Bulelani Mfaco says he has never felt safe living in South Africa.
Mfaco, who spent his adolescence and early adult life in Khayelitsha in Cape Town, says he has lived in fear for his life because he is gay.
In 2017, after completing his studies in Ireland, Mfaco claimed asylum in that country on the basis that members of the LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer) community was being targeted and attacked, and the South African police were not protecting vulnerable groups.
What put Mfaco’s mind at ease was discovering dozens of other South Africans who had also applied to the Irish government for asylum-seeker status: “When I claimed asylum … I didn’t think I would see other South Africans, but when I walked in the reception centre in Dublin, the first thing I noticed was that I could hear all the different languages that are spoken in South Africa,” he said.
According to data released by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees this week, 863 South Africans applied for asylum in Ireland between 2017 and 2019. The system in that country is notoriously difficult, and has come under heavy criticism for leaving applicants waiting for years — often unable to work — without a decision.
Last year, 18 South Africans succeeded in their claim.
Mfaco said his mind was made up to leave South Africa when he briefly visited home in January 2017. When he heard about the abduction and murder of Noluvo Swelindawo, a lesbian in Driftsand, the previous month, he concluded that his home was not safe for him.
Swelindawo’s body was found shot dead under a bridge along the N2 highway near Khayelitsha. Gay and lesbian rights groups said at the time that she was targeted because she was openly gay. A local man, Sigcine Mdani, was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to 18 years in jail for what a Western Cape high court judge said was a crime fuelled by his intolerance for the women’s sexual orientation.
“I’ve had incidents myself where I was attacked because of my sexual orientation. I’ve been spat at [and] targeted by security guards in malls. I’ve even had stones hurled at me, for no reason other than that I was gay,” Mfaco said.
“When you have this type of systemic abuse on the Cape Flats, and other parts of South Africa where people are being attacked only for being a black LGBT person, you begin to feel under attack. Before I left for Ireland, I had lived in Khayelitsha for 14 years. Never have I ever felt safe,” he adds.
A 2016 report by LGBTIQ-rights group Out said of 2 000 respondents to a survey, 9% had been verbally insulted, 20% had been threatened with harm, 17% “chased or followed,” and nearly 10% physically attacked.
Mfaco, a master’s graduate in politics at University College Dublin, is helping South Africans and other asylum seekers access their rights while he himself awaits an appeal on his status in the country.
Ending ‘direct provision’
Mfaco is part of a refugee rights group, Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, lobbying to end the system of direct provision in the country. Asylum seekers in Ireland are housed together in hostels or dormitory-style structures while they await news on whether their applications have been successful. Ireland’s new coalition government — formed this week by Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party — has committed to end this system, a key demand of the Green Party.
Last year, 18 South Africans were granted refugee status and subsidiary protection in Ireland. One of them, a sex worker, who had escaped being trafficked by a relative, fled the country and boarded a plane to Ireland where she applied for asylum
“South African police were useless to protect her. And when she applied for asylum in Ireland she was initially rejected because [Ireland] described South Africa as a ‘safe country of origin’… If Ireland declares a country a safe country, the onus is on the applicant to prove they will not be safe,” Mfaco said.
Asylum applications by South Africans with their names and identifying details redacted — seen by the Mail & Guardian — show people who have applied for asylum because they are victims or are being threatened by organised crime syndicates, are escaping domestic abuse, and are being persecuted because of their sexual orientation.
In law, Irish authorities are not allowed to engage with the government of the applicant or reveal the identity of the asylum seeker.
In 2019, the Irish department of justice said it was worried by an increase in the number of applicants from so-called safe countries after hitting a 10-year-high in asylum-seeker applications.
Countries such as Albania, Georgia, and South Africa, which have contributed the bulk of the increase in applicants, are considered stable democracies, with applicants from these countries less likely to be granted refugee status.
Mfaco’s status in Ireland is still not certain. He’s already been denied permission to stay and his application for asylum is under appeal. But he is certain he will never be happy returning to the country of his birth.
“If the decision is to deny me asylum, I have lawyers to take the case up for judicial review … A lot of people here in Ireland and the rest of Europe have the assumption that everything is fine in South Africa, because a lot of them were part of the anti-apartheid movement,” he said.