominent LGBTQ activist and openly gay man fleeing from persecution by the Kenyan government, Barasa’s application was rejected by Home Affairs on the grounds that he falsely claimed to be gay. 

One official even asked Barasa, ‘Do you have a partner, is he a man?’ and went on to say Barasa was unable to prove that he was gay. 

Studies suggest Barasa’s is only one of many such cases where LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers have been turned away, and experience abuse at Home Affairs.

South Africa is the only country in Africa to have extensive rights for LGBTQ people.  Unsurprisingly, 96% of the respondents in Access Chapter 2’s study chose South Africa as a destination of refuge on the strength of the legal and constitutional protections the country offers. 

However, South Africa has been notoriously silent on the persecution of LGBTQ people in other African countries. Activists say the least South Africa can do is to make it easier and risk-free for persecuted LGBTQ individuals to seek safety in the country. The focus for such efforts must fall on the Department of Home Affairs and changing the way officials deal with LGBTQ migrants and refugees. Notably, only 28% of Home Affairs offices are willing to marry same-sex couples.                       


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