Africa’s queer asylum seekers in search of land of milk and honey
To the rapturous applause of hundreds of thousands of spectators lining the streets of Stockholm, they repeated their heady chant: “Who are we? Newcomers…Who are we? Newcomers!”
Made up of queer asylum-seekers and refugees from various parts of the world, the group, marching as part of this year’s Stockholm Pride parade, represented the organisation RFSL Newcomers.
Established by RFSL, Sweden’s largest queer rights organisation, Newcomers is a network for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) asylum seekers.
Seven years after having sought asylum in Sweden and making his home in Stockholm, Silva EisebSöderstrand is no longer a newcomer to the Scandinavian capital. Söderstrand, a transgender man, left his country of birth, Namibia, in 2010 because: “Back home in Namibia, you don’t have rights, especially as a trans man.”
[Silva Eiseb Söderstrand, whose country of birth is Namibia, with his wife and twin sons with whom he lives with in Stockholm, Sweden. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)]
Listing stigma and a lack of access to adequate healthcare (“even if you have the flu”) as some of the reasons he sought asylum in Sweden, Söderstrand says: “It was very difficult being out in that society.
There was quite a lot of stigma. But when I came here, it was very different. I had rights. I had access to health. I could transition at no cost. So for me, it was a definite that I was going to stay here and that I belonged here.”
Magnus Kolsjö is vice-president of RFSL. “Asylum seekers we assist here come to Sweden after facing various forms of persecution in their home countries [for] things such as laws that make same-sex relations illegal, mob violence and violence from families with little or no protection from police or government.”
Kolsjö says that although Sweden is seen as “a country that is progressive, fairly liberal and accepting of LGBTQ rights,” he add: “But this is not heaven for LGBT people. We still have a lot of work to do here.”
In much the same way, the perception exists that Sweden is a European heaven for LGBTQ people, South Africa too has become known as Africa’s oasis for queer African asylum seekers.
Deyoncé Naris, the interim national co-ordinator of Transgender, Intersex and Androgynous Movement of Namibia, says: “South Africa is generally seen as the land of milk and honey for all queer persons. Everybody would have loved to seek asylum in South Africa if it was possible.”
Naris adds that although South Africa has “beautiful laws”, they are not effective enacted. “That is what makes Africans in general sceptical of migrating to South Africa. It would have been ideal if you guys had some asylum policies for queer people.
“But it seems as though South Africa is not even enacting the laws aimed at protecting its own queer people. And if you are not able to protect your own queer people and match your policies with action, then how would it be able to protect other queer people coming from the outside?”
Tiwonge Chimbalanga made world headlines when, in 2009, she was sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment by the Malawian government for marrying her then-partner Steven Monjeza. Chimbalanga, a transgender woman, arrived in South Africa in 2010, having served only 10 months, largely as a result of an intervention by the then United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon.
“I am very happy to be in South Africa, but it is very hard. People call me names and I have been attacked many, many times. But I can’t go to the police. There is no point,” she says.
[Home and away: Tiwonge Chimbalanga at home in Cape Town and when she was arrested in Malawi. (Reuters)]
The victim of numerous physical and verbal attacks, most of which the Malawian reported at Cape Town’s Manenberg police station — less than 10 minutes walk away from her shack in the neighbouring township of Thambo Village — Chimbalanga, says: “What use are the police? How many gays report things to the police? A lot, a lot, a lot. And what happens? Nothing. No, my friend, the police don’t help us.”
Sylva Batshi, the LGBTI projects co-ordinator at People Against Suffering Oppression and Poverty, says: “This is definitely one of the challenges LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers in this country face: being victims of homophobic attacks and then not feeling able to report it to the police.
“According to reports from the LGBTI community we receive, when they have been to the police, they are not assisted as they should be. On a daily basis, people would report these attacks to us: that they went to the police and that nothing was done about it. In fact, most times they are discriminated against. We have reports of police officials asking things like, ‘Why are you a moffie?’ or ‘Why did you leave your country?’ ”
Mandi Mudarikwa, an attorney with Legal Resources Centre, adds that in addition to this discrimination, the adjudication process asylum seekers have to undergo is, “from a legal perspective, one of the biggest issues they face”.
“There are many who come to South Africa after having heard about same-sex marriage being legal here or our wonderful Constitution. But there are also those who are not aware that they can apply for asylum here based on sexual orientation.”
The interview process is also one which Mudarikwa raises concerns over. “Here in Cape Town, interviews are often conducted in spaces that afford asylum seekers no real privacy. This means that they end up admitting that they are gay in front of others, which can be difficult given that being gay is an identity that they have always had to keep secret.”
Says Batshi: “It is a really tough situation for many. It’s a big, big challenge. It’s as though there is nowhere for them to feel safe; to feel really, really safe.”
Now based in Stockholm, Miles Rutendo, a transgender rights activist, left his country of birth, Zimbabwe, in the hopes of finding somewhere to feel safe.
“I didn’t go to South Africa because there is a lot of xenophobia there,” says Rutendo, referring to the spate of attacks that swept through the country in 2008 and as recently as last year.
Rutendo concedes that for many queer African asylum seekers, life in Sweden has come with a fresh set of challenges.
“Coming to Sweden as a queer asylum seeker, there are multiple levels of discrimination that you face, which is a huge challenge. Because maybe in Africa, your main challenge was being trans. But here you are black, trans, unemployed and an asylum seeker. With all these intersectionalities coming into play, people can get really messed up. Also, there are issues with racism society in general here.”
The recent finding that right-wing parties are enjoying increased popularity across the country is something that will doubtless exacerbate the issue of racism.
A September 2016 article published in The Guardian noted that an opinion poll “found the [nationalist] Sweden Democrats would receive 17.6% of the public vote, marking a 4.6 point rise in support since the 2014 elections”.
Kolsjö sees this as “very concerning”.
“Up until 2015, we had a very liberal immigration policy,” he says. “The number of people in Sweden who think we should have a more restrictive immigration policy has increased. We have already seen it: from having a very liberal legislation we are now at the European Union’s minimum standards, which has opened the door to xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia. We are seeing an increase in it being more acceptable to be LGBTQ-phobic.”
Samuel Girma is the cofounder of Black Queers Sweden, a platform for black people of African descent to speak out against the racism in the queer community and in the broader population.
“There is a notion of Sweden as progressive, liberal and tolerant, but there is still a lot of racism. It comes as quite a shock when faced with it. Europe is generally seen as a place where it is not only easier to live your life freely but also as a place where it is easier to find employment, which would make it easier to be able to send money to family back home.”
Girma, who originally hails from Ethiopia, adds: “The thing is, on the African continent we hear much more positive things about Europe and the West in general than we do of our own continent. That’s a narrative that needs to be changed. Swedes tend to forget that all these rights they now have were won through long fights. But it is easier for Western countries to be disparaging of Africa and pretend that LGBTQ rights are intrinsic to them. It suits the narrative because the Western image of Africa is one of it being ‘backward’.”
For Chimbalanga, the years of being at the receiving end of various forms of violence — in her home country and the one she has sought refuge in — have become a burden she can no longer bare.
“South Africa is a great country. It has great human rights. My life is better here. But I have been attacked so many times here I think it will better for me in another country. Maybe Canada. I’m tired of living here like this.”
Aware of the realities that face many like Chimbalanga, Söderstrand says: “There is a lot of xenophobia in South Africa. They have written rights, but in practice it’s reversed. It’s not something you want to go through.”
Although South Africa was not the country of choice for Söderstrand, a recent visit to the country resulted in something he and his Swedish wife, Jenny, had long wished for: a family.
“We had tried numerous times to get pregnant through IVF [in vitro fertilisation] here in Sweden, but were unsuccessful. While we were on holiday in Cape Town, we thought, ‘Well they have fertility clinics here, so let’s try it’. And boom,” he laughs, “It worked.”
The couple are now the proud parents of twin boys. “After we had the babies, my family has become more accepting. My mom is crazy about them. That’s a huge step for her.”
As to whether he believes he would have had the same quality of life he and his family now enjoy had he continued living in his country of birth, Söderstrand answers without hesitation: “Not even thinking about it twice, no.”
Smiling apologetically when he was interrupted mid-sentence by one of his twin sons – a newcomer to him, the former “newcomer” – Söderstrand adds: “In Namibia I was just about waiting for my time to die … I don’t think I would have been alive today.”
Bright rhetoric but a dark reality
I came to Germany in 2013. I was born in Cameroon and after I finished my first Master’s degree, I was working at a newspaper there.
It was while working there that I arranged a date on an online dating site. But the person was an undercover cop and I was arrested and spent two weeks in prison. The commissar asked me to pay him two-million Central African Francs. I paid him. To be free, I paid him. It was then that I came to Germany.
But by now, I’m tired. I told a colleague yesterday that to be gay, black and an asylum seeker in Berlin is to live in a prison.
My studies are now focused on the experiences of black African homosexuals who are asylum seekers in the European Union. Their experiences are so different from black, queer people who come here from the United States, who are more respected. If you come from Africa, they think you are sick, come from a poor country and just want a European passport.
In my experience, queer people who come here from Africa need so much, which they are not getting from many organisations here. They need lawyers, social workers and counselling, because they have gone through trauma. We have organisations, but they don’t understand very well the backgrounds that African queer people come from.
German organisations speak the politically correct language — “this year we supported gay pride in Uganda” or whatever — but the reality is very different.
Also, heterosexual people from the diaspora are still very homophobic. They live in Europe, but have African ways. So queer asylum seekers from Africa are often alone.
African asylum seekers also don’t have job opportunities because they don’t have the proper documentation, so they have to live on the streets and resort to prostitution. Many have nothing. Nothing.
Black Pride Germany is a project I started in 2016 to improve their lives. I have been getting some support, but mostly a lot of criticism from the larger organisations. For me, I cannot say I am happy in Germany. I have a lot of privilege, yes, but if I take into account the majority of people like me, I feel so bad. — Anonymous account told to Carl Collison
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation‘s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian