Meet Muhammad Ali Baashi. He’s eighteen, a Somali teenager working for his family in the village of Barawe some fifty miles from Mogadishu. Muhammad is a lot like most teenagers, and as a teenager often does, Muhammad fell in love. Love is a universal truth, something we feel for our family, our friends, our pets, and our partners. At its primal level, love is what binds us all. However, love bound Muhammad in a different way. After being discovered with a male lover, Muhammad was bound by the earth: buried up to his chest and stoned to death by terrorist organisation Al-Shabaab. The local judge that ruled on this case of “sodomy” allegedly stated ‘We investigated, and this man did what Muslims shouldn’t do. As a result, he will be stoned to death, [when] the one that killed someone will be shot because homosexuality is more punishable in Islam’.
Muhammad’s story broke international headlines in 2013, an average Somali boy stoned to death for falling in love. For many, this story seemed out of the ordinary. Critics of those using the story of Muhammad to further queer advocacy argued that this was an extraordinary case, that events like these no longer occurred in the twenty-first century. This sentiment is markedly untrue, even five years after the fact. By the numbers, 72 member states of the United Nations have laws criminalizing same-gender attraction and same-sex sexual activity. Those 72 countries are home to 2.7 billion people, meaning that one in every three people live in a country where it is illegal to be LGBTQ+. These statistics highlight an issue that extends past the life of one eighteen year old boy stoned to death or one country’s criminalisation of queerness. They point to an issue of international proportions, and an issue that receives very little international attention. Let’s follow the path of Muhammad to understand the stakes he faced before pleading guilty to his archaic charges. What if Muhammad had fled before his trial? What path must LGBTQ+ asylum seekers walk to find safety?
Muhammad lived in Somalia, one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be LGBTQ+. It is at the bottom of nearly every equality index, as in all rural areas same-sex behaviour can be punished by death. These laws ensure that a young gay Somali boy like Muhammad ‘has a well-founded fear of persecution because of… membership in a particular social group’, following the United Nations guidance upon who is legitimately able to claim asylum. According to international law Muhammad has every right to flee Somalia, but many dangerous barriers lie on his path to safety.
The first thing he must consider is his end goal: how will Muhammad reach a state like Sweden or the United Kingdom (two states topping the LGBTQ+ equality indexes)? He will most likely have to pay out the entirety of his savings to a smuggler, with the promise of transport to the northern African coast. Paying a smuggler to escape is dangerous in itself, but LGBTQ+ asylum seekers like Muhammad face significantly higher risks of sexual and physical abuse by their smugglers. Even further, as one of the most vulnerable groups in the world, queer asylum seekers are also significantly more likely to be trafficked than their CIS and straight counterparts.
If Muhammad manages to make it to the northern African coast safely, he will most likely arrive with little to no money in his possession. He may join the ranks of queer asylum seekers in north Africa and south European ports forced into sex work or petty crime to pay for safe travel. As they are disproportionately exposed to sexual violence, the rates of mental illness in LGBTQ+ asylum seekers are significantly higher than that of any other demographic. This often has real effects on the life expectancy of these asylum seekers either within the country in which they have claimed asylum, or on their journey there.
After this traumatic experience, Muhammad will most likely board a raft bound for the islands of Greece. This journey is treacherous one, highlighted by even the Help Refugees UK holiday campaign in which one is able to purchase life-jackets for organisations that work to pull asylum seekers from the Mediterranean. If Muhammad is able to make it onto the Greek mainland, he is by EU law obligated to claim asylum in Greece. Unfortunately for many queer asylum seekers, the countries that border the Mediterranean are not always safe places for LGBTQ+ people to live. Greece has a largely Orthodox population, coming in at 98% of Greek citizens practicing Orthodox Christianity. This comes at a huge cost to local LGBTQ+ populations, forcing many to carry out their relationships in secret. A country like Greece is not where a queer asylum seeker like Muhammad is running towards. They do not represent safety, freedom, and often most integrally openness.
As a result, Muhammad may choose to follow the path of his predecessors and try to claim asylum in another European country. Even if he managed to land in another EU country, he will most likely be sent back to the first country he claimed asylum in regardless of its safety. In the unlikely event he does make it to another European country and successfullyclaims asylum, Muhammad still has more hurdles to jump. For example, if he tried to gain refugee status in the United Kingdom he would be subjected to a three hour Home Office interview that has gained international notoriety as one of the most invasive and abusive immigration policies in Europe. Oftentimes during this interview, asylum seekers are required to share the entirety of their sexual histories with the interviewer. In the best cases, they are asked to remember irrationally small events or to provide irrationally obscure evidence. This can come in the form of being asked to remember the last time their partner visited the dentist, to providing the interviewer with a receipt of entry from a gay club. In the worst cases, asylum seekers have been forced to watch pornography during their interview so their interviewer may gage their same-sex attraction. In tandem with these incredibly frustrating and invasive interview processes, being detained as a queer asylum seeker is statistically very dangerous in the UK. Asylum seekers often find themselves suffering at the hands of violent staff and prejudiced detainees. These detention centres can oftentimes prove to be more dangerous than the countries of origin many asylum seekers fled.
After all of this, Muhammad may finally receive refugee status. However, having status is not necessarily the resolution to a queer refugees problems. Status represents the beginning of a journey to safety, to freedom, and to openness. These three values are those chased by every queer asylum seeker, and are deserved by each and every one. Especially Muhammad, who lost his life before having access to these values. The life of Muhammad was short, especially in comparison to the journey he would have needed to walk in order to be able to live. Many find themselves at the crossroads of fight or flight, of death or life. Muhammad was unable to choose life, but with greater levels of international support for queer asylum seekers cases like his will become fewer and fewer. With the creation of LGBTQ+ refugee based organisations, support and distribution of international queer advocacy, and the implementation of progressive interview tactics like the DSSH (https://academic.oup.com/ijrl/article-abstract/29/2/292/4034811), no one will ever have to run for their love again.
Madison is a second year History student at King’s College London writing as a contributor for Sensus. Her particular interests of study and research include migration, queerness, and diplomacy.
She is the acting Editor-in-Chief of the KCL Women & Politics blog, The Clandestine and has been published previously by GLSEN (the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network) as well as Teen Vogue.
Dawson, Jasmine, and Paula Gerbe. “Assessing the Refugee Claims of LGBTI People: Is the DSSH Model Useful for Determining Claims by Women for Asylum Based on Sexual Orientation?” OUP Academic, Oxford University Press, 25 July 2017, academic.oup.com/ijrl/article-abstract/29/2/292/4034811.
Majumdar, Shahirah. “Resettlement Is Twice as Complicated for LGBTQ Refugees.” Vice, Vice, 7 Sept. 2017, http://www.vice.com/en_us/article/j55wqd/resettlement-is-twice-as-complicated-for-lgbtq-refugees.
“Religion in Greece: History of Orthodoxy.” Greeka, http://www.greeka.com/greece-culture/religion/.
TheAdvocateMag. “Gay Somali Teen Stoned to Death, Village Forced to Watch.” ADVOCATE, Advocate.com, 20 Mar. 2013, http://www.advocate.com/news/world-news/2013/03/20/gay-somali-teen-stoned-death-village-forced-watch.
United Nations. “The 1951 Refugee Convention.” UNHCR, http://www.unhcr.org/1951-refugee-convention.html.