One of the most serious issues the world has faced in recent years, that can be compared to nothing else, neither historically nor in its simultaneity with other global issues, is the refugee crisis, considered to be the largest one to take place in over half a century. The numbers speak for themselves – even though the tragic obstacles of a single life fleeing a war zone should be enough to shake and mobilize our conscience. Unfortunately, the situation is way out of hands, and we should stay awake and raise as much awareness as possible.
More than 4.8 million people have fled Syria in fear of being killed or persecuted, and those who are displaced in Syria, expecting humanitarian assistance, are about 7.6 million. There are also great numbers of people who are stranded in countries surrounding Syria, unable to work, and without access to humanitarian assistance, education and material resources. Most refugees are hosted by the US states and allies, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and many European countries.
However, in many of these countries and states, even those considered to be lucky – the ones who have managed to escape the terror of their home-country – may live in very poor conditions, having lost their loved ones and all their chances to lead a life the way they planned it. In addition, the refugees who are also LGBTI might find themselves in grave danger, especially in countries where they are hosted in camps waiting for resettlement, or for their applications to be processed. The rights of LGBTI refugees need to be protected.
In Syria and Iraq, LGBT people are in fatal danger of being threatened, kidnapped, beat up, tortured, or even murdered by the Islamic state, because of their sexual orientation or gender identities. In Turkey, it is equally dangerous to be LGBT, and so is Lebanon. IRAP (International Refugee Assistance Project) is the one of the few organizations that provide legal assistance to LGBT refugees in Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan. According to IRAP, the US is those refugees last resort.
Refugees in camps may face bullying, abuse, even the threats of rape or murder by fellow residents who still view LGBT experiences as taboos. In addition, refugees who flee their country in order to save their lives from homophobic and/or transphobic legislations that can lead to their prosecution or even murder, may find themselves in a country with no such legislation (such as Turkey), but where the social climate will be akin to the one they fled from. Many refugees have been seeking asylum in European countries and the US, in order to be protected from oppressive regiments that criminalize homosexuality or trans identities.
Nadia, a trans woman fleeing Iraq and the horrible abuse, torture, and eventual abduction she faced there, managed to go to Lebanon and is now protected by the UNHCR. The resettlement process is often a bumpy road, but at least she’s safer than in Iraq where many of her friends were harassed and murdered. Lebanon may be deemed as more tolerant and progressive compared to other neighboring nations, but prosecutions against LGBT people are still a thing there, which leads to hundreds of LGBTI people seeking shelter and support. UNHCR released a training package for humanitarian assistants, and works actively to protect LGBTI asylum seekers.
People who qualify for asylum in other countries are those who come from countries where the LGBTI community is visible (which means that people are understood to be LGBTI and are ostracized for that), considered to be criminal and discriminated against by the government. If a person is prosecuted for the crime of having sex with a same gender partner, it qualifies to show persecution and seek asylum. What’s always helpful is having an attorney specialized in asylum issues to help the seeker with their specific case.
Seeking asylum in the US was already a very hard and uncertain process, but now things are even worse. With Trump’s executive order that was issued in January and suspended refugee resettlement in the US for 120 days and indefinitely for Syrian refugees, apart from the cases of those who faced religious-based persecution, which means that they belonged a religious minority in their country – that they were Christians – the resettlement processes of many refugees living in danger have been halted. The order also limits the numbers of refugees who will be allowed in the US in 2017 to 50,000 – half of what it was during Obama’s presidency.
Trump also proclaimed that admittance in the US should also be prohibited for those who “engage in acts of bigotry and hatred” or to “those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation.” However, this is a horrible effort to differentiate the value of human life for people of different nationalities, since fleeing LGBT Syrians and Iraqis find themselves in equal, or bigger danger than LGBT Americans, and these lives need to be protected.
The stories of LGBT refugees fleeing their countries to seek asylum in the US show why it is vital to take their lives and human rights into consideration. There are non-profit organizations like ORAM (Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration) and JFCS (Jewish Family and Community Services East Bay) in America, helping people who have fled other countries with their visa application or their resettlement.
According to Peter Altman of ORAM, San Francisco, LGBTI refugees belong in the most “isolated and brutalized”social groups in the world. Organizations like ORAM work on guidelines, multilingual glossaries to help the work of NGOs communicate with refugees, and offer legal advice and support to asylum seekers.
Everyday issues like unemployment, homophobia and transphobia, limited access to humanitarian services, and lack of support from family and friends gravely affect refugees. For Nahas, it was extremely difficult to find work in Lebanon as an asylum-seeker, and money was a problem.
UNHCR works for the rights of LGBTI people and the protection of refugees and asylum-seekers in hostile countries. Refugees who come from some African countries, the Soviet Union and the Middle East where homosexuality is criminalized, can be helped in more direct ways since their rights are technically protected in asylum countries. For many, the US used to resemble a safe haven before Trump’s ban.
Ramtin Zigorat, fleeing conversion therapy, arrest, and death sentence in Iran is stuck in Turkey even though he was planning to seek asylum in the US. However the executive order suspended his arrival. He is today protected by the UNHCR, waiting for the uncertain end of the ban so that his case which is on hold can go on. He finds Turkey as dangerous as Iran even though homosexuality is not a crime there, and he fears for his life every day. Here you can also read the stories of the queer Iranians stuck in Turkey after the executive order was issued.
These people who have been through hell are utterly devastated and terrified at the prospect of staying in homophobic Turkey, especially now with the reform that gives Erdogan more power.
As for the situation in Europe, there are big differences among how each country approaches the asylum applications it receives, as the 2011 report Fleeing Homophobia shows. The prevailing Dublin system dictates that only one member state of the EU examines each asylum application, however there is no common standard to lead these examination processes so that they can take place on a similar ground.
The example of the Netherlands is a positive one with a history of granting asylum. However there are some glitches in the law and problems in how the court may react to a resettlement application. The criteria for what we call “limited indications” that suffice to show that someone is at risk of persecution are unclear, and people who flee persecution by non-state actors (which is often labeled as “discrimination” – presumably not enough to make someone’s life unlivable) “…only qualify for asylum if the authorities in their country of origin are unable or unwilling to protect them”. However in such hostile states, more-often-than-not it’s extremely dangerous, even impossible for LGBT people to seek protection by the police.
In Bologna, LGBTI organizations opened the first LGBT center for refugees in Italy. The project was funded with 100,000 euros and it is part of the shelter movement in Europe, with one opening last February in Berlin and another in Nuremberg. Germany is the country to have allowed most asylum seekers in compared to other European countries.
The existence of such shelters is extremely important, given that even in progressive European countries, LGBT refugees people may face the danger of discrimination and violence by other asylum seekers with taboos concerning sexual orientations and gender identities that deviate from the norm in their home country. There have been cases of such abuse that has even obliged asylum seekers to move out from shelters in the Netherlands, Spain, Denmark, Germany, Finland and Sweden. When refugees come from countries where homosexuality is criminalized and demonized, it is expected to have such homophobic attacks in other countries, but it’s also something that LGBTI refugees must be protected against at all costs.
Mahmoud Hassino from Schwulenberatung in Berlin focused on the necessity of LGBTI exclusive shelters in order to battle this exact danger. “LGBT refugees live in constant fear in the big shelters.”
We need to stay awake and do everything in our hands to help our siblings in need. Donate, host in your spare room, refer to your local LGBTQI+ organizations. A few things are currently as crucial as helping LGBT refugees and asylum seekers.