Fighting for asylum, as a lesbian and as a mother
Women applying for asylum on the grounds of their sexual orientation face an uphill battle if they've left children behind
“The moment you leave your children behind, half of you is back home and half of you is here. You are thinking about the children all the time – especially if they are young”, says Livia*, a lesbian from Uganda and mother of three children. She is currently seeking asylum in Germany. Like Livia, many women applying for their asylum based on their sexual orientation have children that are the result of previous relationships and heterosexual marriages. Most lesbians claiming asylum in Europe have married to either hide their sexual orientation or because they were forced into a formalised, heterosexual union.
The Munich-based, lesbian support group LeTRa, which offers social and legal support to 180 lesbian-identifying women from, primarily, Sub-Saharan Africa, reports that about 78% of their client base are mothers. Only a few were able to afford the high visa and transportation costs for bringing their children with them when they came. Most had no choice but to travel alone, leaving their children in the care of relatives, LGBTQI+ allies and, in some rare cases, their biological father. The separation can last for years as the women slowly try make their way through the asylum process.
Many will never succeed in bringing their children to Germany. LeTRa reports that lesbian mothers are at high risk of being rejected for refugee protection because case officers find their motherhood irreconcilable with their sexual orientation. According to German asylum law, family reunion is only possible after having been granted refugee or subsidiary protection status and before the children turn 18. And, even if reunification is granted, to bring children to Germany is time-consuming and costly. The expenses include a mandatory DNA test to prove a blood relationship, visa fees, and travel. Since most lesbian refugee women do not have enough savings to cover these expenses, they face a great deal of uncertainty around when or if they will see their children again.
I worry all the time that my children become victim of hate crime because I am a lesbian.
What does it mean for lesbian mothers seeking asylum to be separated from their children for so long, and to have no certainty of ever achieving family reunification? To what extent does the case of lesbian mothers reveal the heteronormativity of the EU asylum system, within which the experiences and needs of women who lead non-heteronormative lifestyles seem to be erased? Let me try to address these questions based on Livia’s experiences with transnational motherhood in a context of extreme legal precarity.
More support needed for lesbian asylum claimants with children
In Uganda, homophobic politics and societal attitudes are currently on the rise. Despite trying to hide her sexuality behind the veneer of two heterosexual marriages, Livia was outed by her second husband and experienced police detention, corrective rape, and mob violence. Livia feared for her own safety and that of her children, who were now at risk of social ostracisation and violence because their mother was a known lesbian. In the interest of her children’s future and her own safety, she asked her sister to look after her children until she could build a new life in Europe. Her plan was to reunite with them after having received refugee status. When she left, she had no idea how long that process could take.
Livia arrived in Germany in 2017. One year later, her asylum case got rejected on the grounds that her homosexuality was not credible. This is due to her two heterosexual marriages and her motherhood. Since then, she has been stuck. The German government hasn’t deported her because she appealed the asylum decision and is currently waiting for a court date. While waiting, her legal status in Germany remains that of an asylum claimant. Livia lived in a refugee camp for the first three years, before moving into a shared apartment in the summer of 2020. In all this time her only option for maintaining contact has been video calls via her mobile phone, which have have often been interrupted, or even impossible, due to spotty WIFI connections in the camp. The deep pain caused by the ‘loss’ of her children was plain when we spoke. “Here where I stay there are many children. There many children going to school,” she said. “I wish [my children] were here, and I could get them ready for school. I wish this would happen soon.”
Like other migrant women, Livia parents from a distance. Indeed, Livia’s life in Germany largely pivots around the well-being of her children. Now in an affluent country, the expectation on her to provide for her children back home is high. From the monthly allowance (ca. €354) she receives as an asylum claimant in Germany for food, rent, clothing, health, and personal items, she also finances her children’s medical expenses, food, rent, and school fees. The pandemic has made even that more difficult, as lockdowns in Uganda have made it at times impossible to complete an international money transfer. When both of her children were hospitalised earlier this year with ulcers and ringworm, Livia worried that they would not get the necessary treatment if her funds wouldn’t go through.
The Covid-19 pandemic has had further consequences for the well-being of children of lesbian asylum claimants who stayed behind. LeTRa said that because boarding schools are closed in many countries, the children of quite a few clients are currently on the streets without medical care, steady food provision, or adult support. “It is extremely hard for these women to know that their children are on the streets and have not enough to eat,” LeTRa’s psychologist told me. “They don’t know if their children will survive the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Most of these children cannot stay with relatives, as they are considered outcasts due to their mothers’ sexual orientation. And even if relatives do take them in, that stigma sticks. As Livia says, “I worry all the time that my children become victim of hate crime because I am a lesbian. It’s not their fault and I want them to have a good life.” If lucky, these children might find shelter with their mother’s LGBT-allies.
For Livia, there are not enough spaces where she can share her pain and love for her children. She is a single woman in her mid-40s living in shared refugee accommodation. She is afraid that if others found out about her children, they would ask questions that could potentially out her as a lesbian to her housemates. There are many reasons why that could go badly for her. LGBTQI+ asylum claimants generally experience a heightened risk of sexual and physical violence in accommodation centres at the hands of other asylum claimants as well as staff. So she keeps her pain to herself.
Today, she is determined to break the silence about lesbian motherhood in the refugee context. In collaboration with LeTRa, Livia is currently in the process of setting up a support group to help lesbian mothers who are seeking asylum. In so doing, Livia hopes to not only create a space of peer support and mentoring, but to also to find opportunities to break with widely accepted social and institutional assumptions where female homosexuality is seen as incompatible with motherhood.
Lesbian asylum claimants in Bavaria are running an online fundraiser to help look after their children during the pandemic. Learn more or donate here.
* A pseudonym.
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