Keynote speech by Nicholas Chisha from LGBT Asylum at hearing about LGBTI+ refugees, 19 April 2021
It is an unfortunate fact that at this point in time in the world, the gender identities and sexual orientations that do not conform to the heteronormative concept are still being considered criminal in parts of the world. Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, or queer when you are from certain parts of the Sub-Saharan Africa, the middle east, the Caribbean, south America or parts Asia, means that one is also subjected to discrimination, harassment, and, more seriously, violence, imprisonment and death.
Aside from the threat of physical harm, perhaps a greater concern is the mental, psychological, and emotional distress that we have to endure. For those unable to escape, this persecution and criminalisation forces people to live underground, in devastating and catastrophic conditions.
Much needed sexual health information and services are consequentially denied among the LGBTI+ population of a nation whose laws criminalise and stigmatize such a group. Otherwise, where does one get the courage and confidence to confide in medical personal about health issues regarding their sexuality, when it is the state that sanctions and perpetrates homophobia. So human rights, like the right to life, and basic human values like fairness, equality, dignity, respect, and justice are stripped away from the LGBTI+ individual. Hence, for those who are able to escape, they find themselves seeking refuge in countries like Denmark, that recognise and uphold the fundamental human rights.
For LGBTI+ persons arriving at the shores of Danmark after having fled persecution, they will usually be alone as they most likely will have been rejected by their families and their societies at large.
Therefore, a group like LGBT Asylum is indeed an anchor. As they provide support and much needed counselling to applicants, who most often will have endured trauma. They also prepare and advise on how best to present one’s asylum application to the authorities. Not only do they help with the translation of documents that come from the authorities, but they also assist in sourcing documents and collecting the evidence that an applicant might require in order to prove their case. They also provide a much needed social network, and a safe space for members to interact, among other things. I pay tribute to the work being done by the group on our behalf.
It must be understood that when you live in a country that criminalises homosexuality, the rest of the population, to a great extent, is homophobic. That means that LGBTI+ issues are never discussed, the LGBTI+ community is invisible or underground. Therefore, many – for their own safety – will have spent a greater portion of their lives in the closet.
It is not rare that it has been with limited experience, if not impossible, to actually explore one’s feelings and attractions. The result is a limited understanding of their sexuality, and a limited vocabulary for expression of their sexuality. Ironically, however, when an asylum seeker sits before the authorities, they are expected to be highly articulate in presenting their case. They are expected to be nuanced and open, when asked to share the thoughts, memories, and experiences, that their very survival has previously been dependent on keeping secret from everyone around them.
Often, the main source of conflict is of a religious nature. Whether it be Christianity in Africa or Islam in the Middle East. The effect is the same. A demonization of LGBTI+ lives as being sinful and immoral. This in turn leads to an internalisation of shame and self-hate that leads to walls being built up around one’s sexuality and the traumatic experiences. It doesn’t help the situation when an applicant is required to sit before a total stranger to whom they are expected to open up and pour out the deepest and most intimate and traumatic experiences of their lives.
I am reliably informed, by the counsellors within our group (LGBT Asylum) that in some cultures and some languages, the definition of the term ‘homosexual’ is not the same as it Danish or in English. For instance, our members from Afghanistan have indicated that if two men have sex, it is only the one being penetrated who is considered to be gay. The other is not.
In some languages, sex outside of marriage is translated as rape or a sin. It has been noted by the LGBT Asylum counsellors that some interpreters have interpreted the word ‘homosexuality’ into a ‘sin’ They have no vocabulary that adequately describes same-sex practises. So, it is complicated for our members to express their stories, experiences, and feelings accurately in order for the Danish authorities to get a full understanding of an explanation. Such instances pose a threat of contextual misunderstanding and a loss in translation, all with a negative bearing on the applicant’s case.
As you can see, it is a dilemma for applicants coming from regions where their sexualities are in conflict with the prevailing religion, especially when they are assigned interpreters with whom they share the same nationality. And though it is an unavoidable situation, because of course it is not always easy to find interpreters who can interpret a particular language, this further amplifies the applicant’s sense of insecurity with opening up regarding the details of their application. As it is just natural to think to oneself and say that “All my countrymen from whom I have fled are homophobic. And in the unfortunate instance that I am denied asylum, this interpreter, this man sitting before me, from my home country will hear my story in its entirety and what is to prevent him from sharing it?”
In some instances, it has been observed that the interpreters are lacking in knowledge regarding LGBTI+ matters. As has been indicated with the translation of a word like ‘homosexual’ into ‘sin’ or sometimes into a downright derogatory translation like ‘faggot’. Sexual partners and boyfriends, with whom one has been intimate sexually, are referred to as ‘friends’ according to translated transcripts. This then raises the question: “Is it indeed possible that these inefficiencies are a result of homophobia?”
Ignorance on LGBTI+ matters and language when exhibited by interpreters, intentional or not, is unacceptable, as the success of an application hangs on how well the facts have been translated.
At the moment it is very difficult to get recognised as a refugee when the persecution you have experienced has come from non-state actors. In the non-western world, religion and traditional norms have great influence on societal structure and power relations. Your role in society is determined by the configuration of your genitals. You are either male or female. A man is to be with a woman, period. A woman is to be a man, period. With the church having particularly great influence, especially in regions like Africa. They unfortunately propagate the ideas that trans, gay, lesbian, and bisexual people are sick and possessed by demons and should not exist. Because these are the unwritten laws that will not be found in any text, even though they are enshrined in these societies and are part of the culture, convincing the authorities here in Denmark and proving that one’s safety is indeed compromised is an arduous task, and most applicants facing such persecutions will end up being rejected.
Stigma, discrimination, violence, and arrests are very real occurrences. With perpetrators of violence against LGBTI+ persons going scot-free. It should also be noted that traditional societies are by their very nature designed for members to be dependent on each in more ways than one. Therefore, being excluded from society, as most outed LGBTI+ persons end up being, makes life almost unbearable, if not an impossible existence.
The other challenge is that cases are looked at, or regarded through, a heteronormative bias or perspective. For many African lesbian women, it is common practice that their parents force them to marry a man, when it has been discovered that they are lesbian. This is a forced marriage. Also ‘correctional rape’, where men rape a lesbian woman to turn her heterosexual, is practised in some African countries. Unfortunately, both situations leave the probability that the woman ends up with a child, or with children. In this situation, doubt is cast over the applicant’s claim of same-sex attraction, and the veracity thereof, when they have evidence of motherhood, even if it came to be through forced and often traumatising circumstances.
It is assumed that when a person applies for asylum, then they are safe, at least for the duration that their case runs its course while they wait in asylum centres. This is not true. Not for the LGBTI+ asylum seeker anyway. It is indeed a perplexing phenomenon, but people are fearful of what is different from them.
The majority of residents in asylum centres come from cultures that persecute homosexuality. When these people arrive here in Denmark, they still carry the same negative attitudes and perceptions regarding the subject. And so, LGBTI+ residents in these asylum centres become targets for harassments and violence. With trans persons in particular bearing most of the brunt, as they are by nature the most visible individuals within the LGBTI+ community. It does not help that LGBTI+ persons constitute a small fraction of the residents in these centres. It therefore leaves them in a more vulnerable position. Not just in the sense of defending themselves, but also in the sense that the isolation and lack of safety they would have experienced while in their home countries, continues to follow them in places where they are supposed to be safe.
As I make my closing remarks, I would like to indicate that, during the course of my asylum process, I had accrued a number of acquaintances and friends. Among them LGBT Asylum. One of them however, a Danish gay man, was particularly a great source of support. On the day that I received asylum, I remember sitting with him and I was thanking him for the support rendered to me. His response has since stayed with me.
His words were, and I quote: “Do not thank me. It came naturally. I realize how fortunate and privileged I am, to have been born Danish. It very easily could have been me in your shoes, had I been born in another time, or a different place.”
That for me was empathy at its truest. You do not have to be a refugee, or a member of the LGBTI+ community, to be able to relate to the experience, or to be able to recognise that someone else’s experience, whatever it may be, has value too. Empathy is simply the ability to be able to walk in someone else’s shoes.
No one chooses to be gay, no one chooses to be trans. And no one chooses, out of their own accord, to flee their land and seek refuge elsewhere.
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