A gay Kenyan’s asylum struggle in South Africa

George Barasa faces arrest and prosecution in his home country, simply for being gay, and gaining asylum in South Africa from homophobic and inept home affairs officials is proving difficult.

George Barasa held the five pages that made up his rejected asylum application in one hand and pointed to unintelligible lines written by what he called an incompetent official with the other. “It’s gibberish,” he scoffed.

Barasa, 28, fled Kenya in 2017 and came to seek refuge in South Africa after being one of the first people in that country to come out as gay and HIV-positive on national television six years ago. A warrant of arrest was issued for him as homosexuality is still illegal in Kenya and people found guilty of same-sex relations still faced up to 14 years in prison under Kenya’s regressive, colonial-era penal code.

His asylum application was rejected on arrival in South Africa, with the refugee status determination officer questioning his sexuality and dismissing his claim that he feared for his life. Exacerbating his experience, Barasa had to deal with the homophobia of the officials from which he was requesting protection and being paraded around the office for being gay.  

Luiz de Barros, the editor and publisher of magazine Mamba Online, launched a petition that started circulating following the announcement of the new Cabinet, asking Minister of Home Affairs Aaron Motsoaledi to reconsider Barasa’s asylum application. At the time of writing, the petition had more than 10 650 signatures.

In May this year, Kenya’s high court ruled that laws targeting LGBTQIA+ people were not unconstitutional. It was widely described as a setback for human rights and a blow to the LGBTQIA+ community in Kenya.

‘Speaking out’

Barasa came to South Africa to seek asylum on sexual and political grounds, saying he was persecuted because of his sexuality.

“I was always in trouble with the authorities [in Kenya], with the police. I was the most outspoken person,” he said with a wry smile. “Imagine a 21-year-old speaking out against the government. They did not expect that.”

“It also comes with certain risks … I became a fugitive nationwide [when they issued the warrant of arrest]. Basically, they put a bounty on my head. They did that because I did the first gay Kenyan music video [in 2016]. I talked about things that I was going through as a gay man in Kenya and this did not go down well with the government because they kept denying that this was happening,” said the musician, artist and activist.

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Barasa fled Kenya the following year to apply for asylum in South Africa, but his application was denied. New Frame has a copy of the refugee status determination officer’s report. The five-page document is incoherent and unintelligible, and the official does not seem to be aware of the precarious situation LGBTQIA+ people face in Kenya.

“Applicant provided evidence attempting to makes fabrication claim looking to be convinced so that it can sort him. He did deliberately so fully aware that the information is presenting to me is not true (sic),” the rejection letter reads.

It states further: “Since 2008 there have been at least six incidents of mob violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Kenya that were reported by Human Rights Watch and fellow rights organisation with claims that the local police failed to investigate any of this incidents, there is no enough evidence to support the statement that the police are unable to protect any person who is subjected to discrimination based on her/his status (sic).”

The letter concludes with: “Your claim is totally contradicting country information of Kenya as claimed there is fully protection of the state only the public are the ones who are gay and lesbian according to the country information of Kenya and this matter should have been reported to the police (sic).”

Sexual and political grounds

Barasa still seems almost unable to believe that home affairs rejected his application. “The home affairs quickly rejected it. They don’t believe I am gay. They said it was fraudulent,” he said in disbelief.

“I exhausted my resources to take care of my security. There was just no other option. I tried to find solutions in my own country, but it just didn’t work. I came to South Africa, I applied for asylum, specifically seeking asylum as a gay man, it was both on my sexual ground and political ground because it involved the government,” he said.

Despite the lack of professionalism from the official, Barasa said he intended to continue appealing the rejection because it was unsafe for him to return to Kenya. “I can’t just sit and do nothing. I have been an activist all my life,” he said.

Barasa, who is unable to work and has had his bank account frozen sporadically while waiting for the outcome of his appeal and asylum application, denounced home affairs and its officials for the way he and many other LGBTQIA+ refugees and asylum seekers are treated when they apply for permits.

“I have been trying to push for that an LGBT person should not go to home affairs alone. An LGBT person should have their own specific date to go to home affairs because there’s homophobia,” he said.  

“When you go there, you are meeting other people who are homophobic, who are from homophobic countries. So, you are never able to express yourself. The interview is done in full glare of other refugees.

“They are actually exposing you to everybody. And sometimes they actually parade you [around] and they say this is a gay man from Kenya, he is applying for asylum because he is gay, who else is gay here. That’s what they do,” said an incensed Barasa.

“It takes a lot of strength.”

Bullied and sidelined

Barasa was forced to become strong and independent early on in life, making him even more determined to face down homophobic officials.

“I used to be bullied a lot,” he said. “My parents used to sideline me, my family, friends, the neighbourhood, the community, they would sideline me because of my sexuality. They would say don’t come closer to my children because you would spoil them, don’t visit my cousins because you are going to spoil them. I lived a life kind of in isolation.

“When you go through homophobia at a very young age, you grow up very fast and you start having responsibilities. Eventually, my parents couldn’t deal with the pressure of having a gay child in a very homophobic, conservative, far right-wing country. So, they said I had to leave and when I protested a little bit, my dad actually threatened me with death.”

He talks openly about contracting HIV shortly after he was forced to leave his parents’ house.

“When you have your parents’ support, if your parents accept you, the world, society, community, neighbours, whatever, they will not reject you because you have the strongest support system,” he said.

“When the parents themselves disown you, at that tender age, still a teenager when you are yet to learn how to survive out there … you are exposed to vulnerability. And that is the reason why I ended up being HIV-positive, because I was looking for somewhere to lean on, somewhere to feel loved. And if somebody could just come to you and say they love you, you are more likely to believe that person even when they are lying.

“So I was taken advantage of immediately because I needed to have that sense of belonging, and I ended up being HIV-positive. It all happened so fast, but as fast as it happened, I moved on. All of those experiences made me stronger and made me build a firm foundation in what I believe in and around my sexuality,” he said.

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Barasa continues to fight for the human rights that should be afforded to all. He said he still has fight in him and intends to not only speak out against the Kenyan government’s oppressive laws but also about how South Africa treats asylum seekers and refugees.

Home Affairs spokesperson David Hlabane said under Section 21(5) of the Refugee Act, he was unable to comment on a specific case but insisted the department had “mechanisms in place” for an unhappy asylum seeker to lodge an appeal or a complaint regarding treatment from officials.

“Once the matter is reported to the department with specific information, like the date, time and the area where such incident took place, the department is able to investigate and establish facts in order to take necessary action. In this regard the department has not received such complaint or related information to assist us to investigate,” he said.

Hlabane dismissed Barasa’s claims that he was interviewed in full view of other asylum seekers. “Given the need to ensure confidentiality, all adjudication interviews are conducted in private, however, if there is any evidence to the contrary, the department is willing re-look its processes and see where the gaps might still be.”

He said there was no provision for Motsoaledi or the director-general of the department to intervene or interfere with the adjudication process and said an unhappy asylum seeker could take the decision to a number of institutions including the Refugee Appeal Board and the High Court.

Asked about whether Home Affairs officials or Refugee Reception Offices received special training to deal with LGBTQIA+ case, Hlabane said training was provided “in consideration to the needs of the centres”.

“The LGBTQI community of South Africa was invited by the department in the past to look into how they can assist in this area, that partnership did not take off as expected and the offer from the department still stands,” he said.

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