When Mukasa Fernando reached for the last bit of food in his fridge one night, not long after South Africa’s lockdown started, the growing desperation he had been feeling had reached a peak. “That was the evening I had given up all hope. I was actually giving up on myself,” said Fernando, 28, an asylum seeker and freelance make-up artist from Uganda.
Fernando fled to South Africa two years ago after the family of the man with whom he was in a relationship found out about it. The man’s family beat him to such an extent “that he ended up hating me”, Fernando said. “He was beaten, he was brutally beaten, making you forget about somebody.”
In Uganda, homosexuality is punishable by life imprisonment, and last year Ugandan MPs pushed to introduce the death penalty for homosexual acts. This forced Fernando to flee to South Africa to claim asylum. He had slowly been building a new life for himself when the lockdown caught him – and many others – off guard.
“Basically, I won’t say there was anyone who was ready for the lockdown. We were all not ready for the lockdown. We all didn’t expect it,” he said. “Especially if you are a freelance make-up artist, it becomes even more difficult. Because you are not working for a company, you are not working for anyone, so you don’t expect any money in your pocket any time soon.”
Worsening insecurity and exclusion
Fernando is just one of a number of LGBTQIA+ migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who have been particularly hard hit during the pandemic and the extended lockdown, which has now lasted over three months. B Camminga, the co-founder and co-convenor of the African LGBTQI+ Migration Research Network (ALMN), says the pandemic has “exacerbated already existing insecurities and exclusions that LGBTQIA refugees and asylum seekers experience”.
“What it has made clear, though, perhaps more than ever, is the almost wilfully obtuse relationship the state has with this particular group of LGBTQIA people, because they are refugees. In some senses we are seeing where the rainbow nation actually ends or isn’t as desirable for the state,” they said.
Camminga says one of the biggest effects the pandemic has had is taking away a sense of community for many LGBTQIA+ migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. “Given the general hostility in South Africa towards LGBTQIA people and those perceived as foreign, and not white, internal community connections and visibility have been crucial elements to the mental and emotional wellbeing of LGBTQIA refugees,” they said.
“Generally, LGBTQIA refugees don’t live together for fear of drawing too much attention, so being able to meet up or be in a community, especially when the surrounding environment has the potential for hostility, is crucial. This is a lifeline that Covid has, for now, all but destroyed.”
However, a lifeline for Fernando was provided when he received a call out of the blue one night, as his despair peaked. “I speak to my mom regularly, and I told her things were bad here. She told me, ‘Kneel down and pray, kneel down and pray’, because I know she doesn’t have money to send me either,” he said.
“I would pray day in and day out, and when I said I almost gave up, I prayed and I cried. I thought about my life back home; I thought about my job back at home. I was thinking so many things and that’s when Anold called. I actually thought he was my guardian angel in that particular moment, because I had given up. Basically, the food I had in the house that day was the last dish I had in the house.”
Boosted by informal support
The Anold he is talking about is Anold Mulaisho, an asylum seeker from Zambia and an LGBTQIA+ refugee activist. Mulaisho had started an informal support group during the lockdown to assist other LGBTQIA+ migrants, refugees and asylum seekers with food as well as paying rent and other expenses.
“Most of the migrants that are in my support group, none of them are working now. Some of them were waiters at restaurants, some of them run their own businesses where they sell some stuff in the streets. They have not been able to work so they have run out of funds, they have run out of capital,” he said.
“Some were not able to pay rent and they were kicked out on the streets. None of them are working, and others who work in sex work for a living have not been able to work. So it is actually very, very tricky. Most of them have even gone as far as selling their phones.”
Mulaisho says the latter has contributed to much of the stress and anxiety he has felt during the lockdown, because he has been aware of the needs of other migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, but it has also been near impossible to get hold of people at times.
“It’s hard to speak to somebody and you know they need help. But by the time you are able to assist them, it is hard to get hold of them because they have sold their phone. They become even more vulnerable because whenever they face any challenges, they have no phone, so it is hard to get hold of them,” he said.
“It actually causes me more anxiety, because I know we are all experiencing the same problems, but it actually brings in more pressure. For them to reach out to me, it means they believe I can do something about it and that puts in more pressure,” he said.
Despite asking organisations for assistance, Mulaisho says it’s not always possible to help everyone who has a need for it. While doing this work, Mulaisho still faces his own challenges as an LGBTQIA+ asylum seeker in South Africa and the lockdown has only heightened some of his own struggles.
“It’s very very tough. Sometimes you even go crazy. Before lockdown, if I think of my situation, I would go take a walk or go to the gym to exercise. That kind of makes me feel better, but now I can’t do any of those things,” he said.
Co-ordinated by Camminga, ALMN has started a fundraiser in collaboration with organisations such as the Fruit Basket, the Holy Trinity LGBT Ministry, the Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (Gala) Queer Archive and other partners to provide help to LGBTQIA+ migrants, refugees and asylum seekers during this time.
Writing on the gofundme campaign page, Camminga said: “We have been receiving urgent requests for crisis support. With increasing frequency, we are hearing from LGBTQI+ people who have no food, no means of paying their rent, no money for basic items (e.g. sanitary materials) and no means of accessing testing or healthcare centres. It is clear that we have massive challenges ahead of us as a community, but we also have a unique opportunity to lay the foundations for the future world we want to live in,” they wrote.
The fund has managed to raise more than R38 000 so far and supported 75 LGBTQIA+ migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from 12 different countries living in South Africa. Thomars, a transgender man from Zimbabwe and founder of the Fruit Basket, says the campaign is meant to lessen the burden on migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who have lost their incomes during the lockdown. He says the community has been particularly badly affected during this time.
“It is very difficult to be LGBTI in general and to be an LGBTI migrant. You are like a multiple minority. You are black, you are a migrant, you are LGBTI – it’s like too many things in one. The worst things to be in the world today is to be black, is to be a refugee, today the worst thing you can be is to be transgender,” he said.
Thomars says the campaign has managed to assist most of the people who have been identified for help during this time. Follow-ups have started with those who have been assisted and the organisers are thinking about long-term help after the lockdown, such as providing mental health services.
Doing the rounds again, and again
“What we are doing now, because we have reached almost everybody, is we are doing second rounds, we are doing third rounds, and if they reach out to us and say ‘Hey, I need rent’ or ‘I need food’ or ‘I need medication’, then we just give money to them. The campaign is still running, we are still sharing it and we are still sourcing money, because things are not yet back to normal. It is still going to be a long while before things go back to normal,” he said.
“We know there are still so many other things people need, but it is for them to have housing, it is for them to have food on their table, and for them to have light in their houses. They need emotional support, they need mental healthcare.
“But at the moment we are just focusing. You can’t give mental health care when you are hungry and you are in the streets. At least we are just trying to lessen some of the burdens, and after this we will offer emotional support and find out what it is that people need.”
Sally Gandar, legal adviser and head of advocacy at the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town, who identifies as queer, says the lockdown has exposed the multiple barriers that LGBTQIA+ migrants, refugees and asylum seekers may face in South Africa.
“One thing I do wish to say on the history of exclusion of LGBTQIA+ persons in South Africa is that the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown is not an exceptional time for many people in the LGBTQIA+ community as many have often been excluded, discriminated against, and their rights have often been infringed upon or ignored,” Gandar said.
“This is particularly true for those in the refugee, asylum seeker and migrant community. At the same time, there are incredible examples of solidary and support from members of the LGBTQIA+ community here in South Africa and abroad, as well as from others.”