Transgender refugees: People have to know that I am human first


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Towards the end of 2018, Tanzania saw a severe crackdown on queer rights and activism by Dar es Salaam Regional Commissioner Paul Makonda. Amid the fear and panic in the community, some queer people, including transgender refugees, temporarily relocated to Kenya.

Transgender people encounter many different challenges when they find themselves in refugee situations. Apart from the everyday challenges faced by refugees in general, transgender people have very particular healthcare needs.

In its 2010 discussion paper, the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, notes that: ”Transgender persons who are involved in medical treatments related to transition suffer from a lack of access to such treatments in transit countries and upon resettlement. Too often, the abusive conditions they endured in their country of origin are replicated in the country in which they are resettled”.

Speaking to MambaOnline from Nairobi, Kenya, transgender refugee Komati* spoke about her experience of having to leave her country following the crackdown on LGBT people and organisations in Tanzania.

“Essentially, we were told by the Regional Commissioner that as LGBT people, we were not supposed to live in our country,” she said. Komati explained that panic and fear led her to seek help from a transgender organisation in neighbouring Kenya. “On the first of November 2018, I decided to communicate with an organisation in Kenya and they kindly agreed to accommodate us temporarily”.

“It almost feels like starting over again”

The lines are often blurred between sexual orientation and gender identity in asylum cases, as was the case with Malawi’s Tiwonge Chimbalanga who, along with partner, Steven Monjeza were arrested under sodomy laws in Malawi in 2009. Chimbalanga, affectionately known as Aunty Tiwo, has since been relocated to South Africa, with the help of transgender organisation Gender Dynamix.

The experience for Komati though, has been far more positive than for Aunty Tiwo. She said: “Our host organisation has been most helpful with everything that we need, including healthcare services.”

Of course, this experience is not without its difficulties. “I miss my family and friends; it almost feels like starting over again. I keep in touch with friends through social media but my grandmother does not have a smartphone and so I can only contact her by direct line,” she said.

On the other side of the refugee scenario is that of the host. For Alesandra Ogeta from Jinsiagu, who has assisted Komati and other transgender women from Tanzania, this has also been a new experience for her relatively young organisation.

She cites the lack of resources and the difficulty in obtaining funds to be able to host the refugees as the most significant challenges. It was also quite intense to host refugees over the holiday season; a time typically spent with family and friends, she said.

Komati believes that very little can be done to address the situation of queer people in Tanzania at the moment. Organisations are shut down and are too scared of speaking out against this injustice.

She does not know what the future holds, or when she will be able to return to Tanzania. Asked about what she wants people to know about being a transgender refugee, Komati responded: “Before any of the labels, I want people to recognise that I am a human being first.”

*Komati’s name has been changed for her protection.

Article by Leigh Ann van der Merwe. Leigh Ann is a writer and feminist activist. She is the founder of Social, Health and Empowerment Feminist Collective of Transgender Women of Africa. Leigh Ann writes about contemporary issues in the transgender movement.

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