Gays seek protection in Senegal despite intolerance of homosexuality

West Africa is not an easy place to live if you are gay. In Gambia, fifteen men were arrested in April of this year on suspicion of being gay. After almost three months they were acquitted for lack of evidence. Five of them have since fled to Senegal where they are presently seeking asylum.

In Mali, rebel armed groups – Ansar Dine, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – have been controlling northern Mali since June of this year. They have committed serious atrocities against the civilian populations while implementing the Sharia law, and have been indoctrinating the youth in the areas under their control. As a result, a Malian man living in Timbuktu (northern Mali) was suspected by his neighbours of being gay and conducting ‘unorthodox practices’. His neighbours denounced him, and the Islamist rebels wanted to burn him alive. But he managed to escape, tearing up his identity documents, and is now in Senegal where IRRI is assisting him in seeking asylum.

These are just two stories I have come across recently in my work with asylum seekers and refugees in Senegal. Yet even in Senegal, there are serious challenges relating to their claims. Homosexuality is also not tolerated in Senegal, and serious questions need to be asked as to whether or not these people will find international protection.

The reality is that many people suspected of being gay have been victims of violence, harassment, discrimination, exclusion and stigmatisation in Senegal. For instance, on December 24 2009, 24 men in Senegal, including two French nationals, were arrested at a party in Saly Niax Niaxal. Police justified the arrest saying that they were attempting to infiltrate groups of Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transgender (LGBT) people, and that this party was raided after an undercover detective was given an invitation and informed the authorities. They were eventually released without being charged.

The same year, the body of a man believed to be homosexual was twice dug up from a Muslim cemetery in Senegal. Residents of the western town of Thies dug up his body and left it near his grave. His family then reburied him, but he was once more exhumed by people who did not want him buried there. The second time, his body was dumped outside the family house.

Many Africans, including those in positions of power, believe that homosexuality is a Western phenomenon. However, homosexuality has existed for centuries and is known to have existed in many ancient civilizations. It is therefore necessary for advocates within the LGBT community, human rights organisations, and international and regional institutions (including the African Union) to work closely together in order to find effective solutions for LGBT persons. They should be able to live normally as human beings and their human rights should be respected and guaranteed. In order for this to happen, however, mechanisms to fight exclusion, discrimination, violence, stigmatisation and execution of LGBT persons in our African countries must be put in place.

In the meant time, is Senegal the right country for people fleeing persecution on the basis of their sexuality to look for international protection? Will they be granted refugee status when the process even in traditional cases can take up to three years? The outcome for those seeking asylum in Senegal will be something of a test-case to see how much progress has been made.

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