Queer community must fight for refugees

February 21, 2014
Ali Choudhry and his partner. A successful campaign stopped the deportation of Choudhry from Australia earlier this year.

It’s impossible to ignore any longer just how cruel and irrational the government’s war on refugees has become after violent attacks in the Manus Island detention centre left one dead and scores injured.

The threat of expulsion to Manus Island is particularly terrifying for some asylum seekers given the criminalisation of homosexuality in Papua New Guinea. Amnesty International said last year that staff would be forced to report suspected same-sex activity in the detention centre.

PNG can prosecute same-sex people with a penalty of 14 years jail.

However, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community has the power to stop people being deported to such dangerous destinations. When the community has fought for refugees to be granted asylum, it has generally succeeded.

It’s time to put the full force of the LGBTI rights movement to work protecting queer refugees, among the most vulnerable members of the community.

It is particularly difficult for people to claim refugee status on the basis of sexual orientation, because this is not mentioned in the United Nations refugee convention (1967), to which Australia is a signatory.

A 2002 Melbourne University Law Review study by Jenni Millbank, “Imagining Otherness: Refugee Claims on the Basis of Sexuality in Canada and Australia”, found that out of 204 people who sought asylum in Australia between 1994 and 2000 on the basis of their sexual orientation, only 26% of gay men and 7% of lesbians were granted refugee status.

The UN refugee convention defines a refugee as “a person who is outside their own country and is unable or unwilling to return due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

Sexual orientation must be argued as “membership of a particular social group”. In one case, an Iranian man was denied refugee status because he did not know about Oscar Wilde or Bette Midler. In other cases, the tribunal has ruled that a person could be safe in their country of origin if they were discrete about their sexuality.

But the power of the Australian LGBTI community was highlighted in January by the case of Ali Choudhry. Pakistan-born Choudry had been living in Brisbane for four years with his partner, Dr Matthew Hynd, with whom he had been in a “civil union” since March 12, 2012.

Despite this, his application for a partnership visa was refused by immigration minister Scott Morrison, and he faced deportation to Pakistan where he was born but never lived, did not speak the language, and faced jail for being gay.

This just highlights the fact that deportation and marriage equality are intimately connected issues. Because they can’t marry, people in same-sex relationships in Australia are not protected from deportations.

A community campaign and 140,000 petition signatures managed to stop the deportation.

Some places in the world are shockingly dangerous for LGBTI people. The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) lists 78 countries in which same-sex sexuality is criminal.

This does not include countries like Russia and Indonesia, which treat it as criminal although there is no specific law in effect. The penalties in these countries range from a fine to life imprisonment or the death penalty.

In 2008, 54 member states of the United Nations, mainly from North Africa, the Middle East, and south-east Asia, signed a statement actively opposing the rights of LGBTI people.

Aside from persecution by the state, in many places LGBTI people can be lynched, murdered, kidnapped, raped, tortured, excommunicated from their religious community, outed in the newspapers, disowned or disinherited by their families, or denied employment and housing.

One country where almost all of these things have happened is Uganda. In 2009, a group of evangelical Christians from the US held a conference which promoted the idea that gay people caused AIDS, recruited children and were sexual perverts.

The next year, a homophobic frenzy took over the popular imagination. Gay porn was shown in churches to prove that homosexuals were perverts. Popular Ugandan newspaper Rolling Stone began publishing lists of homosexuals. Prominent gay activist David Kato was bludgeoned to death, and a bill was put to parliament to allow for the charge of “aggravated homosexuality”.

There is an ever-present possibility that members of our community can be deported to these places. It happened in Britain as recently as December 12 last year. In this case a 20-year-old Ugandan lesbian woman named Prossie, who had been systematically raped and persecuted, and who as a 15-year-old orphan had been expelled from school for being a lesbian, was denied refugee status and sent back to Uganda.

The many campaigns for LGBTI rights and recognition have been some of the most inspiring and world-changing civil rights movements of the last century — but the struggle is not finished. Liberation will never be won as long as Australia and the West have such cruel and inhumane policies against refugees.

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