LGBTQ Africans seeking asylum from homophobic laws are an uncounted population
by Theresa Campagna
CHICAGO – Harsh laws criminalizing homosexuality in multiple African countries have led some LGBT advocates to leave their homelands and seek asylum abroad. But just how many Africans are seeking asylum in the U.S. on those ground is hard to measure because no one seems to be keeping count.
Only a few shelters for LGBT asylum seekers exist in the United States. One of them is the Chicago LGBT Asylum Support Program – or CLASP – a house a few miles outside city limits.
Matt – a pseudonym – found out about CLASP online. He arrived here from Nigeria in May 2014, a few months after the country’s then President Goodluck Jonathan signed a law criminalizing sexual minorities.
Matt says people who knew about his sexual orientation began to threaten him after the law took effect.
“They came to my house and they demanded money,” recalls Matt. “Some demanded my life. Some demanded to tell the government.”
In Nigeria, advocates for gay rights can face up to ten years in prison solely for belonging to an LGBT advocacy organization. The penalty for a same-sex marriage is up to 14 years in prison.
Prior to the passage of the law, Matt was a social worker who focused specifically on teaching gay youth about safe sex practices.
“I saved many lives. Many people that were sick didn’t know how to seek help,” Matt explains.
He adds that fear of persecution may keep gay men in high-risk situations from seeking medical advice or care, which can eventually lead to an increase in HIV/AIDS rates.
“At the time we find out gay people are dying everyday. Because you are gay and because of the bill, most are sick because you can’t assess a treatment,” says Matt. “You have don’t have access to treatment. They don’t know where to assess treatment. You can’t tell the doctor what is wrong with me.
Matt is one of three Nigerian asylees currently living at the CLASP shelter.
CLASP co-founder John Adewoye says the shelter provides a safe space for those who fear discrimination from other asylum seekers at conventional resettlement shelters.
A large sign near the front door of his house that reads, “We are African, LGBTQI, and proud!”
“For LGBT people who are here, in America and all currently going through the asylum process, I’ll say keep focused and don’t disappoint the system that helps you,” says Adewoye.
Adewoye moved to Chicago from Nigeria in the 90s. The former Catholic priest came out as gay to friends and family in 2003. He co-founded CLASP after hosting two African friends fleeing sexual orientation persecution.
The Department of Homeland Security requires asylum seekers to categorize the type of persecution they’re fleeing by either race, religion, nationality, social group, political opinion, or torture convention. A State Department official told FSRN on background, the agency does not publicly disclose the number of LGBT asylees or refugees because often they have multiple asylum categories. The official says the highest concentrations of LGBT refugees are in San Francisco, New York, and Chicago, though sexual orientation is not a driving factor in determining the location of resettlement.
Neil Grungras, of the San Francisco based LGBT refugee rights nongovernmental organization, ORAM, says the lack of conclusive data documenting the numbers of people fleeing homophobic policies and violence in their home countries makes the scope of the problem less visible.
“Refugee resettlement agencies are only going to plead cases that are coming into the United States or into Canada. The number in Kenya is around 500. That’s the official number mind you. It could be as low as one percent of the total number. The refugees there tend to not come out to the authorities. In most of those countries there’s no asylum assistance, so there’s no way to count them anyway,” Grungras explains.
In lieu of public data on the issue, members of Chicago’s LGBT community have taken it upon themselves to draw attention to the situation of sexual minorities seeking asylum in the US.
CLASP, The Gay Liberation Network, and Center for Integration and Courageous Living Americans walked in June’s Chicago pride parade to encourage attendees to stand against deportations that could prove dangerous for those repatriated countries that criminalize homosexuality.
Pepe Onziema, a transgender and gay rights activist from Uganda who visited Chicago during pride month called out the U.S. asylum process and said racism adds additional stress.
“If the people that you’re trying to make the policy for are not feeling safe enough for them to see the policy actually change. So the policy should go hand-in-hand with people’s mentality and attitudes in particular towards asylum seekers. I mean the issue of racism. There’s even just you know black American feeling that a black African in the states is, well there’s no place for that person,” says Onziema.
Jenny Ansay, a Chicago immigration attorney with the legal aid organization, Justice For Our Neighbors wants DHS to consider adding LGBT as a category for persecution in asylum cases if it can be done safely.
“People have been trying to fight to get gender included as a protected ground for years and it hasn’t happened yet so. I don’t think it will happen soon,” says Ansay.
In the meantime, LGBT asylum seekers and their allies must lean on each other and pool resources to build their own support networks.