When someone becomes a refugee, they often find themselves vulnerable to a multitude of human rights abuses they might otherwise be shielded from. Often forced to travel through dangerous territory to makeshift camps, sexual assault and exploitation is, sadly, a common occurrence.
However, for LGBT individuals forced to migrate, situations can go from bad to worse the moment they are recognized or spotted as ‘different.’ Many individuals are subject to assault on multiple levels, facing political violence from their homeland, domestic violence from their families and assault, torture and exploitation from governments and police.
A report by ORAM (The Organization for Refugee Asylum & Migration) studied three different countries dealing with LGBTI refugees and migration. The countries, South Africa, Mexico and Uganda, all range considerably on their dealings with LGBT laws and protections.
For instance, South Africa was the first country in the southern hemisphere to introduce protections for LGBTI individuals, and has multiple agencies in place to address the needs of their communities. Mexico, which legalized same sex marriage in 2010, and instituted anit-discrimination laws against LGBTI individuals in 2011, also has a decent track record. Uganda, on the other hand, acts as a balancing point to the study, with the anti-Homosexuality Bill passing earlier this year instituting harsh penalties on anybody participating in or promoting ‘homosexual acts.’
However, despite excellent legal protections in two out of three countries, it was widely reported that LGBTI individuals in refugee camps faced a multitude of dangers. Discrimination, lack of police protection and harassment was found to be prevalent in all three countries.
Out of all the countries, LGBT refugees in Uganda often faced the most severe restrictions. Once one is identified as LGBT, police brutality, torture and extortion is startlingly common. Many LGBT refugees have had to spend a considerable portion of their time relocating to safe houses (occasionally on a nightly basis) to evade this harassment.
In Mexico, respondents noted more positive interactions with authorities. However, extortion and verbal abuse was a common element. For some, sexual exploitation becomes part and parcel to their own protection, with one transwoman reporting that she commonly had to use sex as a bartering tool for protection from police.
In South Africa, although very few reported violence, many reported discrimination, extortion and arbitrary arrest in which bribery played a prevalent role. Another issue that faces LGBT refugees in South Africa is that although there are plenty of spaces for the queer community, xenophobia regarding foreigners mean that they are often excluded. This makes the issues for LGBT refugees in South Africa as much about prejudice as homophobia.
For all three countries, an oppressive atmosphere seems to exist. An LGBT refugee, new to the land, culture and usually arriving with minimal assets, must struggle even harder to survive. ORAM has set up a point by point method for NGOs and governments to deal with the unique issues that LGBT refugees face.
Part of a solution for the discrimination starts inside the refugee projects themselves. The US Department of the State, UNHCR and various NGOs should institute training programs so workers can more effectively identify and protect those individuals who are more likely to face sexual abuse, discrimination and harassment. Partnering with LGBT friendly groups would also help secure avenues for those searching for a community in their new country.
Furthermore, networks for LGBT refugees would help stem the isolation and vulnerability that face such communities. Creating an information sharing network, including stories on which living situations are the best, the most dangerous, a list of advocates and help lines could go a long way in ensuring these people can maximize their options during the refugee process.
Refugees make up some of the most vulnerable populations in the world today, and for those in the unique subset of the LGBTI community, issues can intensify considerably. It is up to the global community, and its advocates, to ensure protection for these individuals, understanding that the violence and exploitation they face come not only from those employed to protect them, but from their peers as well.