LONDON: A football referee from Zimbabwe who was outed as gay in his homeland while officiating at a tournament in London has been granted asylum in the UK.
Raymond Mashamba was being blackmailed over his sexuality by a former friend in Bulawayo before and during the CONIFA World Football Cup, an international tournament for teams not affiliated to FIFA at which Mashamba officiated in May and June.
Details of the 30-year-old’s relationship with his then boyfriend were disclosed to members of their local community – including Mashamba’s mother – before local Sunday News published an article identifying the referee as the subject of a “gay storm”.
After the London tournament, Mashamba made a claim for asylum in Britain on the grounds that it would be unsafe for him to return home. Violence and discrimination against LGBT people is common in Zimbabwe, where even public displays of affection between people of the same sex are illegal.
The football referee has now been granted an initial five years asylum by the Home Office, and will have the opportunity to apply for settlement in 2023.
During his time so far in the UK, Mashamba has had substantial support from both CONIFA and London Titans FC, one of several LGBT-friendly football clubs based in the capital. Through this connection, he has refereed matches in the London Unity League (LUL), which is affiliated to the Amateur FA, and in the GFSN National League.
“I have to thank everyone for being there for me,” Mashamba told Sky Sports. “The Titans, CONIFA and AFC Muswell Hill in particular have been so supportive.
“I now want to continue with my studies and also with my refereeing. I also want to continue to fight for LGBT rights for people in Zimbabwe.”
Representatives from both the Titans and CONIFA wrote letters of support for Mashamba’s case, detailing how the referee had made significant contributions to both organisations.
Reacting to the news, Titans secretary Stuart Forward said: “It’s heartening to hear of this positive outcome, particularly when taken against a political backdrop that has not always been accommodating of issues around LGBT asylum. All of us at London Titans FC are delighted that Raymond now has the stability to plan his future.
“Supporting him throughout his asylum bid has highlighted the universal importance of community, especially in the face of prejudice and discrimination. The Titans exists to provide a safe and engaging space for players of all sexualities and gender identities to enjoy their football free from fear of isolation or persecution.”
Forward says the Titans will now look to build upon the positivity generated by Mashamba’s case and establish more ways to help those in similar situations.
“Working with Raymond throughout this time has shown how important a platform like ours can be in supporting individuals from across the LGBT community, and how much more can be done to provide a place for all to flourish as their authentic selves,” he added.
“With this in mind, London Titans FC are looking into establishing a fund to assist LGBT refugees and asylum seekers in accessing football and also the belonging that comes through being part of an active sporting community.”
CONIFA board member Paul Watson, the tournament director of the World Football Cup in London, says his organisation will also continue to offer Mashamba its full support.
“We’re really delighted Raymond’s going to have a chance to be safe and to be able to build a life here in the UK,” said Watson. “We hope the decision opens doors for him to do what he loves, which is refereeing.
“It’s a cliché that football is a family but the way in which both the CONIFA and LGBT football communities have rallied around Raymond – a person who had no initial support at all when he arrived here – shows a genuine bond. You need family most when you’re in a desperate situation.
“He’s going to continue to need help, but he’s also got those important support networks in place.”
Mashamba’s solicitor, Kaweh Beheshtizadeh of Fadiga & Co, believes the case demonstrates how sports clubs and governing bodies that make a visible commitment to inclusion can assist migrants who are LGBT.
“It seems common now for us to see people in sport who come out as LGBT receive support, but it entirely depends on where those people come from,” explains Beheshtizadeh.
“In countries like Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Jamaica, for example, these people are often persecuted and treated badly. So for someone like Raymond to have sports communities coming together to offer support and speak up about the problems in such countries is significantly helpful.
“Each case comes down to its own factors. Raymond was blackmailed and threatened, and subsequent events occurred which meant many more people have found about his story through the media.
“My advice to anyone in a sports club, community or governing body who has the chance to help an LGBT asylum seeker is to contact that person’s solicitor and talk through the whole story. Solicitors will advise on the best ways to assist the individual and raise awareness.”
While Mashamba has won his case, the overall success rate for claims of asylum in the UK on the grounds of sexual orientation remains very low.
Cases involving people from Zimbabwe were among those most unlikely to succeed.