The UN Refugee Agency has its hands full with 10.5 million refugees around the globe, but LGBT people are the most vulnerable group, often fleeing persecution in their home countries only to be confronted with hostile inhabitants of refugee camps, a complicated bureaucracy system for asylum, and untrained and unhelpful aid workers in their new countries.
After Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's landmark speech at the UN in December 2011, the US has made international LGBT refugee rights a priority and has "led by example," according to Human Rights First (HRF) director Eleanor Acer, trying to assist this often unseen, displaced demographic.
Thursday at the Human Rights Campaign's ongoing speaker series, Equality Talks, Acer and others from HRF presented the findings of their report, "The Road to Safety: Strengthening Protection of LGBTI Refugees in Uganda and Kenya," released this week.
Though the focus is East Africa, the reports suggests specific steps that can be implemented by the US, NGOs, the UNHCR and other actors in all regions where LGBT refugees suffer displacement and abuse.
Five months of field research, over 70 interviews, and weeks and weeks of writing went into the dense dossier, which details cases very similar to the one GlobalPost first reported in December in an article called "The gray area of gay refugees."
Jonathan Kalan reported on the lives of two gay Ugandan refugees living in a Kenyan camp, a couple named Alex and Michael.
Since leaving Uganda, Alex and Michael have not been given asylum in Kenya, but have been targeted in the camp, recieving little food and medical care, suffering from harassment, depression and alienation.
Anne Richard, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, opened Thursday's event and graciously accepted acknowledgment for the US's hard work in this area. She described some of the motions this country has taken in the past year, after President Obama directed all agencies operating overseas to make LGBT rights a priority, such as specialized training for embassy staff, funding international non-profits for continued field work and research, and developing a specialized aid system for expedited resettlement of at-risk refugees. But Richards also stated the US could be doing more and is "not satisfied" with the status of the system.
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"We know that there is more we can do to help create environments in which an LGBT refugee is neither targeted, nor harassed, nor fearful for his or her life," said Richard yesterday. "We must engage with our NGO partners to develop innovative ways to provide protection to those in need in their country of asylum."
"The Road to Safety" details the cruelty LGBT refugees face, often fleeing their home countries after being persecuted for their sexual preference or gender identity, only to find similar, sometimes harsher, treatment in refugee camps.
Duncan Breen, the report's author and head researcher, described some of the life-or-death situations in the camps, including abductions, beatings, rapes, and the problems LGBTs encounter attempting to report this abuse to countries where same-sex relations are still criminalized.
"After fleeing persecution in one country, LGBT refugees often find themselves at risk again in the very country they have turned to in face of protection," said Breen, who through his research found problems of every level of the refugee system. LGBT people are deliberately targeted in the camps, they often don't receive medical care, they are extorted by police when they report abuse, employment and shelter are incredibly hard to come by, their acquaintances are targeted, and many NGO workers won't help them because of cultural or religious beliefs.
These people require special assistance and cannot simply be treated like any other refugee because they are much more vulnerable.
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Breen told the stories of some refugees that are included in the report, such as two Ugandan women who were abducted, repeatedly raped and beaten and left for dead by the side of a road because they were assisting LGBT refugees. In another cringe-worthy instance, Breen described the events surrounding a Somali teenager who was doused in gasoline by a group of other teens that meant to light him on fire before being saved by an older woman. In 2010, five cases of "corrective rape" were reported in Uganda, mostly of lesbian women. The actual number of cases is probably significantly higher.
"Refugees from vehemently anti-homosexual societies like Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia surround them, and beliefs and attitudes don’t change by simply crossing a border," GlobalPost reported. "According to [Kenyan refugee] Alex, when they revealed to their UNHCR counselor that instances of being called 'gay' in the camp were increasing, the counselor’s response was, 'Well, aren’t you?'"
Taking these and other horrific stories into consideration, the report is mostly made up of recommendations to international refugee agencies and countries accepting LGBT asylum-seekers.
According to "The Road to Safety," the primary recommendations are:
- "Protect LGBTI refugees from violence and assist victims of violence...work with domestic LGBTI organizations to provide access to support, including emergency hotlines, legal services, and security training; and develop an effective referral system to assist LGBTI victims of bias-motivated and sexual and gender-based violence."
- "Ensure at-risk LGBTI refugees have access to safe shelter." Breen explained a so-called scattered housing model, where at-risk refugees are given housing away from camps, in numerous locations, as opposed to one safe house that might become a target. However, these systems desperately need funding, especially in urban areas.
- "Improve access to timely resettlement and expedited resettlement." The US takes in more refugees, including LGBT people, than all others available for resettlement combined. However, because of the post-9/11 security apparatus, which requires a lengthy screening process and in-person interviews, it can sometimes take years to receive asylum in the States. That said, many other countries (including Canada, Sweden, New Zealand and Norway, among others) have less intense systems that can take from anywhere from 48 hours to a few days to complete emergency resettlement. But these countries don't have enough room for everyone. The US needs to give LGBT refugees the benefit of the doubt and create a new system for expedited resettlement.
The hope is that one day, people will no longer have to suffer as refugees because of their sexual preference or gender indentity and that countries will be able to do more to help and assist people in need who flee persecution in their countries.
For more on this issue, check out GlobalPost's Special Report The Rainbow Struggle: A Global Battle over Gay Rights.