Asylum seeker.

Those two words can strike fear into the heart of many a European. They can also, with the necessary political spin, win or lose elections that side of the pond.

Britain is known for deporting asylum seekers not fit to travel, never mind fit to return to a country where they could be killed. In January 2008, the Brits kicked out Ama Sumani, a Ghanaian mother of two being kept alive on dialysis for bone marrow cancer. She had overstayed her visa. Sumani died in Accra a few weeks later, unable to access treatment.

In Australia, asylum seekers arriving in boats were, until very recently, either left to drown on the high seas or locked up in refugee prisons. Most were fleeing wars in Asia and the Middle East in which Australia was engaged. Years behind barbed wire and cement walls turned these people, who had already experienced horrors most will never know, into dysfunctional basket cases. Psychologists in Australia diagnosed some of the worst instances of posttraumatic stress disorder they had seen after refugees and their children spent months, sometimes years, in these confinement centres.

Sometime after the Cold War, when many claimants were “good” refugees escaping communism, the words refugee and asylum seeker became synonymous with illegal opportunistic aliens pounding down our Western doors and threatening to change the face of our “civilized” society.

This is baseless if you think about it. If I was prepared to get into a boat with my family and the few belongings I own and sail across unknown treacherous waters to some foreign country where I could be arrested or worse, my life at home would have to really suck.

Gay asylum seekers, like the vast majority of those prepared to forever leave their countries, are most often fleeing the prospect of murder, torture, arrest or a life in isolation.

In this issue Xtra speaks with gay and lesbian refugees in Paris, discovering that although many have escaped such barbarity, they continue to face lives in limbo in Europe. France maintains a “safe list” of countries where it says gay people are not persecuted. The list contains places like Senegal, where police regularly imprison gays and lesbians based on perceived sexual orientation.

The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission notes of Senegal that it is a “country in which same-sex relations are illegal, homophobia is widespread, and incitement toward violence against those perceived to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is often encouraged by politicians and religious leaders.”

This could describe many countries in Africa and the Middle East where life for gays remains nasty and brutish.

Canada’s track record on this front has been spotty. While the Harper Conservatives have made international public overtures about the need to decriminalize homosexuality, their behaviour at home has been much less commendable. For example, in 2008 they deported Kulenthiran Amirthalingam to Malaysia, where he had already spent time behind bars because he is gay.

Canada’s guidelines for accepting refugees are based on the United Nations’ 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. This document does not make explicit provisions for gay refugees, so it is incumbent on claimants to prove not only that they are gay, but also that their sexuality would put them at danger in their home countries.

It is peculiar that those who have spent their lives trying to conceal and deny their sexuality have to then turn around and prove they are gay in the refugee application process.

Last March, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced a pilot project with the Rainbow Refugee Committee to help sponsor gay refugees who face persecution. At the time Kenney said Canada has a history of being a safe haven, noting that reaching out to private sponsors was “vital to refugees in need of protection.”

But in December, the government changed its mind, instead proposing rule changes that both the Rainbow Refugee Committee and the Canadian Council for Refugees say will make it much harder for gay refugees to find safety in Canada.

The government can still change its mind again and bolster Canada’s reputation as a global safe haven for gay refugees.

If Stephen Harper truly wants to create change for gay people abroad, he can start at home, opening the doors wide for all those who would be killed or arrested elsewhere. Currently, there is no international institution that attends exclusively to the issue of gay and lesbian refugees. Canada should take the lead in launching such an organization. If the government does nothing and continues to backtrack on promises to the gay community, both Canadians and despotic, homophobic world leaders will know our government’s pro-gay statements are nothing but empty words.
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