Rising Numbers of LGBTI Refugees Facing Fight for Survival

The recent upsurge in persecution of LGBTI people across the globe has sent the number of refugee applications rising sharply. As long as the abuses continue, the numbers will surely escalate.
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The recent upsurge in persecution of LGBTI people across the globe has sent the number of refugee applications rising sharply. As long as the abuses continue, the numbers will surely escalate. However, only a small handful of those who manage to escape base their claims on their sexual orientation or gender identity - they fear further persecution or rejection. Even when these applicants reveal the true reasons they escaped, many refugee agencies do not handle their claims properly or sensitively. This results in many LGBTI refugees not requesting protection or being sent home to face intolerable human rights abuses. Others find inordinate difficulties in their place of transit or refuge.

LGBTI people are among the most persecuted individuals in the world. In tens of countries, LGBTI people regularly face harassment, arrest, interrogation, torture and beatings. Consensual same-sex relations are criminalized in over 80 countries, in eight of these by death. Our organization, ORAM - Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration - estimates that while over 175 million LGBTI people live under conditions of peril or violence worldwide, fewer than 2,500 a year are accorded asylum or refugee protection based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

LGBTI people are doubly marginalized in that the few who manage to escape often find their countries of transit are not much better than the places they fled. They are often targeted for violence by authorities or civilians. The scant survival resources available to other refugees are often closed off to LGBTI refugees. While most refugees seek safety and comfort with their compatriots, LGBTI refugees are often targeted by their own families. Assistance and intervention by governments, NGOs, international bodies and concerned communities are urgently needed to save these refugees' lives.

This World Refugee Day, we are calling on the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to maintain and release statistics about the LGBTI refugees within its protection mandate. Only with accurate data can the crisis be appropriately addressed. We urge the UNHCR to show its commitment to these highly vulnerable refugees now by taking this important step.

Some jurisdictions still deny LGBTI claims, saying applicants can avoid persecution by concealing their sexual orientation or gender identity in their home countries. In November 2013, the Court of Justice of the European Union found that it was no longer acceptable to tell asylum applicants to go home and hide their sexual orientation or gender identity. However, many refugee professionals lack the knowledge and tools to effectively assist these vulnerable migrants.

There is an urgent need for all bodies handling asylum and refugee claims to undergo training in the appropriate determination and sensitive treatment of LGBTI refugees. Trainings must be in-depth and nuanced to convey the complex nature of LGBTI identities and claims. Staff must be able to recognize genuine LGBTI asylum claims and to better understand what it means to be an LGBTI refugee. This will help ensure these forced migrants are sensitively and appropriately treated.

The scant statistics available indicate that approximately five percent of the world's refugees and asylum seekers may in fact be fleeing their countries because they are LGBTI. We at ORAM believe the actual figures are much higher, but the vast majority are going unreported.

There has been an alarming incidence of asylum claimants feeling compelled to submit humiliating video footage to "prove" their sexual orientation. Such debasing personal exposure would not occur if appropriate training were undertaken by asylum and refugee officials. In the past year, ORAM has delivered trainings to tens of bodies including the UNHCR. ORAM has partnered with Columbia University and the U.S. State Department to assure that trainings are effective and impactful.

Of the 100 nations with functioning asylum systems, only Belgium, Norway and the UK formally track statistics on claims based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Only Norway and Belgium have released their statistics. We are urging the UK as well as UNHCR to show leadership by releasing their numbers.

To help ensure the international community can work together to improve its response to this global crisis, we are today launching a new online portal of projects that enhance the protection of LGBTI forced migrants. We have called for the posting of projects that will help lead to better protection for LGBTI refugees across the globe.

The ORAM LGBTI Refugee Project Portal contains projects and approaches that enhance the protection of LGBTI forced migrants in the areas of refugee status determination, policy development and research, practical protection measures and staff development. Anyone working with refugees can contribute to this global resource. Together, we can achieve even more. Visit: www.portal.oraminternational.org/