Despite reports of violence and discrimination against queer people often hitting the news, for Wagdy (Egypt), Riri (Azerbaijan), and Misha (Nigeria), Georgia represents a safe place where they can finally be themselves. While some find a new life in Georgia free from fear, the country’s opaque asylum procedures threaten to send some of them back, their presence deemed ‘contradictory to the interests of the country’.
Wagdy — the burden of a gay Egyptian apostate
It was 02:00, there was a rapid knocking at the door; he was awake. Police officers were standing at the door. ‘Are you Wagdy? You have to come with us. We have an order to take you’, they said. He was not allowed to ask questions, and was rushed to the police station, mocked with homophobic slurs on the way.
There, he was beaten and left in darkness for the night. A detective came in the morning and informed him he was being charged for converting to Christianity and being gay. His friend had turned him in, somebody he entrusted with his secrets.
‘I was shocked, I couldn’t talk. They put me in a room flooded with water so I couldn’t sit. I was standing on my feet for 15 hours. Then they took me to another room and electrocuted me. Some guys raped me, they weren’t police; they had hired them. They raped me and I don’t want to remember this’, Wagdy recalls.
Egypt made headlines in September after dozens were arrested for waving rainbow flags at a concert in Cairo. Homosexuality in itself is not a crime in Egypt, but queer people are often charged for ‘habitual debauchery’ or ‘promoting debauchery’. Fifty-seven people were arrested on these charges after the concert, rights group the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) reports. The EIPR documented 232 arrests of queer people or people perceived to be queer between the last quarter of 2013 and March 2017.
Wagdy is son to a Muslim father and a Christian mother, who separated long ago. He was raised in Cairo by this father, a wealthy doctor. He graduated from the American University in Cairo, where he studied choreography. He used to dance.
‘I told them all the charges were false, but the “friend” who turned me in had recorded me. I spent three weeks in the police station where they beat me to the point where my face was covered in scars. Then I was allowed to call my father. He offered to pay the fine, they accepted it’.
‘Father had known about my sexuality for a long time. He preferred to keep his distance. He doesn’t like it but he never beat me for it. When he got me out, he did not hug me, just shook my hand and asked me to see a psychiatrist. I told him it’s not a disease. He wants me to stay away’, Wagdy says.
It had never been safe, but now it was even less so. He ran to his apartment, grabbed some essentials, and rushed to the airport with his boyfriend. They flew to Beirut, because they did not need a visa for Lebanon. He stayed there for two months, but eventually decided to come to Georgia.
Why Georgia? He is not sure, but this is where his quest for safety brought him. ‘I just want a safe place’, he says, adding that Georgia was not his goal initially.
‘Georgia is part of Europe and I think people are really different [here]. I think my life is really better here. I have never been exposed to any kind of violence here.’
He decided to stay and apply for asylum. He noted that he was persecuted for converting to Christianity, later adding he was also in danger for being gay. He was interviewed several times, but after 9 months his application was rejected.
The Ministry of Refugees stated that Wagdy fit the criteria for asylum, but had been rejected because ‘there were sufficient grounds for assuming that under important circumstances [his] presence in Georgia was contradictory to the interests of the country’.
Ia Pozov, head of the Status Establishing Division at the Ministry says that after collecting information, they send it to State Security Service, who give their recommendations. That recommendation is not binding and as far as Pozov recalls, there have been cases when the ministry have gone against them.
Wagdy’s case was not one of these. He is now appealing the decision in court, unaware how his presence in the country is ‘contradictory to the interests of Georgia’.
Eto Gvritishvili from the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre (EMC), a Tbilisi based rights group, told OC Media the Security Service’s recommendations are considered to be a state secret, and applicants are never told why are they seen as a threat.
‘If the decision is appealed, only a judge is allowed to see their conclusions. Now it becomes a matter of the conscientiousness of the judge, how deeply they will be willing to research the circumstances’, says Gvritishvili.
Riri — a refugee from Azerbaijan
At night she would get out of bed and tiptoe to the mirror. At midnight all 16 boys in the house were asleep and she was finally able to dress in women’s clothes and pluck her eyebrows in peace. She was 16 at the time, living in the family-like care home of SOS Children’s Village.
Riri is a 20-year-old transgender woman, a refugee from Azerbaijan. ‘It’s very dangerous’ she says of being transgender in her home country. But the danger is now a memory from the past, as she has been able to express herself freely mostly without violence from Georgian society, she says.
She has never seen her father; her mother put her into care when she was only three. She was beaten when she told her foster mother she is transgender. Boys would beat her too, telling her she’d burn in hell.
‘Once I was beaten near the house; they took my phone. When I appealed to the police for help they asked me whether I was a fag. This is why people like me are afraid to ask for help in Azerbaijan. There is no one to help transgender people. That’s why many turn to sex work. Nobody cares. Even local LGBT organisations tell you to “walk like a man, like a normal person, and people will not say anything” ’, says Riri.
After coming of age she left the care home. She used to deliver books and would sleep at her office. She tried to get a job in Turkey, but failed. She was planning to go to a Western European country, but eventually came to Georgia and decided to stay.
Riri hopes to obtain a university degree and become a lawyer.
‘My mum called once. “Is it painful?” she asked mockingly, as if I were a sex worker. Transgender women in Azerbaijan, even as children, they think about becoming sex workers when they grow up. I want to become a lawyer and prove everyone wrong. Everybody thinks all transgender people can do is a sex work.’
She is hopeful that someday life will change for better for queer people in Azerbaijan. ‘I hope someday they will be free and happy’, says Riri.
[Read about queer rights in Azerbaijan on OC Media: Arrests, threats, and humiliation in Azerbaijan’s crackdown on queer people]
Misha — hopeful never to return to Nigeria
He was only a teenager when he went for date with a boy he would talk to online. But there was not one, but five men waiting for him. They beat him up and tried to take his phone. He couldn’t appeal to police, as same-sex relationships are criminalised in Nigeria, and could lead to imprisonment of up to 14 years.
‘I ran for my life; unfortunately they caught me. It got really bad. Luckily there was a stranger who made them let me go. It absolutely killed my desire to meet anyone. I was scared of the police and scared to go on dates’, Misha says.
According to Reuters, a 2017 survey by NOI Polls ‘showed a 4 percent increase to 90 percent of Nigerians who support the criminalisation of same-sex relationships, and no change in the proportion of Nigerians who believe that the country would be a better place with no LGBT people, also 90 percent’.
Twenty-two-year-old Misha has been in Georgia for 4 years now, studying at Tbilisi State Medical University. He is an openly gay man who wants asylum in Georgia because he might be arrested if he is forced to return to Nigeria.
‘While I was still in school in Nigeria I had a very reclusive life. I had a choice to make about where to go for a higher education between Russia, Georgia, and the UK, where my relatives live. Georgia was most suitable for me — I can be free here. At first people used to stare, but now everybody likes me at the university. If somebody wants to mess with me, I’m very outspoken’, Misha says.
He says if Georgia gives him asylum it will open up many opportunities. But if not, he’s not leaving.
‘I don’t know what I will do. It will be a very hopeless situation. Nigeria is not safe for me. I cannot go back’, he adds.
Georgia as a safe haven for queer people
There is no official data on how many persecuted queer people have requested asylum in Georgia, as the Ministry of Refugees does not record this information. Data from the ministry shows that from 2012 to June 2017, 286 Egyptians asked for asylum. Only 12 were accepted, with 107 rejected and 124 requests being withdrawn.
Since 2012, 130 Nigerians applied for asylum in Georgia. Only one was approved, with 44 rejected and 68 withdrawing their requests.
In the same period, 59 people from Azerbaijan requested asylum; 5 were accepted, 15 rejected, and 33 withdrew.
Ia Pozov from the ministry says that although there is no official data, approximately 20 people have applied to Georgia for asylum fleeing homophobia in past 3 years. Most of them come from eastern countries and the Caucasus, she says.
Being refused asylum does not necessarily mean a person will be deported. Eto Gvritishvili from EMC explains that these people can request a residence permit from the Public Service Development Agency, which also consults with the State Security Service.
‘Correspondingly, if a person was rejected for asylum because they were seen as a threat to the country, there is a high probability there will be a similar decision about the residence permit’, Gvritishvili says.
Article 8 of the Georgian Law on International Protection states that an asylum seeker cannot be sent back to a country where their life or freedom would be in danger on the grounds affiliation to a certain social group.
However, the same article notes that this ‘shall not apply to an asylum seeker or an internationally protected person, in connection with whom there are sufficient grounds to believe that he/she poses a threat to the state security of Georgia’.