Imagine having to flee your own country because of being persecuted for who you are and for who you love. Imagine reaching Europe and being locked up in a detention centre at constant risk of being assaulted. Imagine having to restart your life in a foreign country, in poverty, and at risk of being sexually exploited.
These are the very real risks faced by LGBT people escaping violence, discrimination and abuse in their home countries. This is the untold refugee crisis.
It’s an emergency that’s hidden in plain sight; one that is extremely hard to document; and one that Europe is failing to address, at a time when LGBT rights around the world remain at risk.
In 72 countries, same-sex relationships are currently criminalized. In eight, they are punishable by death. But in many others, social norms, traditions and customs make life for LGBT people equally impossible, even if the law is not officially against them.
The UN Geneva Convention is clear: sexual orientation and gender identity constitute solid grounds to claim refugee status. Additionally, a 2011 EU Directive specifies that sexual orientation is one of the categories – together with race, religion and nationality – for which people might be at risk of persecution.
In 2016, 362,000 refugees crossed the Mediterranean Sea to seek asylum in Europe. The official numbers for 2017 are yet to be released, but in the first half alone, more than 105,000 entered Europe arriving notably from Syria, but also from other countries with anti-LGBT legislation including Libya, Nigeria, Gambia, Senegal, Eritrea, Guinea, Ghana, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
These migrants, like all others, need assistance based on their particular needs. But while there have been efforts to address the needs of unaccompanied children and young women, not enough has being done to identify and respond to the issues faced by LGBT refugees.
Having fled targeted violence, discrimination and abuse, LGBT refugees arrive in Europe often choosing not to disclose their sexual orientation. Those who decide otherwise or who are believed to be LGBT, are frequently subject to harassment and discrimination.
According to UKLGIG and Stonewall, LGBT asylum seekers held in immigration centres across the UK have experienced abuse both from other asylum seekers and from staff members who “fail to protect them from abuse, often lack basic understanding of LGBT issues, and even display discriminatory attitudes” towards LGBT asylum seekers.
Trans asylum seekers are particularly at risk. From being allocated to immigration centres based on their gender at birth, to the impossibility of obtaining the drugs necessary to continue their transition, the lack of support towards trans refugees has extremely harmful effects on their mental and physical health.
For many LGBT refugees, the arrival in Europe does not represent the end of violence. Instead, because of the lack of support from the diaspora migrant community and the immigration system, they find themselves with no choice but to go back into the closet, hiding their sexual orientation, this time in a foreign country and with no trusted friends.
For others, same-sex attraction and transgender identity are concepts so much intertwined with social taboos that it becomes difficult for them to relate to the terminology used by the European immigration system.
ORAM, an organization specializing in the protection of exceptionally vulnerable refugees has recently published a toolkit providing essential terminology for humanitarian workers.
The guide aims to “create a safe space and built trust with refugees, recognise inappropriate or offensive terminology, and recognise the terms refugee applicants use to identify themselves”. It’s a fascinating read, revealing how so very often, inappropriate, self-deprecating and derogatory words are used by LGBT refugees to identify themselves, evidence of the lack of respectful terminology in their own countries.
Humanitarian workers are not the only ones needing training. An independent review into the treatment of gay, lesbian and bisexual people claiming asylum in the UK revealed that a fifth of asylum interviews stereotyped gay people, and a tenth contained inappropriate questions “likely to elicit sexually explicit responses or querying the validity of same-sex relationships”.
The lack of preparedness at several levels explains the lack of accurate data documenting the influx of LGBT refugees to Europe and why many choose not to claim asylum on the basis of their LGBT status.
Those who choose to do so face another unique set of challenges, evidence being the main hurdle. LGBT asylum seekers are expected to provide witness statements corroborating their sexual orientation or gender identity. To obtain such evidence is no easy task. It might endanger family members, previous partners, and asylum seekers themselves, especially if detained in an immigration centre with what refugees describe as “no privacy at all”.
The number of successful claims is limited. There are no official statistics available, but a 2010 report by Stonewall suggested 98% of claims put forward on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity were rejected. As a result, the organisation claims asylum seekers were forced to go back to often violently homophobic countries such as Uganda and Iran. The latest available numbers of LGBT related asylum applications in the UK date back to 2014 and indicate 1,115 claims, a sharp rise from the 2009 data, when 200 cases were recorded.
In the UK, all successful asylum claims lead to allocated state-funded accommodation. This is a crucial and delicate stage and one which again is proven harder for LGBT refugees who are often exposed to further abuse and harassment by the fellow migrants with whom they are cohabiting.
According to Micro Rainbow International, LGBT refugees suffer abuse, sexual harassment and even rape in the accommodation provided by the UK government. Most of these episodes go unreported as refugees fear it might “look bad on their [application] case”. As a result, many of those experiencing abuse tend to leave, ending up homeless and with no social support, entering a cycle of poverty and, often, sexual exploitation.
Micro Rainbow International has recently opened its second safe house for LGBT migrants, and it hopes to provide safe accommodation to over 150 people by 2019.
Crucially, together with safe housing, Micro Rainbow provides refugees with psychological support and skills-based training. The organization is working with retailer Uniqlo to offer LGBT asylum seekers work experience and employment training, providing clothes suitable for job interviews for those who were ready to enter the job market.
The biggest migration of people since World War II has found Europe unprepared, left its people divided, and reignited dangerous nationalist discourse. The ‘refugee crisis’ is the new status quo, one which requires unprecedented levels of collaboration between the public and the private sector, and one which – if tackled with industrial creativity and disruption – can indeed present unique opportunities.
Now, more than ever, Europe represents peace, collaboration and solidarity. Refugee policies – which have mostly focused on preventing arrivals – should evolve, and take into account the special needs of the different categories of migrants arriving to our shores.
LGBT refugees are among the most vulnerable both physically and psychologically; they face unique risks and require unique protections. Yet they are being failed by the very same system that is supposed to protect them.
It’s time to understand such differences and to act accordingly. When we fail LGBT refugees, we turn safety from a necessity into a privilege. Let's ensure instead that safety continues to remain a fundamental human right.