Queer refugee speaks

Andrew John Brent is an activist with Community Action Against Homophobia (CAAH). He recently visited Villawood dentention centre to speak with Leela, a queer Tamil refugee from Sri Lanka. This is his story. More information on the campaign to free queer refugees can be found at the CAAH website.


We spoke about why Leela had left Sri Lanka. The answer was clear: “Because I am gay.” This 21-year-old man had felt so unsafe, and had suffered such hostility, that he had paid US$10,000 for passage on a small boat with 43 other people to sail across the Indian Ocean from Sri Lanka, to the west coast of Australia.

Leela left Sri Lanka on September 11 and was taken to Christmas Island after being intercepted by naval border security on October 2.

In Sri Lanka, Leela had been arrested and beaten by police in a series of incidents that seem to have been set-ups or harassment concerning registration papers for vehicles.

All Leela’s experiences with the police culminated in him being detained, stripped and beaten. At one stage the police allegedly threatened to put a video of him, naked and beaten, on the internet as a way to “shame” him.

Leela has experienced the same fear, shame and abuse suffered by many young gay, lesbian, bisexual, transpeople people around the world, and feels that he was treated as an “untouchable”; a term that Leela uses to explain the restriction of people from most of the culture, including the already limited job market.

The Sri Lankan penal code is homophobic — it has outlawed sodomy and homosexuality for men and women since 1995, when the law was amended to be “gender neutral”. Also, the traditional response to homosexuality by some religious groups in Sri Lanka is death.

War broke out in 2009 in Sri Lanka against the Tamil people. They were massacred and brutalised. In a three-month period, 52,000 Tamils were killed and 300,000 people placed in concentration camps. As a member of the oppressed Tamil population, the oppression Leela suffered was compounded.

On arrival at Christmas Island Leela told authorities his sexual orientation, explaining the shame he felt, and that he was suicidal. Homophobia exists in all cultures, and Christmas Island was no exception.

In Leela’s attempt to explain his specific needs as a refugee, he had to disclose very intimate details about his sexual history and identity. When I spoke of this with Leela, he described his sexual identity as, “I have both woman and man in me,” a statement that is not uncommon from intersex, sex and/or gender diverse people from around the world.
Leela is still waiting in Villawood Detention Centre. He arrived on April 10 and has been approved by the Australian government as a refugee who is legitimately seeking asylum based on his specific cultural identity; an identity that would put him at risk if he were returned to his home country.

Tragically, although Sri Lanka is listed as a country that is not safe to travel to by the Australian government’s own SmartTraveller list, all of the other people on the boat with Leela have been sent back to Christmas Island and denied refugee status. Leela’s caseworker is completing security checks from Sri Lanka, standard practice for all immigrants that apply for residency.

I am now working to try to find Leela housing for when he is released, and I am pleased that queer youth housing service twenty10 has decided to embrace him as a client.

Some refugees are being given status, while others are languishing in Australian detention centres while the government plays with their futures. Community campaigning is key to getting more refugees, like Leela, free.

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