eyes on the U.S.
August 08, 2011
SAN PEDRO SULA - The plane lands at last. After a few minutes, the 135 passengers -- including five women that day -- are freed from their handcuffs. On the tarmac, the deported, trying to regain their bearings after realizing they are back in their native country, are handed back the few possessions they'd had at the moment they were caught by American immigration agents.
For the nonchalant customs officers from the capital Tegucigalpa who are in charge of them, this is all routine: by land or by sea, about 40,000 Hondurans are sent back, kissing away their American dream. For now.
"I'm going back as soon as I can," whispers one of the deportees as he walks into the room where volunteers offer them coffee and tortillas. When he got caught, Carlos, who did not give his real name, was trying for the second time to join his wife, who already lives illegally in the United States. Because he's a recidivist, he spent several weeks in a U.S. prison, "with the light on day and night like a chicken coop," before being deported.
In Honduras, one of the poorest countries in the Americas after Haiti, 150,000 people attempt to leave each year, about 2% of the nation's population, most under 35 years of age. Since Hurricane Mitch hit the country in 1998, destroying houses and roads and leaving the economy decimated, even more people have been fleeing. Misery drives farmers to move to the cities where they encounter a vanishing industrial sector, or gangs of the maras, which transformed the capital into one of the deadliest of the continent.
So students, fathers and farmers set off. "I can't stand it anymore seeing my nephews crying because they are hungry," explains a lumberjack who decided to leave before last Christmas. In the station of San Pedro Sula, the country's second largest city, two teenagers with gang-style garb, wearing caps too big for their heads and tattooed biceps, are waiting for the night bus for Guatemala. It will be the first step of their journey. "I'm going to the States," mumbles one of them as he gets on the bus with a small bag.
A remesas-driven economy
Many of those who set off have a relative who already left years ago, and who sends back home some of the dollars he earns – these "remesas" represent 16% of the Honduran GDP.
"In Orlando, I was paid 100 dollars a day," explains Pedro, a gardener. "It was enough to pay for my mother's medication!"
Since his deportation, this young man "pilots' a makeshift raft – cobbled up with a tractor tire tube – on the Suchiate river between Guatemala and Mexico. During the day, they use these rafts to smuggle goods and clothes. At night, they smuggle illegal immigrants from Central America, many of whom are from Honduras. Thanks to his small craft, Pedro saves money and builds up his strength to leave again.
He knows he will have to climb again on the back of the Bestia, the freight train that slowly crosses Mexico. Isabel Salgado lost her two legs when she fell from the same train. Accidents are frequent : the International Committee of the Red Cross gives out prostheses to the deported Hondurans. Isabel stayed four straight days on a wagon, "barely drinking." She saw a man whose throat had been slit by an electric wire.
Other risks along the way include the Zetas, a drug cartel specialized in smuggling and prostitution. Carlos was captured by the gang with about 50 other emigrants. Only after being beaten for several hours did he manage to give them the phone number of a relative living in the United States who could wire 3,000 dollars for his freedom. At least 20,000 migrants are thought to be kidnapped like this each year. The ones who do not offer up a contact to pay the racket risk being shot, the women raped.
In August 2010, 72 illegal immigrants were murdered on a farm run by the cartel. Miguel Carcamo was one of the Honduran victims of the massacre. "Strangers had given him fake identity papers and promised to take him across the border," remembers his brother-in-law who was with him when he met the smugglers a few days before in Mexico.
Carlos is aware of all these risks. But like 40% of the deported who are brought back to Honduras, he says he will leave again.
Read the original article in French
Photo - ONE DROP Foundation
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The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
October 19, 2021
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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