LGBTQI rights: A conversation with Dali, a migrant artist and LGBTQI activist


Photo: Afroditi Konstantopoulou

LGBTQI migrants face various problems and discrimination both in their country of origin and in Europe.

Criminalization, persecution or imprisonment are some of the reasons that impel them to flee their country. Once they arrive in Europe, institutional and legislative discrimination are a few among the issues that they have to confront.


I sat with Mohamed Ali Aguerbi (Dali), a migrant artist and LGBTQI activist in Malta. He told me about himself and the criminalization of LGBTQI people in Tunisia. He also raised the problems that LGBTQI migrants face during the asylum application process in Europe, the difficult conditions in refugee camps, the EU legislation as well as the access to education and healthcare.


  • Tell me a little bit about yourself.


My name is Dali, I am a Tunisian migrant and I am studying performing arts at The Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology (MCAST). I am a board member of Malta LGBTIQI Rights Movement (MGRM) as well as of Integra Foundation.


Back in Tunisia I was working for Damj, Tunisian Association for Justice and Equality, which is the first LGBTQI association set up with the aim to create a safe space for LGBTQI people, sex workers and people who were HIV positive. After the revolution many similar organizations started operating but until today they face a lot of police repression.


During my years in Damj I realised that art can be a tool of activism. However, because of my work as an artist and activist I was arrested and investigated. So when I was given the opportunity to work for the Valletta 2018 festival in Malta, I decided to apply for asylum. I received my refugee status after two and a half years.


The situation in Tunisia


  • How is the Tunisian law about LGBTQI people ?


The Tunisian Sodomy Law is a colonial law from 1913. It was the first law ever imposed in the country that criminalized homosexuality. Two consenting adults of the same sex accused of performing a sexual act face 3 years of imprisonment. However, it is so vague that any suspicion of homosexuality can lead to arrest. During the investigation, the police use the forced anal examination, which under international law is a form of torture. Transgender people are also persecuted and tortured. For example, trans men go to women’s prison and vice versa.


  • How do LGBTQI community in Tunisia find support?


There is a lot of violence against LGBTQI people by the police, such as rapes of sex workers, beatings or murder attempts. An example is the one of the president of Damj who some days ago, was beaten and investigated by the police as he took up to report cases of discrimination by law enforcement officers. So the idea of the community is very important. There are people who live with their families and they are accepted. In my case, the president of Damj is a father/mother figure in my life.


The situation in Europe


  • What are the difficulties that LGBTQI people face during the asylum application process in Europe and what are the obstacles in proving that they were persecuted because of their sexuality or gender identity?


In the last few years many things have improved. I consider myself privileged to work with organizations that support human and LGBTQI rights. Thanks to them, I had my paperwork ready and all proof of persecution in order before applying for asylum in Malta. The biggest problem was the language. When I arrived here my level of English was not very high and I did not have the vocabulary to explain certain things. So, I chose to have an Arabic interpreter who, during the process, stopped translating what I was saying, claiming that the language I spoke was not Arabic.


In court proceedings, the translators are chosen without checking the topic of the case. This is a major problem, since the terminology within the LGBTQI community is very important and many interpreters might not be aware of how to translate certain things. For example, the word non-binary is not known, neither used by many people outside the community. If there is a mistranslation, people might not be able to prove that they are persecuted, a fact that has a negative effect on their asylum application.


  • Problem with translators


There was a case of an asylum seeker from Nigeria who fled the country because he was caught with his partner in the act. Although he had planned his asylum application process, he was not able to prove his homosexuality. His asylum application was rejected and he was imprisoned in Malta, risking deportation. By being deported to Nigeria, he would be found either under the sharia law with a death sentence or, best case scenario, under the criminal law with a 14-year imprisonment.


  • The concept of “safe country” is a danger for LGBTQI people


Malta is very supportive to LGBTQI rights but not when it comes to LGBTQI refugees. Being both migrant and LGBTQI person means being double discriminated against. For instance, there is a new policy denying asylum to people coming from “safe countries”, based on the fact that if a country is not at war, it is considered as safe. The problem is that countries that are considered safe for the majority might not be safe for the LGBTQI minority.


  • Is it easy for LGBTQI Immigrants to have access to public services?


Migrant communities suffer from the lack of information. There are LGBTQI migrants that are not aware that they have the right to apply for asylum because of their sexuality. They don’t know how to access education, as the information given to them by the International Protection of Migration (IPA) can sometimes be misleading. A public officer was heard asking if “refugees can study”. For those who manage to access education, the rate of dropout is substantial because there are no grants that support their subsistence. The palpable help comes from NGOs and friends. Culture can matter as well and I have an anecdote where there was a person who lost the opportunity to obtain a refugee status just because the interpreter during the process was his uncle so he was not able to speak openly about his sexuality.


  • You said that Malta is supportive of LGBTQI people. Does that mean that life is perfect in the country?


No. There is still a lot to be done. There are two different kinds of discrimination that LGBTQI people face in the host country, from the institutions and from the legislation, with laws created without taking into consideration the needs of LGBTQI people.

For example transgender people who are seeking asylum cannot start the process of their gender transition in the host country before they are given protection, under the argument that it is not sure that they will stay in the country. Those who have already started the transition process have to stop it while waiting for their asylum claim to be processed.

Similar kind of discrimination applies to same sex couples. The existence of family reunification law that gives the opportunity to migrants and refugees to bring their partners and children to the host country does not apply to homosexual people. For family reunification, it is necessary to submit the marriage certificate, a document that LGBTQI people coming from countries that criminalize same sex marriage is impossible to obtain.


Detention Centres and Refugee Camps in the EU


  • How is the situation for LGBTQI people who live in refugee camps and detention centres in the EU?


Centres are very unsafe for the LGBTQI community. Being in a container with 20 people that you do not know and who are coming from a conservative society can be dangerous. There is the risk of discrimination, threats, psychological or physical violence based on their appearance or their gender identity. Moreover, there is no privacy, so it is very difficult to meet someone and have a relationship or a friendship.


  • Do you know any cases of HIV positive people who were discriminated against within refugee camps?


The stigma of HIV exists. One person, that I will not name, was in detention for 6 months without ever receiving any medication until he started showing symptoms. He kept his health issue for himself because he did not know to whom to address it and he was afraid to be “discovered” by the other inmates. And my question is: “if you do not know that you are HIV positive and there is no doctor to help you, what do you do?”. There is no sexual health awarenees in open center or detention camps.


  • Is there any psychological support for LGBTQI people who have faced physical and psychological violence within or outside the refugee camps?


Yes. But not for everyone. The Rainbow Support Service, some other NGOs, as well as the AWAS (Agency for the Welfare of Asylum Seekers), provide psychological support, but it is available only in Maltese or English. When an interpreter or a cultural mediator is necessary, the idea of one to one psychological support is removed. Additionally, there are many cultural gaps that appear during the therapy and they might create a distance between the therapist and the patient.


  • The important role of the community


Despite many obstacles and difficulties, the community is always present and helpful. Conversations within the community create a better and safer space and help a lot to fight against the cultural barriers. The community is huge and diverse but it is always connected.


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