New Internationalist

‘I made the decision to be free or die’

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On World Refugee Day, Jo Lateu talks to Farah Abdi about the particular difficulties faced by LGBT asylum-seekers.

Hal-Far refugee camp [Related Image]
Har-Far Refugee Camp, Malta Sludge G under a Creative Commons Licence

Although you were born in Somalia, you spent most of your youth in Kenya. Did you have a happy childhood?

Apart from the struggle of dealing with my sexuality, which I noticed when I was five years old, yes, I had a happy childhood in Kenya. My mother made sure my brother and I lacked nothing. We managed to learn the language and join school.

Farah Abdi

Why did you have to leave Kenya in 2012?

I left because I was tired of living a lie. I was tired of hiding who I truly was. I think everybody deserves to live their life freely, as long as they are not stepping on the rights of others. In Kenya, being gay can land you in jail for a maximum of 14 years. Surely that’s not fair! Being gay is not a crime.

You undertook a long and dangerous journey to seek refuge in Europe. Can you tell us about it? What countries did you travel through, and what hardships did you experience?

After Kenya I went to Uganda, where I stayed for a day before going to South Sudan. My problems started in South Sudan: I was beaten, robbed and jailed by militias. I went to North Sudan next, where I was once again forced to hide my sexuality, because it’s an Islamic country. The desert followed – it took me 12 days to cross. It was too hot during the day and cold at night. We almost died because of lack of water and food. We had to pay smugglers to continue crossing. Libya was my nightmare. I was there for seven months and I was imprisoned for trying to cross the sea. I had to pay to get out. Human rights violations in Libya have become the norm and world leaders are doing nothing about it. I finally made it to Malta in November 2012.

What gave you the strength to continue during this time?

I hoped for a better tomorrow each time. I also made the decision to be free or die. There is no point of living a life whereby you are not yourself.

You arrived on Malta, a small island struggling with an influx of asylum-seekers, and on which the Catholic Church remains hugely influential. You must have been worried that, as a gay man and refugee, you would not be welcomed…

Before I arrived in Malta the only knowledge I had of the Island was that it took part in the annual Miss World competition, which I watched religiously each year! The rest I got to discover when I found myself there. In Libya, most of us migrants thought that we were going to Italy. We also planned to move on up north once in Italy. We didn’t know about laws like the Dublin Regulation that cage you where you don’t want to be and you are not wanted.

How difficult was it to gain refugee status in Malta? Did your status as a gay man hinder the process?

I was once told that in Malta gay rights are not as behind as in some of the countries in eastern Europe. Gay rights are also not as advanced as in western Europe. Malta is half way between, and it has made huge steps in the recent past with recognition of gay unions. So it was not hard to get my refugee status because of my sexuality.

Apparently the age assessment officials noticed my sexual difference and one of them referred me to therapy. I did not voice my sexual orientation because, as you might know, gay people are guarded while in the closet. In fact, even when I started therapy, it took me a while to say the words ‘I am gay’ to myself before I could say it to the world.

My asylum interview had to be postponed because my psychologist deemed it necessary for me to be comfortable to speak up about the matter, given its importance in my application.

I finally did my interview and the case worker working with the government refugee agency was really caring and sensitive with me. I got refugee status (the highest legal status in Malta) after two months.

Now I always say I don’t like to be used as an example. Luck, and the fact that I was educated and could express myself properly, helped me to do a lot of things in this country. Others are not as lucky.

You now work as an interpreter for Maltese NGOs dealing with migration issues. What help and advice are you able to give other refugees, especially those from the LGBTQI community?

I am comfortable today with who I am because of the therapy I went through when I arrived in Malta. In fact, I was able to present my case based on my sexuality without breaking down because of the help from the therapy. I would insist on therapy for all migrants – especially those with a sexual-orientation struggle in their background. I know you cannot force therapy on someone, but you can definitely encourage it.

Migration tends not be considered in terms of LGBTQI rights. Why is it important for the UNHCR and other international bodies to make the connection?

It’s an issue that’s mostly overlooked because the people involved (migrants) are not in a position to voice who they are, because of the fear that comes from the risk of persecution where they came from, which they think follows them. I would urge NGOs and the UNHCR to create a safe environment that will facilitate the victims to feel safe enough to open up.

How could border agencies improve their interaction with and be more sensitive to LGBTQI refugees?

The agencies can undertake training when it comes to their staff so that they can help support the victims and make them feel safe enough. In most of the current system it feels like the authorities are fighting you for entering illegally, instead of being sensitive to your pain. This is something that an organization like ORAM is constantly pushing for.

With thanks to the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration (ORAM), which facilitated this interview.

The Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration (ORAM) is calling on the UNHCR to maintain and release statistics about the LGBTI refugees within its protection mandate. It says that only with accurate data can the crisis be appropriately addressed. ORAM is also calling on all government and intergovernmental bodies to ensure the appropriate training of frontline staff, to recognize genuine LGBTI asylum claims and to better understand what it means to be an LGBTI refugee, to help ensure they are sensitively and appropriately treated.

On World Refugee Day (20 June 2014), ORAM is launching a new online portal to help official bodies and NGOs share approaches to processing LGBTI refugees and to adopt best practices in the face of rising persecution for LGBTI people globally.

The LGBTI Refugee Project Portal contains projects and approaches that enhance the protection of LGBTI forced migrants in the areas of refugee status determination, policy development and research, practical protection measures and staff development. ORAM is encouraging submission for programmes that – from across sectors and borders – will help lead to a better approach to the treatment of LGBTI refugees across the globe.

For more information visit the ORAM website and LGBTI Refugee Project Portal.

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