Papua New Guinea criminalises homosexuality with imprisonment for up to 14 years. Where will this leave refugees persecuted for their identity
For many Australians, these words strike us with considerable irony. In 2010, prior to losing the Labor leadership, prime minister Kevin Rudd denounced a policy shift to the “right” when it came to asylum seekers. This was the same leader who led a government to victory on the basis that offshore processing would be disbanded in favour of more humane and cost effective community-based processing.
|Rally in Sydney:Photograph: Daniel Munoz/Reuters|
Such hope, of course, was cruelly crushed following Rudd's announcement to send all asylum boat arrivals to Papua New Guinea (PNG) last Friday.
Much has been written about the endemic violence in PNG and the absence of effective legal infrastructure to support refugees. However, little has yet been said about another important question: how will lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) asylum seekers fare in a place where their identity is a cause for criminal sanction?
PNG criminalises homosexuality with imprisonment for up to 14 years. The criminal code – largely mirroring many other colonial laws – punishes acts that are deemed “unnatural offences.” With pervasive cultural attitudes that consider gay and lesbian people to be both pathological and perverse, it is unsurprising that such laws specifically prohibit expressions of same-sex relationships.
Under these new proposals, both LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees who arrive by boat would have to contend with a legal system that deems their behaviour immoral and their identities criminal. There is no indication whether PNG would, under their laws, consider such claims to be valid at all. Even here in Australia, where there are no criminal punishments and sexual orientation or gender identity claims are valid, “coming out” can be fraught with anxiety.
Can you imagine then having to disclose that you are being persecuted for being gay, when the place you are seeking asylum in believes you should be locked up for it?
As refugee lawyers Jenni Millbank and Eddie Bruce-Jones point out, criminalising same-sex relationships itself can amount to persecution. Even if the laws are not enforced, they make sexual and gender minorities subject to extortion, abuse and harassment. When turning to the police risks further violence, LGBTI people are forced to occupy positions of secrecy. Locked back into the proverbial closet for fear of being harmed.
On one hand, you risk stigma, punishment and/or rejection by revealing that your sexual orientation or gender identity is the basis of your claim. Alternatively, you can remain silent, and be returned to the country where you faced a well-founded fear of persecution. Either way, it is an impossible Catch-22.
Let’s not forget about the challenges that arise after you are recognsied as a refugee too. How would you fare as a person resettled in a country where you could never express who you were for fear of being prosecuted?
ORAM International, the leading advocacy organisation for LGBTI refugees, recently recommended that resettlement countries like Australia work to ensure that refugees are quickly and carefully resettled within safe communities. Sadly, this will no longer be an option for those who arrive by boat seeking protection. In an attempt to “save lives” and/or “smash the people smugglers’ business model” – depending on which political rhetoric is being invoked at the time – LGBTI asylum seekers will be sacrificed.
We have to ask ourselves: is this the kind of future for Australia that we want to be building?
Elections come and go. Policies shift and change. Human rights abuses, unfortunately, continue to persist globally – 78 countries continue to criminalise same-sex relationships. Whether people manage to get on a boat or not, the absence of safe and legal ways to seek refuge means people will languish either in their home or transit country. Out of sight, out of mind.
Hours after the announcement, foreign minister Bob Carr tweeted: “I promise to stand against homophobia. Always.” Sadly, that promise seems exclude refugees fleeing homophobia.
For a party that claims to treat asylum seekers with “dignity and compassion” and aims for a world where LGBTI people are “safe, valued, and respected,” the decision to banish asylum seekers arriving by boat to PNG is an extremely odd way to show it.