UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner’s Visit Sparks Hope for LGBTQI+ Asylum Seekers in South Africa


Ruvendrini Menikdiwela met with LGBTQI+ Asylum Seekers and other stakeholders in a visit to South Africa (Photo: Supplied)

In a significant development, Ruvendrini Menikdiwela, the Assistant High Commissioner for Protection at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Geneva recently visited South Africa.

On the 6th of February, she engaged with refugee leaders in Pretoria, including representatives from the LGBTQI+ displaced community, to address our pressing challenges within the asylum system, with a focus on Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, Expression, and Characteristics (SOGIESC) asylum claims.

Advocacy for LGBTQI+ Asylum Seekers

The meeting provided a meaningful opportunity for forcibly displaced individuals, some residing in the country for over two decades, to share their successes, challenges, aspirations, and desires.

Rainbow Refuge Africa, representing the LGBTQI+ displaced community, highlighted hurdles within the asylum system and advocated for better representation and inclusion in South African society.

We underscored the struggles and discrimination faced by members seeking asylum based on their SOGIESC claims, including challenges in obtaining identity documentation, accessing healthcare, education, and post-COVID-19 livelihood re-establishment.

Ms Menikdiwela acknowledged the community’s frustration and difficult situations, expressing solidarity and emphasising collective efforts to address these challenges. We urged the UNHCR to recognise our unique vulnerabilities and needs, stressing the importance of accurate and sensitive handling of SOGIESC claims at the Department of Home Affairs.

Refugee Protection Essential to Upholding Fundamental Rights

The visit marked a crucial step in fostering collaboration between UNHCR and LGBTQI+ asylum seekers, providing a platform for dialogue and strengthening commitment to address challenges faced by the LGBTQI+ community within the broader refugee context, especially in Africa.

During her visit, Ms Menikdiwela also met with Home Affairs Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi and urged South Africa not to withdraw from the 1951 Refugee Convention as proposed in the country’s contentious White Paper on Citizenship, Immigration and Refugee Protection, stating that doing so “will not provide the immediate, practical solutions that the Government is seeking.”

She called on the Government to lead the promotion of tolerance and social cohesion towards refugees and migrants. “We appeal to the Government of South Africa to continue to regard refugee protection as essential to upholding fundamental rights,” said Menikdiwela.

Call for Participation and Collaboration

Emphasising the fundamental principles of the Global Refugee Forum, meaningful participation in decision-making by refugees within their host countries is paramount. This principle acknowledges the unique lived experiences of forcibly displaced individuals and underscores the importance of their active involvement in seeking solutions.

The continued collaboration between UNHCR and refugee community leaders is vital to ensure the protection, rights, and dignity of all individuals facing forced displacement, irrespective of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression. 

This collaborative effort aligns with the broader mission of promoting inclusivity, respect, and dignity for all forcibly displaced individuals in their pursuit of safety and well-being.


Henry Wackam is an LGBTQI+ displaced community leader and the Founder and Director of Rainbow Refuge Africa

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