Opinion

'Being queer and a refugee doubles the suffering'

Junior Mayema

Refugees are often treated badly in South Africa, writes Junior Mayema — even if it’s not always as horrific as being dragged behind a police van.

As refugees, we face discrimination and violence from the system, says Junior Mayema. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

My name is Junior Mayema. I am 25 years old and come from Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Three years ago, while I was in my second year at law school, I was forced to flee my country. Members of my family and my community said I was shaming them because I was gay, and ordered me to be killed.

I made my way to South Africa because I had read on the internet that gay rights here were protected by the Constitution and that this country allows people to seek asylum if they are persecuted because they are gay, lesbian or transgender.

When I got to the border I told the immigration officer that I was seeking asylum on this basis. I am now awaiting refugee status.

Three years later, I am still waiting to find out if South Africa wants me. I am faced with all the frustrations and indignities and xenophobia that every African refugee has to deal with, but on top of that I have to deal with homophobia too: both within the asylum-seeking process and in the general society.

Last year I was attacked on the street in Salt River in an incident that was clearly motivated by homophobic hate. With my face bloodied and bruised, I went straight to a police station, but I was told to go away. They said they could not help me because I was not South African; this despite my temporary refugee papers. For a Burundian friend it was even worse: she was beaten up by the security guards at the home affairs department’s refugee reception office in Cape Town. This just added to her ­humiliation because she is a  transgender woman and was not acceptable in either the “male” or the “female” queue.

Despite these difficulties, though, both she and I marched as part of the Cape Town Pride parade on March 2, together with about 50 other lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) refugees from other parts of Africa. We are all members of the People Against Suffering Oppression and Poverty LGBTI network. We marched because we wanted to celebrate the freedoms and rights guaranteed by South Africa’s progressive Constitution. But we also wanted to raise awareness of the many issues that remain unaddressed in South African society and by the government.

Of course it’s great, in many ways, to be in South Africa – to have the possibility of a pride march and all that it represents.

I can’t imagine anything like this in Kinshasa. Back home, LGBTI people are not allowed to organise or defend themselves. Most people, including those in government, follow religious and traditional beliefs that condemn homosexuality as an aberration and ­unAfrican. The discrimination and abuse of gay and transgender people goes unpunished, and is even encouraged.

It is impossible to live a normal life, to love, to express myself on an ­everyday basis, to have a family, to be treated by doctors – things that most people take for granted.

South Africa sets the standard for human rights in the way it guarantees the rights of all people and refuses to condone homophobia. Yet there are still many problems that prevent LGBTI people from fully enjoying of our basic human rights, and which compromise our freedom and dignity daily.

The biggest danger we face is one South Africans face as well: violence, and particularly violence against women. Several people in our community of LGBTI refugees have experienced “corrective rape”, replicating the dangers and violence we faced in our home countries.

We condemn this epidemic that harms our brothers and sisters, South African or not, LGBTI and non-LGBTI. We are disheartened that there has not been more action by South Africa's police and the government to address this issue. We wish to see the lives of LGBTI people and women valued, and for the Constitution to be applied equally to all classes and races.

When members of our network have tried to report these violations, police have responded that they cannot help us because we are not South African. Such callousness worsens our alienation and vulnerability.

As refugees, we face discrimination and violence from the system, too. LGBTI people face regular discrimination at the home affairs department, where they are forced to wait in gender-segregated lines and with their fellow country people, many of whom are homophobic and threaten them just as they did in their country of origin.

A Cameroonian member of our network told the refugee status determination officer that he fled his country because he was gay. The officer immediately stopped the interview and rejected his case as unfounded.

Sometimes officials ask embarrassing and unnecessary questions when they find out a refugee is gay, lesbian or transgender. Officials at home affairs also preach to us – as if we were devils and they were saints.

We want officials at home affairs to undergo sensitivity training to ensure such demeaning situations do not occur. Regardless of their personal beliefs, people who are South African citizens and employees of the government should abide by the law.

Like all refugees, we face discrimination in the workplace and have ­difficulty finding jobs. Legally speaking, asylum-seeker permits allow the holder to work, but employers do not know that and are hesitant to employ us because we have to renew our papers every three to six months.

For LGBTI refugees, it’s particularly difficult because those of us who have jobs can’t come out at our workplaces for fear of discrimination. A transgender person from Uganda was fired when his boss found out he was gay: his boss said that having “moffies” in his establishment drives away customers.

It is difficult enough for transgender people to find employment, which is why so many of us turn to sex work – even if we are very well educated. This is worse for transgender refugees. Being “queer” and a refugee doubles the suffering.

When we have reached out to authorities such as the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration and the Labour Court for protection against such discrimination, we often find them unwilling to help – or, worse, they also make fun of us for being gay or foreign.

As with work, so too with accommodation. I was chased out of the place I was staying when my neighbours found out I was gay. One has to keep one’s sexuality a secret and not have relationships or even invite friends or colleagues to visit one at home. Like many vulnerable populations, we are taken advantage of by landlords.

I hope that my participation in Cape Town Pride has helped to focus attention on these human rights violations, on the black lesbians who face corrective rape in townships on, the transgender people who cannot get identity documents, and of course on LGBTI asylum seekers.

We are not chancers, as so many South Africans seem to think. We did not wish to leave our homes – we were forced to flee because our lives were in danger. We came to South Africa because it seemed to be a sanctuary, a beacon of humanity.

Despite the extraordinary compassion and good-neighbourliness of so many of the South Africans we meet in our daily lives, and despite the beauty of the Constitution, we still struggle to live our lives in this country with dignity and humanity.

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