Monday, 4 February 2013

Fernanda Milan: Activism Works!


 “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” Said Alice Walker, that has always been something activists bear in mind when they work for change.

On the 14th of August last year, a Swedish friend of mine posted a newspaper article about a Guatemalan trans woman who had been through a terrible ordeal trying to seek asylum in Denmark from persecution in her home country.  After I read it, I felt so angry that the Danish Asylum Board had decided to send this woman, Fernanda Milan, back to Guatemala, on the 17th of September, barely 5 weeks later, so I decided to translate the article into English and it was picked up by the LGBT Press around the world, even being retranslated into Spanish.

Various forms of activism both online, offline, through personal contacts using the new technology of social networking, the old technology of email, and positively antediluvian technology of the telephone, took place during that time. There were demonstrations in Copenhagen, in Madrid and here in London. The demonstration we held outside the Danish Embassy in Knightsbridge was effective. Denmark doesn’t get many demonstrations outside its embassies; indeed the last one anyone can remember was Muslims demonstrating against cartoons in a Danish newspaper in 2006. Our demonstration made it into EkstraBladet, the largest circulation tabloid in Denmark.

At the eleventh hour a message was received that the Danish Asylum Review Board had decided to grant Fernanda a stay of execution. Her case was reexamined and new representations were made. Information was collected from studies by the UN, the Organisation of American States and Oasis, the LGBT rights organization for which Fernanda had worked in Guatemala. They all confirmed how trans people in Guatemala are systematically murdered, and that Fernanda herself had had death threats from the police.

A few weeks later the Danish Asylum Board announced that it would now recognise as valid reasons for seeking asylum, persecution on the grounds of gender identity and sexual orientation. A couple of weeks after that on the 27th November, they granted Fernanda Milan permanent leave to remain in Denmark, protected under the UN refugee convention.

The support organization, hastily put together in Denmark, called T-Refugee Project, to support her was, of course very happy with this result but they were still angry. In answer to why they are only announcing her victory today Stine Larsen of the T-Refugee Project said;

"We are very relieved that our struggle, together with Fernanda, ended in her being granted asylum. But it has been a soul-destroying asylum process with an initial refusal which was then reversed just three days before her scheduled deportation on 17 September 2012. Fernanda has needed time and space to recover from this ordeal. That's why we are only publicising the good news now."

Fernanda added; "I am very grateful to all the people who have helped me to fight, because in the end I could not have done it on my own."

Activism works, solidarity works. Trans people are now able to obtain asylum in Denmark, but the story does not end there. The reason Fernanda had problems was that she arrived and claimed asylum in one of the three countries that had opted out of the EU agreement to recognize persecution on the grounds of gender identity as a valid reason to claim asylum.  The two other countries to opt out of this agreement are the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. So far the UK government seems to have made no clear declaration either way on the issue of trans refugees. It is time they clarified their position.

If Fernanda Milan had been deported to Guatemala on the 17th September, it is highly likely she would have been one of the 265 names we read out at the Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremony on Nov 20th.  There are no transgender people in Guatemala over the age of 35, they are all murdered by then, either by vigilantes, the police or because, excluded from education or work, they have to resort to sex work, which puts them in vulnerable positions. In the 6 weeks leading up to the 17th September there were four recorded murders of trans people in Guatemala, in a population only around one and a half times the size of London. With the Guatemalan police looking for her, there is little doubt that by now she would have been a charred or dismembered corpse in a remote roadside ditch. Instead she is alive. She is only alive because of activism by trans people and their supporters.

It looks like the activism is not going to end there; the last word on this from Fernanda;

”I have been a transgender person all my life. And I have been fighting against prejudice as long as I remember. I had to flee from Guatemala because I was fighting for human rights. Now I have the chance to live my life as a woman and an activist. Now I want to keep on the fight for a better world, where everybody can be educated, work, create families and live a dignifying life regardless of their gender identity,”

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