An awkward reason for seeking refugee status
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Cape Town - South Africa has one of the most inclusive constitutions in the world and has become a safe haven for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex refugees persecuted in their home countries.
People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty (Passop) is a Cape Town-based organisation which protects the rights of asylum seekers. It is a valuable resource for transgender refugees in the Western Cape and serves 150 LGBTI refugees.
Sylva Batshi, the LGBTI co-ordinator for Passop, said many transgender refugees choose South Africa because it is the only African country offering marriage equality. Homosexuality is illegal in 38 African countries.
“A lot of these people face persecution based on gender orientation in their own countries,” Batshi said. “In Nigeria, you can receive the death penalty for identifying as LGBTI. In Malawi and Zimbabwe, you can be put in prison for 14 years.”
That was what happened to Tiwonge Chimbalanga, from Malawi. When she got engaged to a man in her home country, the couple were arrested, charged with “carnal knowledge against the order of nature”, and sentenced to 14 years’ hard labour. They were pardoned after five months by Bingu wa Mutharika, Malawi’s president at the time. Batshi said she was the first transgender person to come out in Malawi.
“I’ve been in South Africa for five years now,” Chimbalanga said. “Eventually international governments got involved in the case and Amnesty International brought me here as a refugee.”
Today, Chimbalanga has a new partner in South Africa.
She wears purple eyeshadow and carries herself with pride. But it is not easy being a transgender refugee here either. She said she has been attacked many times and called a sham for presenting as female.
“A lot of transgender refugees suffer xenophobic and homophobic attacks,” Batshi said.
“It’s not necessarily a haven. Even though we serve 150 refugees, there must be more. They might be scared of Department of Home Affairs officials, who have been known to be homophobic. They’ll apply under other reasons because they don’t want people to know the real reason.”
Mandivavarira Mudarikwa, an attorney at the Legal Resources Centre, said one of the fundamental issues transgender refugees face is the inability to change their gender on their paperwork.
“The Refugee Act does not address gender changes,” Mudarikwa said. “Act 49, which allows ID gender changes to be made, only applies to people on the population registration.”
Another issue transgender refugees face is inaccessibility to health care. “There are not enough hospitals to assist transgender people.
“The lists are too long. There are not enough experienced surgeons. There’s a lack of interest from health practitioners and there’s a lack of resources,” Batshi said.
“It’s difficult for me to access medication. Hormones take a long time,” Chimbalanga added. “Money is an issue as well.”