Real Life: LGBT Refugees

How well do asylum seekers fair when they flee countries over sexual orientation and gender identity?

Photo by Think Stock

More and LGBT people around the world are fleeing persecution in their homelands – places like Iran, Syria and Indonesia – because of sexual orientation and gender identity. But the Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration (ORAM) and Indiana University wanted to find out what people really think of LGBT refugees today, especially among non-government organizations (NGO) that can often provide crucial support and protection for refugees, including essential medical, legal, housing and educational services.

While the work these agencies do has an enormous impact, the survey found that NGOs often fail to adequately protect LGBT refugees and asylum seekers compared to their straight counterparts. For example, although nearly all NGOs said LGBT refugees deserve protection, a significant minority admitted they were not willing to provide that assistance. “Let’s be honest, the refugees, the migrants… who are homosexual or lesbian, they’re frowned upon,” said one survey respondent.

“Refugees fleeing persecution because of their sexual orientation or gender identity face further harm from the culture of silence in the international refugee protection system. They are placed in housing where they are exposed to violence, or are compelled to hide the true reason they were persecuted, which puts their legal status in jeopardy,” says Neil Grungras, executive director of ORAM. “Among the most pervasively and violently persecuted in the world, LGBT individuals are virtually invisible in the international refugee protection realm.”

Many other respondents said that their organizations lack the tools and knowledge for ensuring services are open and welcoming to LGBT people.

“There appears to be a vicious cycle,” says Indiana University sociologist Oren Pizmony-Levy. “Many NGOs do not welcome LGBT refugees and the asylum seekers don’t approach them. NGOs think that persecution based on sexual orientation or gender identity is not serious and NGOs tend to overlook the problem.”

In recognition of World Refugee Day on June 20, ORAM is issuing a call to action with several key recommendations to address the protection gaps for LGBT refugees, including finding ways to avoid stereotypes through sensitivity training and other educational efforts.

“No once chooses to be LGBT and no one wants to become a refugee. ORAM calls on those working with refugees to recognize UNHCR’s World Refugee Day by taking steps to ensure LGBT refugees feel safe in the hands of those tasked with protecting them. Only then can we help those who are forced to flee find safety, regain hope and rebuild their lives,” says Grungras.

The report is based on a survey including 384 NGOs from 100 countries. An online survey was distributed in seven languages between May and August 2011, with follow-up interviews conducted later. The full ORAM report can be accessed by clicking here.