Queer refugees battle Covid-19 on top of prejudice

With little government support and often rejected by fellow refugees, queer refugees and asylum seekers face a particularly tough battle as the coronavirus spreads in South Africa.

Sandra* could hardly hide her excitement as she neatly packed up her few possessions. It had been a three-year struggle to seek asylum in Canada, but she was finally allowed to enter the country. She was about to start her new life “somewhere safe”. 

A transgender woman, Sandra fled Uganda in 2007 after too many violent attacks in her country of birth – “Too much discrimination, too much,” she says – and made her way to South Africa. Once here, however, the discrimination continued. “I face a lot of problems here in South Africa. When I am walking, people, they call me ‘devil’, ‘moffie’. ‘You run from your country to do this shit in South Africa.’ That kind of thing. In South Africa, to be a trans woman is not easy, especially if you are a foreigner. Too much a problem.” 

Her suitcases packed, she sat in the room she shares with three others and waited on her ride to the airport. It was then that the call came, informing her she could no longer leave. The day before she was booked to fly, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the measures the country was putting in place to try and halt the spread of the coronavirus. One of these was blocking non Canadian and United States nationals from entering the country. 

Sandra was “devastated” because she had quit her job and given her landlord notice, she was now left destitute. “So I am going through a lot right now. Really, too much. Too much,” she says, politely refusing to be drawn any further on the situation.

“It is so sad,” says Victor Chikalogwe, the gender and LGBTQIA+ refugee project coordinator at grassroots non-profit organisation People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty (Passop), one of the organisations that had been assisting Sandra with her asylum seeker application. “After three years of working on this, now she has been told to stay. And the problem is we don’t know for how long or if that opportunity will still stand later on. We’re really not sure what will happen next.”

23 April 2020: Passop project coordinator Victor Chikalogwe in his office on the Foreshore in Cape Town.
23 April 2020: Passop project coordinator Victor Chikalogwe in his office on the Foreshore in Cape Town.

Day-to-day earners

Chikalogwe says the outbreak of the coronavirus has and will continue to hit queer refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa particularly hard. 

“We work with vulnerable communities that face multiple discriminations. Some are living in the streets, some with maybe four or five others, sharing a one-bedroom shelter or shack. So when it comes to social distancing, it is not practical for them. They cannot do that. Also, when the president announced the implementation of the lockdown, it posed another threat because those in this community who are working, are working in shops or restaurants or doing sex work where they don’t have a basic salary. They rely on day-to-day money. Government has initiated a number of opportunities, yes, but most of our community do not qualify for these because they are not documented. So they cannot benefit,” says Chikalogwe.  

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In the hopes of providing queer refugees and asylum seekers with some assistance as South Africa fights the pandemic, the organisation has launched a GoFundMe campaign. Funds raised will be used to assist with the cost of rent, food and water as well as soap, masks and hand sanitisers. 

The campaign is being put together in partnership with Edward Alessi, an associate professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “I felt it was important to partner with Passop no matter what is happening here in New York, because LGBTI refugees in South Africa are among the most vulnerable populations. This is a population that is barely surviving when there isn’t a pandemic,” says Alessi, who started working with the organisation “many years ago” when he was conducting research on queer refugees. 

“Because sexual and gender minority refugees have encountered, many times, severe and prolonged trauma in their countries of origin, they then, throughout the migration cycle, are dealing with that trauma. And then, once they arrive in host countries such as South Africa, they have to try to resettle while also dealing with a number of mental health issues. And during that settlement process, they have to try and meet some of their most basic needs. And unlike many refugees who can rely on the support of their communities or compatriots, it’s not usually possible for sexual and gender minority refugees to do that. So without that support, it can be much harder for them.” 

HIV and no income

Six years ago, Robert Mudzuri* was forced to flee Zimbabwe when his family found out he was gay. “We’re either gonna call the police to arrest you or kill you ourselves,” they threatened. 

Fleeing in the middle of the night to the country’s capital, Harare, he caught a bus to South Africa. “I didn’t have a passport. But you just give those officials R50 and they leave you to pass. When I got to Joburg, I stayed at Park Station for quite some time. For almost three weeks I was sleeping there. Life was very hectic for me. I almost committed suicide that time.”

Mudzuri eventually made his way to Cape Town, where he was introduced to sex work as a means of survival. Although it puts food on the table, the decision has led to him becoming HIV-positive. “Clients will sometimes force you. They will rape you. And sometimes you would do sex and the guy would tell you, ‘For R50, I don’t want a condom.’ But because you want that R50, you want to buy cooking oil with it, you’re going to do it.” 

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With the outbreak of the coronavirus and the implementation of a national lockdown, the 28-year-old is not able to earn any income. “Going to bed without eating, it is really, really something else. And if you are not having any food, you know you can’t even take your medication. 

“And it is not just me. It is all of us,” he adds, speaking of his circle of friends, a group of sex workers from other parts of Africa who, like him, have fled persecution in their countries of birth. “It is actually a disaster for us. All of us, we are HIV-positive now. So we are going to suffer. We are going to starve. So you just end up thinking, ‘Why is this happening to me? Probably if I go home, maybe home will be better.’ But home is where they wanted to kill me, you know? So that’s why thinking of committing suicide does come into my head every now and then.” 

Alessi adds that the “always present desperation” felt by queer refugees and asylum seekers is exacerbated by a pandemic such as Covid-19. “It can take an enormous toll on mental and physical health. It now becomes about life and death. And it also becomes a public health issue. This is why we need to take care of the most vulnerable, to ensure that as a society we are able to function to the best of our ability.”

Information in home languages

Recognising the need to care for the most vulnerable in their society, Italian queer rights organisation Il Grande Colibrì took matters into their own hands. At the start of the outbreak in Italy, which has seen the highest number of Covid-19 deaths globally, the organisation realised that no government communication about the disease, its spread or how to avoid contracting it was aimed at the country’s refugee and asylum seeker communities. 

“We saw that asylum seekers did not know what was happening and what they had to do,” says Il Grande Colibrì’s Ginevra Campaini. “They would ask us, ‘Why are people wearing these masks?’ We asked them whether anyone had informed them of anything and they said no. And that’s incredible. The Italian government didn’t communicate about this disease in any other language. Only Italian. So we decided to create some informative materials on what the coronavirus is and what people needed to do to stay safe.”

Their efforts saw this information disseminated in 46 languages. “Yes, there were a lot,” Campaini laughs. “Arabic, Bengali, Pidgin English, Urdu, Spanish, French, Portuguese. Romanian. Serbian. A lot, a lot, alot. It was very hard work. We were working all day and we are all volunteers, mostly migrants or refugees. We have our jobs, our lives. So it was very difficult, but we did it.” 

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The Italian government ended up using their hard work on its official website, something Campaini sees as an important victory given how Covid-19 has been politicised in the country. “Some right-wing politicians here have tried to exploit the virus to promote xenophobia. For example, the governor of a municipality in the north of Italy asked to suspend humanitarian permits because of the virus. And that’s nonsense, because if you don’t issue those permits, you will have people living on the streets. And people on the streets at this moment is very dangerous when it comes to the spread of the virus.”

Campaini adds that in addition to this broader discrimination, queer refugees face an added burden: rejection by fellow refugees. “We have seen that some refugees think the coronavirus is like HIV. So when they see LGBT people, especially trans women or gay men, they will say things like, ‘Ah, you have coronavirus because you have HIV because you are gay.’ This is a problem that happens between refugees. It is a real problem.”

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Chikalogwe adds: “We are all at a corner now. We don’t know what is happening next. It’s hard times for all of us. But for refugees, more especially LGBT refugees, there are multiple, multiple, multiple problems.”

Mudzuri knows this all too well. Years after escaping death at the hands of his family, it is an unseen virus that makes him question his decision. “This thing it makes you very vulnerable. Very vulnerable. Because you end up thinking, probably, if I had rather ran away to another area in Zimbabwe, I could have survived. 

“The worst part of it is I told myself, ‘I am going to South Africa, so things should be much better’. But I would say maybe if they actually killed me at my home place it was going to be much better than to live like this in a foreign country where no one knows me. That is when the thoughts of committing suicide comes. Because you feel like, ‘Why am I surviving? Why am I even on Earth?’ It’s… it’s like you are not knowing what to feel or what to think. It’s tough. Really. Too tough.” 

*Not their real names

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