September 2023

The Nation Reviewed

Refuge for queer asylum seekers

By Dennis Altman
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
The community groups helping asylum seekers who have fled persecution based on sexuality or gender identity

The stories are heartbreaking. Just one: a Yemeni lesbian couple fled to Egypt, where they have been for two years, waiting to find visas to somewhere where they would not face persecution. Life in Cairo is hard, and they are now in hiding, after one of their brothers came to force them to return home, and face certain punishment.

Across the world, people who fall outside conventional norms of gender identity and sexuality face ongoing discrimination, persecution, and even death. It is impossible to know how many are forced to flee their countries of origin because they often hide their identity in order to evade discovery. The annual report of the most active agency assisting queer (LGBTQIA+) refugees, Canada’s Rainbow Railroad, states that it receives around 10,000 requests for help every year.

In Australia, small groups of queer asylum seekers, often caught in the byzantine cruelty of this country’s visa laws, exist in every state. One small non-government organisation, Many Coloured Sky, runs a drop-in centre in the Melbourne suburb of Collingwood as part of its Queer Refugee and Asylum Seeker Peers support program. There are more than 300 people on its books, from about 30 countries.

We climb up a steep flight of stairs in a nondescript building, and enter a room not much larger than a suburban living area. This is Many Coloured Sky’s “base camp”, a place where queer asylum seekers come for advice, counselling, training, community and safety. It is a lived-in room: there are empty coffee cups on the large table, notes of last night’s meeting on the whiteboard, several people are sprawled across beanbags, rapt in their mobiles. The small kitchen holds shelves of basic foods, for those needing emergency support. It’s a long way from the immaculately groomed atrium of St Kilda’s Pride Centre, the very expensive building gifted to Victoria’s queer community by the Andrews government and the City of Port Phillip.

The first person visitors will meet at the base camp is himself a refugee. Manu Kailom grew up on the border of Indonesia’s Irian Jaya and Papua New Guinea, and became the first person in his family to go to university. He identified as gay from the age of 14 and formed a serious relationship with another man in Port Moresby when he was studying and working there. Both men were arrested and held without specific charges for several months. Once released, it became clear that their lives were in danger were they to remain in PNG.

Because he held a diplomatic passport, having been an official UN observer at elections in New Caledonia, Manu was able to enter Australia, and to progress from being a displaced person to an asylum seeker to a refugee. He now has permanent residency. His partner was not able to follow, and subsequently died in Moresby. Manu has a son who lives with his sister, and he is trying to bring him to Australia.

The Australian minister for immigration, Andrew Giles, has a strong record of speaking out for asylum seekers. When he visited the drop-in centre, he talked with Manu about the problems for refugees who are given temporary housing on the outskirts of cities, often with little public transport. The rental crisis hits refugees particularly hard, as many cannot provide evidence of previous tenancies or employment.

Queer asylum seekers are not only caught in the same bureaucratic and financial tangles as other refugees, most often they cannot fall back on their diasporic communities for support. Someone who has fled their homelands because of persecution based on sexuality or gender identity is unlikely to find much sympathy from their compatriots in Australia. Often queer asylum seekers are fleeing their families, sometimes in fear of their lives. Many will tell you that they also feel unwelcome in the established queer communities within Australia.

In response, a number of peer-led groups, such as the one run by Many Coloured Sky, have developed across the country. The Forcibly Displaced People Network, established by two remarkable Ukrainian women now living in Canberra, is developing a national network that seeks to increase the number of queer asylum seekers able to find safety in Australia and include them within global refugee policies.

The Albanese government recognises the particular circumstances facing queer refugees, and Giles has stated that his department works closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to further prioritise people who identify as LGBTQIA+ within Australia’s humanitarian program. Through the government’s Community Refugee Integration and Settlement Pilot scheme, individual refugees identified by UNHCR are being helped to resettle by small queer community groups, but the numbers so far are very small.

What’s more, those who have come to Australia seeking permanent residency often find their claims are disputed by unsympathetic officials who have a very narrow understanding of what it means to be queer. The days when applicants were asked to prove their identity by listing the gay discos they attended may be gone, but applicants are often still told that they should return home and remain discreet.

Across the world, persecution of people because of their sexuality and gender identity is increasing. Prominent figures in the US Republican Party and Russia’s President Putin attack queer people, and evangelical Christians and Islamic clerics combine in stoking new waves of repression in countries as dissimilar as Hungary, Ghana and Iraq. Uganda has just passed a series of laws that impose very harsh penalties on anyone advocating or promoting homosexuality, and a considerable number of Ugandans now fear imprisonment, blackmail or vigilante attacks.

I am part of a group established by the Pride Foundation assisting a gay Afghan couple who came to Australia as sponsored migrants after two years stranded in Pakistan. The Taliban, which is in power in Afghanistan, regards killing homosexuals as legitimate. As legally recognised refugees, the Afghan couple are eligible for JobSeeker and Medicare, but their first two months were dominated by the search for adequate housing in the midst of a rental crisis. Not surprisingly, they are reluctant to talk much about what is happening to friends back home.

A future prime minister will one day stand before parliament to apologise for the cruelty with which we have treated several generations of asylum seekers. In the meantime, advocates are pressing Australia to follow Canada’s example of developing a specific program to increase the number of queer people offered safe refuge. For a prime minister who joined this year’s Pride March across Sydney Harbour Bridge, this should not be an unreasonable request.

Dennis Altman

Dennis Altman is vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books include Queer Wars and Death in the Sauna.

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