Persecution and Identity—Stories of LGBT Asylum Seekers

lgbt.jpeg

By Jacob Thompson

The Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC) works with over 300 survivors of torture from around the world, an estimated 5-8% are asylum seekers or asylees from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. They come from diverse countries including Egypt, the former Soviet Union, Kenya, Serbia, Jamaica, Uganda, Nigeria and Cameroon. Their lives differ in many ways from the typical TASSC survivor who is fleeing political persecution. LGBT survivors were persecuted because of their sexual identity, because of who they are, not what they believe. TASSC believes it is important to shed light on their stories.

There has been a dramatic improvement over the last 40 years for LGBT people in the United States and much of Europe. But this is not true in most other countries--74 out of 195 countries still criminalize homosexuality. LGBT people are imprisoned and tortured by governments, their own family members and communities. They are subjected to beatings, forced to perform sexual acts and murdered in “honor killings” by family members because they are considered “impure.”

Six people were interviewed for this article, some from TASSC and others referred by DC Center Global, a volunteer organization that provides a welcoming environment for LGBT asylum seekers along. It follows the lives of four LGBT people and tells their stories of persecution at home, and what happened to them after they arrived in the United States. Marcial (a pseudonym), a TASSC survivor from Cameroon, was targeted by his government because he was seen as sympathetic to LGBT people when he was interviewing some for a research project.

Learning What it Means to Be Gay

“Growing up, you learn right away how being LGBT is viewed in your country,” is something heard frequently from LGBT people all over the world. This can result in what TASSC psychologists call “developmental wounds” - psychological wounds from repeated physical and/or verbal assaults from childhood over a long period of time; this often leads to more difficult healing processes.

Jean-Leon Kassi, an aslyee from Ivory Coast, was ridiculed from an early age. “I’ve always had more feminine characteristics and people would single me out for these characteristics every day,” he said. He had mostly girl friends; they would play with dolls and comb each other’s hair. His relatives and classmates would tell him “you are too girly” and “you will be gay.”

People often choose to stay quiet about who they are when they are young. “You learn to lie easily,” said Noura Moira, a transgender woman from Saudi Arabia. “To be a survivor in Saudi Arabia, you have to hide yourself completely, and make sure 1000% that a person you are talking to or dating is not a government agent trying to catch you.” Saudi Arabia is one of eight countries where homosexuality is punishable by death.

Growing up in Nigeria, A.E. knew there would be severe consequences for anyone who identifies as LGBT. Homosexuality is illegal but often community members decide to “punish” LGBT people themselves instead of waiting for the police to act. A.E. has pictures from an Instagram account, “instablog9ja,” showing Nigerian gay men being paraded through streets, stripped, beaten, and sometimes killed.

Persecution at Home

Jean-Leon saw the consequences of the negative stigmas when he came out to his aunt, who basically raised him. When he told her, “Auntie, I am a homosexual,” he felt like he was being stripped naked and his aunt would not look at him the same way. A pastor told his aunt, “Jean-Leon can’t stay in your house, he is a sinner.” He begged to stay with his aunt but she told him “No, you will contaminate the others,” and he was forced to leave.

When A.E. decided to meet someone online discreetly, a Nigerian civilian “caught him” going into the home of a potential companion. The civilian took him to the police station. Instead of protecting him, the police allowed the Nigerian civilian to blackmail A.E., threatening to “expose” him as gay.

Noura was also blackmailed at age 14 by one of her teachers. He forced her to perform sexual acts on him. Then when she was 18, the same teacher took her to a private building and forced her to have sex with 12 males in two days. “I thought I would die each minute from the pain,” she said. “The teacher told me, “this is your place in the world.”

The teacher continued to force Noura to have sex with men, and give him the money she earned. She became so depressed that she attempted suicide several times. Looking back, she said “What is life where no one understands and accepts you?”

Deciding to Escape

Jean-Leon, Noura, A.E., and Steven all decided to leave their lives behind and flee to the United States out of necessity, not choice.  

In her mid-twenties, Noura met a man in Saudi Arabia whom she secretly “married” and calls her “husband.” After the husband’s family discovered their relationship, the family tried to murder Noura and forced the husband to marry a woman. When the “husband” and his new wife moved to Arkansas, Noura went to visit him there. In Arkansas, Noura says she “found Jesus” and converted to Christianity.

When Noura returned to Saudi Arabia, her family found out she had converted and were outraged—they still did not know she was gay. For 15 months they tortured her inside her home because she had become a Christian. Noura has photos of large bruises all over her body, including some from her brother scratching her with a hot knife. That was when she decided to flee to the U.S. permanently.

In January of 2017, Jean-Leon was attacked by a youth group. They surrounded him holding wooden batons and told him “We know you’re a faggot. You’re going to contaminate our kids and you have to leave our city.” They pushed him to the ground and beat him with wooden batons, breaking his shoulder. After six months of recovery in hiding, Jean-Leon left the Ivory Coast.

A.E. paid off his blackmailers with all the money he had, but they kept harassing him and his family members, including his small niece. Finally he had enough. “I did not want my problems to be my niece’s problems,” he said. So he left his home and sought asylum in the U.S.

Steven (a pseudonym), comes from a country that was part of the former Soviet Union where homosexuality is now legal. But he says being LGBT is still considered “immoral,” similar to how sex offenders are viewed in the United States. He was raped and tortured and his own father blamed Steven’s mother for “raising a gay son.” Steven decided to escape and build a new life in the United States, which he had visited before saying, “It was not safe at home, not at all.”

Life in the U.S.

LGBT asylum seekers in the United States deal with their sexual orientation in different ways. According to TASSC psychologists and social workers, some are comfortable are identifying as LGBT. Others are still traumatized from having to hide who they were for so long. Just getting to the U.S. and feeling safe is sometimes enough for them. Many also look for acceptance in their diaspora communities, which have conservative views on sexuality, causing some survivors to live a dual life if they want to identify with both their culture and their sexual orientation.

Jean-Leon was granted asylum six months after arriving in the United States. He has chosen not to interact with the diaspora from the Ivory Coast, because he does not want them to “judge” him. Before receiving asylum, he worked in menial jobs where his employer exploited him. Now that he has asylum, he is looking forward to a better future.

Since he could not work when he first arrived in the U.S., A.E. used his savings to travel by bus to over 18 states, from California to Texas to Maryland, as a form of therapy. He has been granted asylum and now works for a PNC Bank.

Steven’s first year in the United States was extremely difficult. Without a work permit he could not earn any money. He recalls walking long distances just to get free food and often did not have a place to stay. At one point he was detained by ICE (Immigrant and Customs Enforcement), part of the Department of Homeland Security, where he said he was “treated like an animal” and psychologically tortured. He was shocked that this could happen in the United States to an asylum seeker. Things began to improve for him. He got a work permit, found a good job and was eventually granted asylum. Steven also volunteered with TASSC’s Advocacy program, visiting Congress to support a Senate resolution that would create a permanent U.S. envoy for LGBT people in the State Department.

Noura received funding from the Arkansas church where she converted to fly to Washington DC. When she arrived in Washington, she had to move around from place to place, to avoid a brother sent from Saudi Arabia to kill her. She finally settled in Washington DC and is living at a shelter provided by Casa Ruby, the only bilingual organization for LGBT people. That was when Noura decided to commit to her transgender identity, saying “this will either break me, or I will break it.”

From then on she started wearing women’s clothing everywhere. Noura applied for asylum five months ago and is waiting for an interview with an asylum officer. Noura is also concerned with “the war of colors” between ethnic groups happening in the shelter. She is disappointed by this racism, asking: “We in the LGBT community see how people discriminate against us, so why are we discriminating against each other?”

TASSC and DC Center Global continue to reach out and embrace LGBT asylum seekers and asylees. “George” from the Middle East, a TASSC LGBT survivor, says “TASSC was a welcoming place where I felt comfortable identifying as LGBT. My social worker and other staff gave me a safe place where I could process my stress and anxiety, organize my life, learn to network then find a job.”

I want to thank Noura, A.E., Jean-Leon, Steven, Marcial and George for being brave by telling their stories for this article. You can learn more about TASSC by visiting www.tassc.org and DC Center Global at http://thedccenter.org/centerglobal? Asylum-Connect at https://www.asylumconnect.org provides the first ever online resource database for LGBT asylum seekers.

Jacob Thompson was an Advocacy Intern at TASSC, in summer 2018. He is a student at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania studying Political Science and Psychology, and hopes to become a public interest lawyer.

Struggle for Equality Turns to Violence in Anglophone Cameroon

By Samuel Cohen

cameroon protest.png

TASSC’s second largest group of survivors comes from Cameroon, a resource-rich country located in Central Africa. TASSC seeks to bring to light the complexities of the current struggle in the Anglophone, or English-speaking region of the country, which began in fall of 2016. Since then, Cameroon’s English-speaking minority has been demonstrating against systematic disenfranchisement by the French speaking government. These protests were met with violent suppression from President Paul Biya, who has led Cameroon for 36 years and centralized power in his hands. Anglophones make up 20 percent of the population and live in western Cameroon, while 80 percent of the population is Francophone.

Since Biya’s military and police cracked down on the non-violent activists, protesters have become more radical and some armed groups have begun calling for an independent Anglophone country. Cameroon is at a crucial point. Biya must reconsider his divisive actions and engage in genuine dialogue with the opposition to end the violence and move toward a resolution of the Anglophone crisis.

The Anglophone Crisis 

The Anglophone crisis has flared up recently because Cameroon’s government, dominated by Francophones, favors French-speaking Cameroonians in jobs even when Anglophones are more qualified. The government also provides better services and invests in more economic development, in the French-speaking regions.  Desire is a TASSC torture survivor from the Anglophone region who was persecuted because his father was involved in the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC), which uses peaceful means to advocate for Anglophone independence. Desire and other TASSC survivors from Cameroon say that the government appoints French speakers not proficient in English to jobs as magistrates and teachers in the English-speaking schools and courts. 

Charles, another survivor who was a teacher in Anglophone Cameroon for 22 years, said discrimination in employment is only one way in which English-speakers have been marginalized in the country. He said “60 to 70 percent of Cameroon’s resources, such as oil, cocoa and timber, come from Southern Cameroon. Yet we have the worst roads, hospitals, and schools." He emphasized that the protestors were only asking for their "fair share". 

In fall 2016, lawyers and teachers engaged in peaceful protests calling on the government to address these inequalities. But Biya’s police used tear gas, beatings and torture to crush them.  Biya has rejected opportunities for substantial negotiations. Overtures towards peace have failed because of his inability to recognize the inequalities between French and English speakers.   Many of the lawyers and teachers who organized peaceful protests have been arrested, creating a power vacuum for more radical groups to claim leadership in the struggle. Eric, a Cameroonian TASSC torture survivor who was targeted for wearing a T-shirt in support of Southern Cameroon, commented that “Peaceful dialogue may no longer be possible” when asked about if peace talks occurred again.

Cameroon's refugee crisis worsens by the day. Over 22,000 Anglophones have fled to Nigeria and more than 150,000 are internally displaced. Some people have fled into the jungles of the Anglophone region to avoid government forces. The idea of an independent Anglophone state has only become more mainstream as abuses carried out by Biya’s security forces have increased.

History of the Anglophone Region

The linguistic divide between Francophones and Anglophones formed after the French and British divided the German colony of Kamerun into separate territories after World War One.

For 40 years the two were divided. In 1960 French Cameroon was granted independence.

map2.png

 

The British government claimed that British Cameroon could not sustain itself economically as an independent state and asked the UN to organize a plebiscite, so the people could decide if they wanted to join Nigeria or Cameroon. The northern part of British Cameroon chose to join Nigeria. The southern area chose to become part of Cameroon. Cameroon adopted a federal system of government where Anglophones and Francophones could each teach, practice law, and conduct business using with their language. But soon Biya’s predecessor started doing away with the federal system to centralize power in the presidency. In 1972, a unitary system replaced the federal system, placing Anglophone rights in jeopardy.

Torture and Human Rights Abuses

Biya has succeeded in maintaining power indefinitely by amending the constitution in 2008 to remove term limits. In October 2018, Biya will run for his seventh term. He also changed the constitution so that he could not be prosecuted for corruption or human rights violations once he leaves office.

 Torture and human rights abuses are being carried out both by government forces and separatists. The worst perpetrator by far is the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR), Biya's anti-terror unit. The BIR was formed to fight the terrorist group Boko Haram, which is active in Northern Cameroon. It has attacked armed groups and unarmed civilians in the Anglophone region. The BIR has burned down homes, killed people indiscriminately and tortured civilians through beatings, electrocution, and scalding people with boiling water. There have been reports that the BIR has unofficial detention sights where accused are tortured before the BIR turns them over to a government facility. 

Radicals have also been accused of human rights abuses. To enforce a boycott of schools and shopping, they have burned down or damaged 58 schools, intimidated teachers and parents, and extorted resources from civilians. They have also kidnapped school officials and killed some non-compliant civilians.

U.S. Policy on Cameroon and the Anglophone Crisis

Republican Congressman Chris Smith from New Jersey, who chairs the Africa Subcommittee in the US House of Representatives, held a hearing to educate congress about the abuses by the Cameroonian government and create more awareness. At the hearing, there were calls to re-evaluate aid to Cameroon, placed blame on Biya, and questioned Cameroon's electoral legitimacy. Congress has acted to hold Cameroon accountable. A resolution has been written condemning the Cameroonian governments suppression.

The BIR, guilty of the most horrendous types of torture, were trained by the U.S. government to fight Boko Haram.  The BIR's abuses in Anglophone Cameroon are not a surprise to some. It is also accused of extrajudicial killings and torture against civilians, including women and children whom the BIR believes is sympathetic towards Boko Haram. Former U.S. Ambassador to Cameroon Michael Hoza told Amnesty that some units within the BIR have already been banned from U.S. military assistance because they have committed human rights abuses such as killing civilians and torture.

The US should evaluate why the BIR has gone from being an anti-terrorist force to killing civilians. It needs to do more to curb the actions of the Cameroonian military, especially the BIR, in Northern Cameroon.

A Need for Peace

There is a sense of frustration among the Anglophone community. If there is to be any chance at peace, both sides must stop targeting civilians and the government must end the BIR's operations in the area. Torture and extrajudicial killings of civilians must end. Biya should offer meaningful dialogue towards the moderates, and radicals must be willing to work with their moderate counterparts. Inequalities must be addressed and if Cameroon is to remain whole, resources must be divided fairly. International pressure towards mediation led by the UN or U.S. may be the only way to pressure Biya to come to the table. The government should also allow outside observers and other aid organization to begin relief operations in the Anglophone region and the enforced boycott of schools should be lifted to allow children to obtain an education. The longer the crisis continues, the more irreparable damages will occur, and the bleaker Cameroon's future will become.

Samuel Cohen is an Advocacy Intern at TASSC in the Summer 2018. He is currently a student at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, where he is majoring in international relations with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa.

For more information, see:

Human Rights Watch

https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/07/19/cameroon-killings-destruction-anglophone-regions

Amnesty International

https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/06/cameroon-anglophone-regions-gripped-by-deadly-violence/

Global Observatory (International Peace Institute, New York and Vienna)

https://theglobalobservatory.org/2018/07/cameroon-worsening-anglophone-crisis-highlights-need-dialogue-inclusion/

New Openings in the Fight for Police Reform and Ending Torture in Uganda?

 February 20, 2016. © 2016 Human Rights Watch, February 20, 2016.

February 20, 2016. © 2016 Human Rights Watch, February 20, 2016.

By Samuel Cohen

In a shocking move, in March 2018 Uganda dictator Yoweri Museveni removed Kale Kayihura, one of his most fervent supporters and head of the Ugandan police. Under pressure from Ugandans who have accused Kayihura of torture such as beatings and the murder of suspects, Museveni replaced Kayihura with Martin Okoth Ochola, a reformer. With Kayihura gone and Ochola’s new leadership, many are calling on Uganda to actually implement the legislation it passed in 2012 banning torture. Uganda is one of only ten African countries to pass Anti-Torture legislation.

Museveni condemned the use of torture in letters to security chiefs and local media in early 2017 but has barely acted to curb torture until now. The real question now is whether Ochola can end the ingrained practice of torture in the Ugandan police or if he even wants to. Also, will Museveni continue to centralize power in his own hands, as he has done for 32 years ago, especially over the last decade.

Museveni Consolidates Power

Now in his 32nd year as president of Uganda, 73-year-old Yoweri Museveni has continued to consolidate power and taken steps to ensure he remains president for years to come. In 2005 parliament issued a ruling eliminating the presidential term limit. This ruling was recently confirmed by the Ugandan parliament, which abolished age restrictions on the presidency to allow Museveni to run for another term in 2021. Those opposing this move have been met with suppression.

In September 2017 alone, opposition figures like the mayor of Kampala were briefly arrested, Members of Parliament (MPs) were blocked from the debate in parliament, and demonstrations against the new 

law were banned. Museveni has also restricted social media through a law that took effect July 1 which taxes social media users five cents a day in US dollars. The government claims this was done to cut down on "gossip," but it has only hampered the freedoms of communication and speech. 

The Authoritarian Police

Improvements in police behavior came after the inspector general of the police (IGP) General Kale Kayihura was dismissed after 12 years of abuse and corruption.  Under Kayihura, the police were the worst perpetrators of torture in the country. In 2017, 419 cases of police were documented by the Uganda Human Rights Commission compared to 44 cases that year in the military.  Many torture victims are innocent civilians who were beaten until they confessed to crimes they did not commit.  

Between 2012 and 2016 there were 1000 torture allegations against the Ugandan police, many more were suspected to have gone unreported. During this same period, extrajudicial killings of protestors and journalists by police units became common. Under Kayihura, many suspects were tortured before arriving at police stations and before their court dates.  Though Kayihura did shut down some police units like the Rapid Response Unit because of human rights abuses, many officers in these units were moved to other units or locations and continued the same abusive practices.

Museveni vs Kayihura

Kayihura, a known supporter of the president, was accused of turning the police into a partisan force for Museveni, ordering the police to quash protests.   This loyalty did not stop the two from eventually falling out. Museveni wanted to “clean up” the police force because of protests from Ugandan citizens. He wanted to use security cameras to help identify perpetrators of crime and tackle police corruption. When Kayihura refused, Museveni sacked him and replaced him with Deputy IGP Martin Okoth Ochola.

Shortly after Kayighura was fired he was arrested and brought to the Makindye military barracks to await trial. Kayihura has been charged with involvement in organized crimes and killings including the murder of former police spokesperson, Andrew Felix Kaweesi.  Dozens of other senior police officials have been arrested, charged with executing or covering up kidnappings, killings, and extortion. Kayihura has also been questioned about forcing Rwandan refugees, fleeing from the Kagame dictatorship, back to Rwanda. Investigators believe that some members of the police force may have been paid to send back Rwandan opposition figures and refugees with the Kayihura’s approval. These actions enraged Museveni, who has spent years trying to make it appear as if Uganda is a “paradise” for asylum seekers and refugees.

Openings for Reform

Appointing new IGP Martin Okoth Ochola could mark a dramatic shift in how policing is done in Uganda.  Ochola is a sterner and less media hungry inspector. He makes far fewer media statements and has not continued Kayihura's practice of showing up at the scene of crimes before investigators. 

Many argue that a complete overhaul is necessary to rebuild the police forces and create a system of accountability. Ochola has announced some steps he believes will create a more disciplined and effective police force including "sensitizing" the police through workshops with district and division commanders. Ochola has also announced new guidelines to protect the rights of individuals who are arrested. Arrests will now be allowed only after a formal complaint is made and the officer has approval from the unit supervisor or commander. There has been a plethora of cases where arrested individuals have been detained with little evidence and tortured for days before the arrest has even been documented.

Symbolic or Actual Reform?

While there is some hope for genuine reform under Ochola, others are asking whether his reforms are only symbolic.  Why, for example, has  Ochola decided to use the Nalufenya detention facility, where many prisoners were tortured before their court dates, as a police station? Though Ochola has disbanded abusive police units like the Flying Squad, which utilized Nalufenya and other locations to  abuse and torture suspects, some Ugandan media has reported that these abusive units have been incorporated into the new Organized Crime Department. Regardless of whether this is true, Ochola has failed to prosecute some of Uganda’s worst human rights offenders by disbanding these units instead of punishing officers who practiced torture.

Another reason why we can wonder if Ochola is serious about reforming the police is because Ochola’s police force has largely dismissed grievances raised during the recent march to protest violence against women. In the past year, 20 bodies of women have been dumped on the streets of Kampala and many more women have been raped or beaten.

For meaningful police reform to take place in Uganda, a plethora of issues must be addressed. First is creating measures for police accountability.  The Police Disciplinary Court was unable to curb corruption and torture under Kayihura. Now systems must be set up so officers can be held accountable for future abuses. Systems must be put in place to make sure unit supervisors and other high authorities don't turn a blind eye to abuses or allow acts of torture to go underground. Lastly, police officers have become too reliant on torture to force suspects to admit guilt. An organization that has always relied on torture may need to be retaught how to do police work.

Challenge the “status quo” on Torture

It is important to note that Museveni did not remove Kayihura for practicing torture, but because of pressure from human rights groups and Ugandan activists. The activists criticized the government and created bad press for Uganda, Museveni, and the police.

The removal of Kayihura may have opened new avenues for challenging the “status quo on torture” in the police. Another important development has been how Winfred Kiiza, the opposition leader in parliament, has led a delegation of MPs to meet and speak with inmates tortured at Kakika and Mbarara Main Prisons.  The MPs heard stories of inmates tortured and wounded severely. Many innocent people were forced to admit to crimes they did not commit.  Though the Ugandan parliament has not taken any action following the prison visits, it is important that government officials are becoming more aware of police brutality. This could be a first step toward driving systematic change in police conduct. 

It is still too early to judge whether Ochola’s reforms are the beginning of concrete changes in police behavior. His current approach is the closest Uganda has come to actually reforming its police which is why we are cautiously optimistic.  As Ochola moves forward with reforms, human rights activists must remain critical of the Ugandan police and continue the fight to end torture. Regardless, TASSC welcomes these changes as a first step and we hope to see a Uganda where human rights are upheld, and torture is nonexistent.

Samuel is an Advocacy Intern at TASSC in the Summer 2018. He is currently a student at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, where he is majoring in international relations with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa.