Persecution at home, discrimination from where you should find safety. Where do you go when you face hatred and violence from all directions, even from your own community? This is the experience of transgender refugees, who face unique and dehumanising barriers at every stage of the asylum process.
A system opposed to trans existence
Globally, 37 countries criminalise being transgender (Forbes, 2020), with punishments including prison sentences, whipping and even death, forcing many to flee simply in a bid to survive as themselves. Even for trans refugees forced from home due to conflict or disaster, transphobia plays a major role in the asylum-seeking process, with some finding discrimination worse in supposedly more ‘liberal’ countries than they did at home. Only 25 nations don’t have “prohibitive requirements” against changing one’s gender (Forbes, 2020), with transphobia on the rise in the west, and trans rights globally regressing (Forbes, 2020). A life of safety, respect and new beginnings is often denied to many on the base of their gender identity.
The West - Just a number in the system
In the UK, being Lgbt and from a country where being such was persecuted was only accepted in 2010 as a valid reason to claim asylum. Previously, it was considered ‘reasonably tolerable’ for Lgbt individuals to have to hide their identity, all whilst fearing for their lives and safety. This pervasive transphobia remains in western asylum systems, endangering the lives and wellbeing of trans individuals trying to find safety. Alana Eissa, a trans refugee and activist from Malaysia, spoke in 2020 of the difficulties for trans refugees in the UK immigration system. She described how documents are often addressed to the ‘deadnames’ of applicants (names given at birth that often do not correspond to the individual's real gender). Trans refugees often struggle to gain access to hormone therapy and medication, as the UK government has no system in place to provide transgender asylum seekers with such basic healthcare. For many, this means pausing or even reversing their transition. This is a dehumanising and traumatising experience, one Alana went through herself; something she “would not wish on her worst enemy”. Other refugees also provide a threat to trans safety, with the risk of being outed strongly linked to the danger of violence from fellow disapproving asylum seekers, making shared housing a space of fear and discomfort. Trans asylum seekers in Paris, France echoed this sentiment. Emily, a trans woman, described how her accidental placement in all-male accommodation resulted in sexual harassment. This lack of community can prove isolating, with refugees facing racism from local populations and Lgbt groups, but transphobia from their fellow asylum seekers. This results in trans refugees having little community or comfort, and nowhere to turn for help.
The US also places similar barriers on trans refugees. In 2003, following the 9-11 attacks, the US Department of Home Security warned that “male bombers may dress as females in order to discourage scrutiny” (Department of Homeland Security, 2003). This era of increased Islamophobia and hyper-suspicion created further policing of trans immigrant bodies, with the language used around middle-eastern refugees inviting transphobia by presenting trans-women as inherent threats to US security. In 2005, new ‘Real-ID’ systems were implemented, creating databases of ‘official’ ID to compare to an individuals' appearance/documents, creating damaging, and oftentimes humiliating consequences to trans travellers. In more recent years, former President Donald Trump’s ‘Muslim Ban’ stopped many trans Asylum seekers in their tracks. The ban, which halted travel from 6 majority Muslim countries, halted the applications of refugees like Bahar, a trans man. Bahar, like many LGBT Iranians, travelled from his home country to Turkey. Here, he went through the asylum-seeking process, aiming to move to the US. This process was stopped following the 'Muslim Ban', leading Bahar to despair. During this delay, Bahar faced abuse and sexual assault from locals and other refugees, as well as increasing isolation, desperation and depression. Policies such as the Muslim Ban have profound impacts on trans refugees, who experience threat and danger from all sides.
Iran to Turkey - from the frying pan to the fire
Even when escaping prejudice, things may not necessarily improve for some trans refugees. In Iran, being Transgender is legal, and transitions are supported by the government. However, high religious and social conservatism still results in danger and abuse for trans refugees, who face being disowned or beaten by their families. Aynaz, a trans refugee living in Turkey, spoke in 2015 of the sexual violence she experience from the ‘Basij’, the islamic moral police: 'When they rape you, it's better to not fight back, because they'll do it either way. So I would close my eyes and try to calm myself until they were done so I could get away.' (Vice, 2015). This sexual harassment is common in Iran, so many trans people flee to nearby Turkey, which is less legally restrictive, but still highly conservative. 1,400 Iranians flee to Turkey each year (VOA, 2021), many of them LGBT. Here, probelms persist, and with little state support, trans refugees often find themselves homeless. Sepi, another trans and Iranian refugee in Turkey, spoke of the struggles of finding a job. Even if she did find one, she often would be fired within a few days due to getting outed , “usually by another Iranian refugee trying to get [her] job”. Hence, desperate, Sepi and many of her friends were forced to turn to prostution to survive, having sex with men in exchange for accomodation, falling prey to the very sort of sexual abuse they tried to escape in Iran - “life in Turkey is worse”, Sepi added. An unsupportive refugee community, combined with a lack of UN housing or funding, makes life hellish for trans asylum seekers in Turkey. One Iranian refugee activist, A.R, who identifies as a trans man, spoke earlier this year of his prayers to be able to move to europe, where he “would no longer be judged for his gender identity”. However, with hostility towards migrants growing, gaining refugee status in safer, more trans-friendly nations becomes harder year-on-year. These nations are also not always as welcoming as perceived by some asylum seekers.
Trouble in ‘paradise’
In the UK, things can get easier when given refugee status. Returning to Alana’s story, who described her ability to get financial support and housing following the success of her application. This was something not afforded to her during the long, arduous process, where she was effectively homeless, having to couch surf till offered housing by an Lgbt charity. This financial support enabled her to study and get a job, but issues still remain. Even in the UK, Alana was a victim of a violent hate crime, where she was attacked in the street. Furthermore, she described the growing transphobic sentiment in the west as ‘bewildering’, with strong transphobic voices in the media only fueling anti-trans public sentiment. This, coupled with prominent anti-migrant and anti-refugee political voices, creates an environment where trans refugees, even after successful asylum claims, are afraid to navigate public spaces. As Alana asks “How can a trans woman integrate into society when that very society can be unsafe for trans people?”.
When discussing Lgbt rights in a global context, it is vital to remember that many restrictive laws were initially imposed by colonial Europe upon those subjugated. For instance, Malaysia, one of the biggest sources of modern trans refugees, had a diverse, fluid and non-binary gender system prior to european colonisation. Thus, it is vital we don’t portray the west as a knight in shining armour when it comes to any kind of refugee issues, but especially trans ones - as shown, western nations themselves produce new and sometimes more difficult challenges for Lgbt asylum seekers. Most important is to support these individuals in every step of the refugee process, either by volunteering with, or donating to Lgbt refugee organisations - such as MicroRainbow, Rainbow Railroad, or Rainbow Migration UK.
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Alfie is a first year Geography Student at Oxford University. He researched and wrote this article as part of his micro internship organised by Oxford University Career Services.