OPINION: The gross dismissal of gay refugees breaks my f*cking heart
Tue 18th Oct, 2016 in Local News
Mahmud is an Iranian man currently being held in detention on Manus Island. He’s gay, though not openly so. He’s eloquently spoken, gentle and clearly intelligent. He’s interested in literature (“but it’s hard to find books here”) and has been on Manus Island for around three years.
He also faces the possibility of imprisonment or execution upon return to Iran or release in Papua New Guinea. Because of his sexuality.
I’m writing about Mahmud again because of the horrifically dismissive comments made today by the secretary of the Immigration Department, Mike Pezzullo.
It emerged this morning that Pezzullo said the Australian government had “acquitted its non-refoulement obligations over two-and-a-half years ago” when agreements with the PNG government were drawn up by the Rudd/Gillard governments.
“In other words, the Australian government has no responsibility to those gay men who are currently detained on Manus, in terms of whether their human rights in relation to their sexuality will be upheld in Papua New Guinea or not?” asked Labor senator Louise Pratt.
“The Australian government – a number of governments, actually, that straddle several parliamentary terms – discharged all of its legal undertakings at the time of the transfer, yes,” he said.
Translation: dump them wherever, we’ve washed our hands of them.
Not that it needs reiteration, but this is a prominent member of our parliament disregarding the very real fact that dozens of gay men are essentially being handed jail time for their sexuality. This is our country being openly – even proudly? – complicit in abuse; knowingly turning a blind eye to the horrific situation those like Mahmud currently find themselves in.
“I normally spend my time in my small bed space which is covered by sheets to make a little bit of privacy,” Mahmud once told me.
“I used to write my book which is almost finished, but I am suffering from severe mental health depression so I have lost all my mood and hope. Now I just lie on my bed or sleep to kill time.”
“I wish I had the mood to complete it, but the circumstances here don’t let me. I have no mood for anything.”
Mahmud’s sexuality shouldn’t be his defining feature. In fact, it is only worth noting due to the additional threat it poses to his immediate safety. Mahmud has spoken to me about one openly gay man being harassed and ridiculed by guards and fellow detainees to the point of willingly returning to the dangers of his war-torn home country.
“They were following him to the shower room and toilet, knocking at his door and asking for sex all the time,” he said. “They were calling him a pufte (sic) and asshole.”
This is the “impossible catch-22” the gay men of Manus are in.
“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,” Senthorun Raj, scholar at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University, once wrote.
If I could burn just one paragraph into the forehead of those like Pezzullo, backwards, so they could read it while looking in the mirror after a long day of spinelessness, it would be this:
“I never planned for Australia. It was my only choice. I expected there would be lots of ups and downs, but I hoped there would be a sanctuary somewhere. I haven’t found it so far.”