Penniless and suicidal at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, a gay man who escaped South Korea fearing homophobia in the military faced deportation from Australia.
His claims for protection had been repeatedly rejected and after several years of knockbacks, he was at his lowest point.
Then came another kick in the guts.
“The day before my birthday I got a call saying the visa had been denied,” he told AAP.
“They made the decision in just four days.”
The 36-year-old grew up in a conservative Buddhist and Christian family. He did not want his name published for fear of repercussions.
The man arrived in Australia in 2008 on an international student visa.
As his studies drew to a close, he received and refused several requests to return home and join the army.
Military service is mandatory for able-bodied adult men in South Korea and failure to enlist is punished by three years behind bars.
Considered a draft dodger and facing a stint in prison, he sought asylum in Australia.
“It was really hard convincing the immigration department of the genuine fear of going back to my home country,” he said.
His friend, also a gay man, tried to take his own life after being mistreated by South Korean soldiers.
But this experience and the testimonies of others were not enough to convince Australian officials of the potential danger the man faced.
“If I returned to South Korea, I’d go to jail and be discriminated against as a gay person, and bullied in the army every day,” he said.
The man’s South Korean passport expired in 2012 and he was left stateless.
His protection application was lodged in 2016 and declined the following year.
He then appealed the decision, which took another three years to resolve.
The man was devastated when the tribunal ruled against him and he was told to leave Australia within 28 days or take his case to the Federal Court.
When international borders shut, he lost his job in hotel management and was living off his credit card and retirement savings, feeling isolated and vulnerable.
“I went through hell,” the man said.
“I had anxiety, got taken to a hospital because I had a panic attack, I experienced depression and started seeing a psychologist.”
He did not feel ready to make any decisions, let alone face the full bench of the Federal Court. But desperate to stay in Australia, he pushed on with support from solicitor Cindy Zhao.
Perseverance paid off when the court ruled in his favour and he was granted permanent protection last month.
The man’s experience is similar to other queer refugees fleeing persecution who face a tough task in proving their sexuality.
A study published in peer-reviewed social science journal, Sexualities, found Department of Home Affairs officers assessing protection claims did not understand the complexities of LGBTQI asylum seekers.
The researchers found some officials expected refugees to “come out” to prove they were gay and did not take into account the often dangerous countries they came from.
The insistence on proving his sexuality left the South Korean man speechless.
“One of the tribunal members asked me how do you manifest your sexual orientation? I said what kind of question is that.
“Do I go to the post office and get a gay stamp or go to the transport authorities and get a gay driver’s licence? Is there a card to say I’m a qualified gay?”
He also encountered the perception that homophobia was not rife in South Korea since it was an industrialised, first-world country.
“One panel member said I can’t believe that in South Korea there’s bias towards gay people with all the IT and everything, but technology doesn’t represent social norms, these are different issues,” he said.
In response to the study, a department spokesperson said queer refugees were a priority within the humanitarian intake program and monthly training was provided to staff.
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