George Barasa has made the trip to the Desmond Tutu Refugee Reception Centre in Pretoria to renew his asylum permit more than half a dozen times without any issues other than waiting hours in the queue to have his permit renewed for three months.
But two weeks ago when he went back to renew his permit, Barasa, 28, was told that the file containing his asylum application and the subsequent appeal had gone missing. Stunned, Barasa claimed he was forced to sign a duplicate file “under duress” and without properly going through the contents of that file.
“I signed documents that I don’t really know what I signed,” he said. “At this point I felt like I was under duress and that I was being coerced. All I know is I may have signed for something bigger, something that can be used against me. I didn’t have any other option. I felt like I wasn’t going to get my permit. I felt like I might be detained, and I really don’t want that to happen. It was like I had a split second to decide. It didn’t look like I had an option. The person was extremely angry, and he looked like he wasn’t playing.”
He believes that he was maliciously targeted by the home affairs department after he started speaking out about his treatment by department officials during his asylum application.
Barasa fled Kenya in 2017 and sought refuge in South Africa after coming out as gay and HIV positive on national television in his home country six years ago. The Kenyan government issued a warrant of arrest for him – homosexuality is still illegal in Kenya. People found guilty of same-sex relations in Kenya face up to 14 years in prison under the country’s regressive, colonial-era penal code. In May this year, the Kenya High Court upheld laws criminalising homosexual acts.
On arrival in South Africa, Barasa applied for asylum but was rejected. Barasa claimed the refugee-status-determination officer questioned his sexuality, dismissed his claim that he feared for his life and humiliated him.
The officer’s report stated: “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].”
After Barasa’s application was rejected, he filed an appeal with the Refugee Appeals Board. While this is pending, Barasa has been travelling to the Home Affairs office in Marabastad in Pretoria every three months to renew his papers. But on his last trip there, he wasn’t able to.
“[The Home Affairs official told me] your file has been removed. It never went to the appeal,” he said. “I appealed in 2017 in November, however, the file was not submitted at that time. It was supposed to be submitted with my appeal. Here I am being told my file had been removed before the appeal. In other words, I’ve been renewing my permit and appealing to something that doesn’t really exist.”
In an earlier story, New Frame quoted Barasa: “When you go [to Home Affairs], 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.”
David Hlabane, spokesperson for home affairs, dismissed Barasa’s claims as unfounded allegations.
“The client’s permit was extended on 3 July 2019 and will expire on 2 October 2019. We’re not aware of claims he’s said to have made to the media about being targeted, including the unfounded allegation about the missing file. There are mechanisms in place through which clients’ complaints are received and resolved,” Hlabane said.
But Barasa said he had “tried every diplomatic way to solve this issue privately”. He said he had followed the department’s procedures to apply for and appeal against the rejection of his asylum application. A petition to reconsider Barasa’s case was launched shortly after Aaron Motsoaledi was announced as the new Minister of Home Affairs.
“A threat? A plot? Exactly. It is kind of like they are trying to punish me or something,” Barasa said, adding that the home affairs official also referred to newspaper articles and the petition during his most recent appointment.
Despite being forced out of his country because of his sexuality, Barasa said he still had “strong ties to my Kenyan identity”. “I still feel like I am Kenyan, 100%. And at no point would I want to trade my citizenship for anything, if not for my sexuality.”