Cleopatria, a lesbian refugee from Zimbabwe who has lived in South Africa for five years, has never held stable job. After several employers asked if she was a man and refused her work, she has been forced to sell CDs on the street for a living.
Without steady income, Cleopatria lived in a discriminatory home environment, where her landlord shouted homophobic slurs at her and eventually evicted her for having LGBTI visitors. To rub salt in the wound, Cleopatria was violently assaulted twice for being lesbian, but police failed to investigate her cases.
This is the devastating reality for many LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa, despite the country's liberal laws and protections. Due to widespread xenophobia and homophobia, LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers often experience employment and housing discrimination, police abuse, and intolerance, according to a new report by the Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic at the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice and People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty, a South African nonprofit that advocates for refugees and asylum seekers.
All this spirals together to keep LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers - those who have fled their home countries in search of protection and sanctuary - marginalized in South Africa.
If South Africa wants to live up to its own Constitution and laws, as well as its international obligations, it must begin to recognize and address barriers to housing, employment and the justice system faced by LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers.
A myriad of issues begins when LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers cannot find stable work. Potential employers not only assume that they can be deported anytime, but they also discriminate based on national origin, sex, race, ethnicity or LGBTI status. For example, lesbian asylum seeker Mari received positive feedback from phone interviews, but upon appearing for an in-person interview, the potential employer refused her paperwork and CV, assuming her sexual orientation. From accents to names on CVs, language skills and looks, the slightest hint of a foreign nationality and LGBTI status can push people out of the running for steady jobs and into unsteady or informal work.
Moreover, a slow economy has increased competition and hostility against foreign workers. "Refugees are seen as trying to steal South African jobs," a LGBTI asylum seeker said.
Discrimination on the job, including insults, inappropriate comments, improper payment and physical violence from bosses, co-workers and clients, is also rampant. Many refugees are paid under market value and constantly fear losing their jobs. One refugee, Abraham, even lost his tuck shop to a fire that his neighbors set while he was sleeping inside because he is gay.
The organization responsible for resolving labor disputes, the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, has proven ineffective, as rulings often fail to address all the issues, and are rarely enforced. LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers thus find themselves choosing between their identity or their survival, an almost impossible choice to make.
"I can only be gay from the inside," David of Congo said. "I have to hide it from the public now and be a 'real man' otherwise, there will be no opportunities for me. South Africa has made me regret being gay."
Unable to find jobs, LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers can't afford basic necessities, including housing. Many who live with family or friends upon arrival to South Africa are ousted once their LGBTI identity is discovered. Consequently, they end up in and out of homeless shelters - sometimes for years on end - or settling for sub-standard housing, both of which are usually in dangerous areas rife with discrimination violence.
Homeless shelters are an unaccommodating last resort for LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers because residents and workers often discriminate based on national origin or LGBTI status. Sometimes, they go as far as stealing belongings and forcing work in exchange for keep, many refugees and asylum seekers reported.
Those lucky enough to find housing experience discrimination by their landlords, neighbors and roommates. Landlords often charge higher rent, deny privacy of LGBTI tenants, and even verbally or physically abuse tenants. Roommates or surrounding neighbors can be just as cruel, taunting LGBTI residents, stealing their property and sometimes committing "corrective rapes."
"Lesbians are being raped a lot and the police don't take 'corrective rape' cases seriously," one lesbian, Masani, explained. "People are dying in silence."
Police rarely enforce discrimination laws, disregard reports of rape or assault against LGBTI persons and sometimes even actively discriminate or perpetrate violence. Police inaction and misconduct create a culture of impunity, leaving LGBTI persons even more vulnerable.
South Africa is failing its LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers - a population that has already suffered immense trauma and arrived in search of safety. The government and civil society should institute systemic policy and legal reforms, educational programs, and awareness campaigns to ensure that South Africa's human rights obligations are met.
Specifically, South Africa should encourage and implement LGBTI-focused training programs for police and government officials, stable employment opportunities for LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers, safe shelters and housing options, and awareness campaigns or educational programs on rights and anti-discrimination laws.
Elizabeth Gyori is a Program Officer at the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School.