Australia’s already cruel policies around asylum impact disproportionately on the world’s LGBTQI communities, writes Leticia Funston and Rachel Evans.
There are more people today who have been displaced by war, poverty and climate change than at any point in recorded history.
In fact the current numbers of refugees have exceeded those displaced by World War I and World War II combined.
Approximately 60 million people became refugees in 2015 alone. Many of those refugees – fleeing war trauma and poverty – are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and or Intersex (LGBTQI).
Immigration policies, including Australia’s Regional Resettlement Arrangement (2013) commonly referred to as the PNG Solution, directly create the conditions for increased harassment, humiliation, exclusion and violence against LGBTQI refugees.
Due to the focus on the mass forced migration of people from war-torn countries such as Syria, it is less frequently reported that large numbers of LGBTQI people have been forced to flee their countries due to state sanctioned homophobic and transphobic persecution.
There are approximately 2.7 billon people living in 76 countries which criminalise homosexuality. Countries including Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen still impose the death penalty for homosexuality.
Many countries use imprisonment, corporal punishment and ‘treatments’ which aim to eliminate same sex desire. For instance, under cover journalists in China have recently captured on film the use of ‘anti-gay treatments’ such as Electric Shock Therapy in several hospitals and health centres in major cities. Similarly, hundreds of lesbian, gender non-conforming and transgender women across Uganda, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa have and continue to be raped by male family members and forced into marriages.
The perpetrators of this form of homophobic violence, known as ‘corrective rape’, are enabled by explicitly homophobic legislation and by government silence and complicity in these hate crimes.
The prevailing ideology of Australia’s ‘deterrence’ and ‘boarder protection’ policies is inherently punitive and racist. Australia’s PNG Solution ensures that all refugees who attempt to travel to Australia by boat are incarcerated in detention centres in countries including PNG, Manus Island, Cambodia and Nauru.
These countries are known for human rights abuses, police violence and extreme poverty.
Mandatory detention prisons in these countries are dangerous for all refugees. Women and children have disclosed sexual assault perpetrated by detention centre security guards. The Human Rights Commission National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention states that in the year between 2013- 2014 there were 233 assaults involving children, 33 of these were sexual assaults perpetrated by social workers and guards working in detention on Nauru.
Since Australia’s offshore processing recommenced in 2012, a number of refugees – Reza Berati, Fazel Chegeni, Mohammad Nasim Najafi and Hamid Kehazaei – have been killed as a result of violent assaults and due to denied access to basic medical treatment while in detention.
Despite this, the current immigration minister Peter Dutton asserted last year that refugees who arrive by boat are ‘never to be settled in Australia’. Recently it was revealed that the current Australian government and former immigration minister Scott Morrison refused offers from the New Zealand government over the last two years to re-settle up to 300 refugees from Manus Island and Nauru.
Detention in these offshore immigration prisons is especially dangerous for LGBTQI people. LGBTIQI asylum seekers have been forced to declare their sexuality to immigration officials in their applications for refugee status.
The Australian government has claimed that this is to help ‘fast track’ LGBTQI asylum seekers claims. However, LGBTQI asylum Seekers have been asked by immigration officials to prove their sexuality and in doing so, have been asked to identify Western LGTBQI icons and to demonstrate an ongoing connection with LGTBQI groups and venues.
For LGTBQI refugees who have fled situations of homophobic and transphobic persecution, disclosing diverse sexual and/or gender identity is extremely difficult given the likelihood of being deported. This has meant that some refugees have experienced homophobic and transphobic violence, harassment and abuse within detention centres perpetrated by both detention centre staff and other refugees.
The institutional culture of suspicion towards LGBTQI refugee claims is endemic. Amnesty International and other refugee and LGBTQI advocacy groups have expressed condemnation for reports that prior to being deported, immigration officials have told LGBTQI asylum seekers whose claims have been rejected, to ‘closet’ their sexuality or their gender identity when they are returned to the countries they have fled from.
If LGBTQI asylum seekers are deemed to be ‘refugees’ they can be resettled in PNG but not in Australia. This policy has significant implications for LGBTQI people as the PNG government criminalises homosexuality under Section 210 of the Papua New Guinea Criminal Code (1974).
In PNG the penalty for male gay sex is 14 years imprisonment. For gay male asylum seekers these policies create the possibility of exiting immigration detention only to be incarcerated once again under these homophobic laws.
Although these laws are not stringently applied Ritl and Sandbach (2015) argue “the mere existence of such laws means that asylum seekers and resettled refugees may face intimidation, threats, fear and violence, with no real recourse to authorities due to the possibility of facing prison time”.
Amnesty International has reported that staff on Manus Island have threatened asylum seekers that they will disclose any consensual same-sex sexual activity to PNG police, claiming that they are mandated to do so.
The Salvation Army has also been criticised for distributing printed material with pictures of gay and lesbian couples kissing with large red crosses superimposed over the images.
The Salvation Army claim that this material is used to inform asylum seekers that homosexuality is illegal and not culturally tolerated in PNG.
Due to these threats and systematic shaming, LGBTQI asylum seekers have changed their claims for asylum.
Resettlement in other offshore countries is no better – in Cambodia LGBTQI people are targeted and some have disclosed gang rape assaults.
In contrast to Australia’s treatment of LGTBQI refugees, the new Canadian government has recently expanded its refugee intake to support Syrian refugees. The Canadian government has said that along with women, children and families, gay, bisexual and transgender Syrian men will be prioritised in this intake in recognition of the additional persecution faced by these groups.
However, single or unaccompanied heterosexual Syrian men will be excluded as they are perceived by the government as a potential terrorist threat.
LGTBQI and refugee activists have argued that while the intake of gay, bisexual and transgender men is a positive step, the exclusion of single heterosexual Syrian men will replicate the dynamics LGBTQI refugees are experiencing under Australia’s PNG Solution. That is, having to ‘come-out’ in dangerous refugee camps and detention centres and face possible violence and having to ‘prove’ their sexual orientation to immigration officials.
It is quite clear from these examples that even when legislation appears to positively discriminate for LGBTQI refugees, these measures only increase the risk of violent victimisation against them.
The only way to ensure the safety of LGBTQI asylum seekers is to end discriminatory, punitive, racist and homophobic policies and practices such as Australia’s PNG Solution and the mandatory detention of asylum seekers.
LGBTQI refugees will not be free or safe from harm until all refugees are free and given the opportunity to permanently re-settle and rebuild their lives in Australia and other prosperous countries.
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