The first time Bulelani Mfaco felt vulnerable because of his sexuality was while walking at night with his boyfriend. It was 2004 and the couple was on the way from the cinema when a passerby threw a stone at their faces. “That was the first time I realised that the violence was not just something I read about in the newspaper, that it could happen to me too.”
A few years later Mfaco was detained by a security guard in a shopping centre in Cape Town. "He humiliated me and made nasty comments about my appearance. It was very frightening."
People didn’t talk about homophobia when Mfaco was growing up. “Prior to 1994 everybody would have been fighting apartheid and very little was said about homophobia. During the constitution-making process activists had to persuade the anti-apartheid groups to include sexual orientation in the constitution.
You know something could happen to you in South Africa. You could be stoned, you could be raped if you're a lesbian, you could be burned to death
South Africa's constitution went on to become the first in the world to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In 2002 gay couples were given the right to adopt children, while in 2006 South Africa became the first country in Africa, and the fifth in the world, to legalise same-sex marriage.
“The legal framework in my country is beautiful, it’s perfect. But then you have the lived experiences of when you walk around the streets. You know something could happen to you; you could be stoned, you could be raped if you’re a lesbian, you could be burned to death.”
In 2015, Mfaco, who studied politics and public administration at university in Cape Town, secured a scholarship to study a masters degree at UCD in Dublin. He arrived in August 2015, found accommodation in Dún Laoghaire and immersed himself in his studies for the duration of the masters programme. Even before he left South Africa Mfaco had begun investigating how to apply for asylum abroad. "I had experienced persecution because of sexual orientation for a long time but I never had the means to leave South Africa. I couldn't apply for asylum immediately on my arrival as I'd signed an agreement that I would study here."
In September 2016, Mfaco used savings from his study stipend to pay for a flight to South Africa where he spent a brief period visiting family. He then returned to Ireland on his student visa where he found a job as a customer service administrator. Meanwhile, he began investigating the Irish asylum system and consulted with NGOs, solicitors and the international protection office on how he should approach the application process. In October 2017, he filed an application and was brought to the Balseskin direct provision centre in Finglas.
“It was awful. You have to share a bedroom with strangers and there was no privacy. I was in the single men’s block and it literally stank. You dreaded the idea of having to go the bathroom, it was like military camp.”
After about five weeks Mfaco was transferred to the Knockalisheen direct provision centre in Co Clare. Having witnessed the abuse an openly gay Indian man endured at Balseskin, Mfaco chose not to mention his sexuality to anyone in the new centre. “I was queuing in the canteen for dinner during my first or second week and I heard homophobic slurs behind me. I had no idea what to do so I just took my food and left the canteen. Since then I’ve felt uncomfortable eating in the canteen and always sit far from everyone else.”
A few months later Mfaco inadvertently revealed his sexuality to his Albanian room-mate after he asked whether Mfaco had a girlfriend. “He was like ‘what? I don’t like that s**t’. He went on about how boys are supposed to be with girls and all I could think was ‘what have I done to deserve this?’”
Stripping a person of their right to privacy strips them of their humanity. When you take that right away from someone and give it to someone else you create tension
Asked whether LGBT asylum seekers should be offered private rooms so as to avoid homophobic abuse in the centres, Mfaco says it would only exacerbate the problem. “Other asylum seekers have the right to privacy too. Stripping a person of their right to privacy strips them of their humanity. When you take that right away from someone and give it to someone else you create tension.”
The only real solution is to abolish the direct provision system, says Mfaco. “You’re taking human beings away from society; you’re divorcing them from the social and economic life of the country. We already know that people who have spent a lot of time in direct provision waiting for a decision struggle to get work and housing when they finally get permission to stay. They don’t have any references so they have to rely on welfare.
Confined to centres
“Ireland hasn’t had direct provision since the beginning of time, it’s relatively new. You had a humane asylum process before then when decisions were issued more quickly so people could go out and start living their lives instead of being confined to centres that I would describe as ghettos in every sense of the word.”
After nearly a year in direct provision, Mfaco is still waiting to be interviewed by the International Protection Office. He was recently granted a work permit under the new right to work scheme introduced earlier this year but has been unable to secure a job. “No employers know about the permission to work scheme. They expect a GNIB card from a non-EU national but we have a piece of paper and they don’t know how to authenticate it.”
He says the State’s decision not to include asylum seekers who are appealing the decision of their status in the new work scheme is “fundamentally problematic” and that the Burmese man who last year won the Supreme Court appeal over laws preventing him from working had also initially been refused refugee status. “The response by the State undermines the court order that was made by the Supreme Court. It’s costing the Government a lot of money to keep people in direct provision. I’m a grown adult and I’ve worked before. I can work again but the Government chooses to spend over €1,000 per month on me.”
Mfaco, who was an active member of the right to work campaign, feels strongly about speaking publicly about the human rights abuses within the direct provision system. “A lot of people who are in situations much worse than me are not able to speak out against the State because they’re scared of being deported. If I can say something about their plight, then great.”