With the recent U.S. legalization of gay marriage, and similar progress in other states, there is a new impression of progress on LGBT issues. But being gay is still punishable by the death penalty in five countries, and by imprisonment in over fifty. Far more still allow ‘conversion therapies’; in the extreme, these can involve ‘corrective rape’ or forced sterilisation. And LGBT individuals often face daily threats of violence: the Guardian reported there were over 1,500 murders of transgender individuals between 2008 and 2014. It is little wonder that many seek to start a new life elsewhere, where they can live free from fear of abuse or humiliation. Unfortunately, this process is an arduous and often cruel one. Becoming a refugee is always difficult, but LGBT refugees face significant additional obstacles.
Individuals fleeing because of gender or sexuality-based persecution are not specifically protected under international law. The UN Convention on refugees evaluates refugees claims based on their ‘wellfounded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’- there is no mention of sexuality or gender. Though the UNHCR’s Handbook on interpreting these categories suggests that gender and sexual orientation fall under the range of ‘a particular social group’, it is at the discretion of each state to determine this. This greatly limits the range of countries to which refugees may apply. Furthermore, it makes their applications for refuge a matter of government policy. This can be dangerous even in ostensibly progressive states. In 2010, two men’s UK asylum applications were rejected on the grounds that they could avoid persecution by behaving discreetly. This was later overturned, but it provides an example of the prejudice LGBT individuals can face in seeking asylum.
The application process itself can be extremely gruelling. Many states raise credibility concerns, arguing that individuals might not truly be LGBT. As such, these refugees are subject to extremely personal, invasive questioning. These often rely on harmful stereotypes of, for example, how ‘true’ gay people act. This ignores the fact that ‘a LGBT forced migrant may have never had sex or a romantic relationship with a same-sex partner, may have been in a heterosexual marriage or relationship, may have had children in a heterosexual marriage, and may have limited relationships with LGBT persons in their host country’. These facts can be used as proof that individuals are not actually LGBT, ignoring the very real threats that may come from non-conformity. Asylum claims thus become inquisitorial processes with no understanding of the risks of being LGBT. These inevitably mean that applicants will be denied for not fitting the appropriate picture of ‘what it really means to be LGBT’ and sent back to areas where the applicant may be in even greater danger for having come out.
But asylum applications are far from the only struggle for these refugees. LGBT populations are often isolated from traditional social support groups. While refugees who flee for religious reasons can turn to those communities, or individual refugees can rely on their family, LGBT refugees are often separated or rejected from these groups. In fact, these communities often remind them of the persecution they experienced, and indeed ‘remind them of the very people that they have fled from and are fearful of’. Not only will they not be comfortable coming out with these people, they may also experience greater stress or discomfort. On the other hand, they also struggle to connect with the local LGBT communities due to their past traumas. This leaves them without a support group or structure with which they might begin to settle.
Due to this lack of support, NGOs are often crucial points of contact for LGBT refugees. But NGOs often fail to provide welcoming environments where they can receive this support. Staff are often unwilling or unprepared to support specific LGBT needs or have deep prejudices of their own. A refugee in Turkey was rejected from a soup kitchen and called unclean after they found out he was gay. Emergency shelters such as refugee housing often have gender restricted bathrooms or dormitories, which can exclude transgender individuals. Refugees in refugee camps are also victims of beatings and abuse. Being in countries where LGBT individuals are generally accepted does not mean safety. After some of their neighbours found out they were gay, a Syrian refugee couple in Berlin no longer felt comfortable in their shared building and sought to relocate away from other refugees. Faced with this, ‘many LGBTI refugees are afraid to self-identify’. But when LGBT identification is the key justification for an individual’s asylum claim, this can put them at further risk. It is tragically ironic that the trauma associated with coming out leads many LGBT individuals to hide their identity, and that this in turn might lead them to be sent back to the very source of that suffering.
As such, LGBT refugees are at risk not only of deportation and thus further abuse in the countries they fled, but also of isolation and mistreatment in their new homes. Though there is an impression of progress in many Western countries, many LGBT individuals still face enormous hardships, and the global situation is still one of danger and oppression. Narratives of LGBT rights must be tempered by this sad reality. Likewise, images of LGBT refugees as being accepted equally by ‘progressive’ governments and NGOs must be balanced by the challenges they actually face. The situation is depressing, but acknowledging it allows for new solutions. Governments can develop asylum application policies with greater sensitivity to the specific ordeals of LGBT individuals, and which refrain from stereotyping and inappropriate questioning. Similarly, NGOs can refine their services and train their staff to better serve as sources of support for these often extremely isolated and traumatized individuals.
These refugees represent a particularly vulnerable population among the refugee group, but perhaps due to their global marginalization or their small numbers, are often overlooked. Ultimately, LGBT refugees face the difficult intersection of transphobia and homophobia with a perception of refugees as an unwanted problem. To combat this, greater awareness and care are needed on several fronts to help these people start a new life.