69 countries. In 36% of the world’s countries, it is illegal to be a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. In 11 of these, it is punishable by death. The heinous treatment of queer people globally increasingly has led to an influx of queer refugees - refugees who cannot safely return home because of who they love and how they identify. Despite this, as of 2021 there is no international legal convention on the rights of LGBT refugees. The closest are Principles 22-23 of the Yogyakarta Principles (2007) which advises that “states may not extradite a person where that person faces a well grounded fear of persecution on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity” - but these are not internationally legally binding. As such, states have no protocol to follow when dealing with queer refugees; in practice, this means that much of the time, they are overlooked and abused. This essay will outline the major problems that queer refugees face when applying for asylum, namely: the issue of “proof”, misunderstanding, and continued discrimination.
UK: the hostile environment
Asylum seekers flee their country of origin because they face displacement, persecution, violence and potential death; but instead of sympathy, queer asylum seekers often endure further discrimination. The UK Home Office is notoriously hostile in this regard. Stonewall’s No Safe Refuge campaign has exposed the harrowing treatment of queer refugees. Dembe from Uganda stated the process “just breaks you down [...] We’re coming to look for safety and instead we’re being tortured.” For many, the process is re-traumatising: “I felt like I was back in Cameroon. I had three years free, then forced back into a cell.” Most disturbingly, queer asylum seekers report incredible amounts of abuse from detention centre staff. In particular, trans woman Vani was detained in a “male prison” with only women’s clothing - “this makes you vulnerable for all sorts of harm, physical harm” - and was forced to squash her identity in order to secure her safety, whilst enduring deliberate misgendering and ridicule from staff.
At the heart of queer asylum claims is the burden of “proof”. What constitutes “proof” and “evidence” is vague and ungrounded - and often, traumatising and offensive. In 2013, the Home Office came under fire for forcing asylum claimants to submit “photographic and video evidence of highly personal sexual activity” to bolster their claims. Respondents lambasted the process as dehumanising, inhumane and extremely difficult. Most recently, in August 2021 UAE refugee Zac Daily revealed to PinkNews that his asylum request on the grounds of sexual orientation had previously been rejected five times. The burden of “proof” and “convincing” meant that Daily was unable, for three years, to obtain asylum in the UK. “[The Home Office] said I should go back home and live a gay life in secret”. An anonymous Zimbabwean whose asylum was rejected reported to Stonewall that officials confiscated their men’s clothing in favour of “appropriate” clothes - in attempting to alter this person’s identity, this “show[ed] how corrupt your system is...you’re trying to erase me instead of help me”.
Notwithstanding, asylum procedure is riddled with archaic and Eurocentric notions about what it means to be queer. In 2019, headlines were ablaze with the comments of an immigration judge who rejected a gay man’s asylum as he “did not have a gay demeanour”. The idea that people can be rejected a safe home because they fail to meet archaic, offensive stereotypes should be a thing of the past. But it is happening all too often. Queer asylum seekers find their claims refused at a higher rate than the national average - 54% were denied in 2019, compared to 48% of other cases. Around 1,200 LGBT Pakistanis were denied UK asylum between 2016-2018 - currently in Pakistan, the penalty for homosexuality is death.
Turkey: perpetual limbo
Whilst homosexuality is legal in Turkey, the country remains resistant to accepting queer individuals; 54 trans people have been reported murdered since 2008 (the real number is thought to be much higher), and in June 2021 a pride march in Istanbul was attacked by police with tear gas. This is not a country welcoming to LGBT people. But despite this hostility, it is treated by western European governments as a holding ground for queer refugees. Many Middle Eastern refugees have found themselves held in Turkey; originally with the promise of permanent relocation elsewhere, but more often than not left in limbo. In 2019, fifteen Syrian LGBT refugees launched a legal challenge against the UK Home Office: despite agreeing to resettle all fifteen, the Home Office had left them in limbo in Turkey for years on end, forcing them into hiding and putting them in danger. Iranian refugee and activist Ali (pseudonym) estimated between 700-800 queer refugees in similar situations, stuck in hiding in small towns across Turkey. This is far from a safe scenario - “we could be safe in Turkey, as there is no war here. But we are facing homophobic and transphobic attacks, and we get those here too”. He recalls being told, “there is no country for you”, nowhere that would be safer and nowhere that would willingly accept Iranian gay refugees. “The hopelessness is its own violence”.
US: embedded transphobia
The U.S Department of Home Security has a well documented and contentious relationship with transgender refugees. In the wake of 9.11, the U.S Department of Home Security employed radical and contentious methods to prevent further attacks. In one Advisory dated September 2003, the Department warned that “male bombers may dress as females in order to discourage scrutiny”. Within two years, the Real ID Act was created - an Act which radically restructured identification documents and travel to and from the U.S; new databases of ‘official’ ID were created, as well as stricter policies for asylum. The effects of Real ID on transgender Americans is well documented. What is less analysed is how this policy posits Middle Eastern trans women as inherent threats to state security; the language of ‘men dressing as women’ invites scrutiny and interrogation onto gender nonconforming bodies, legitimised as its for the good of the nation.
Nearly two decades later in December 2020, the Department of Homeland Security published a proposed amendment of the U.S asylum criteria. Whilst later enjoined, it sets a dangerous precedent for the coming years: the amendments excluded “gender” as an admissible claim, allowing judges to deny claims based on persecution of gender identity. It also attempted to define severe harm as constituting an “exigent threat”, altering the legal threshold to exclude the cumulative harm from many directions that LGBT people can face.
The extent of the intimidation and abuse is unable to be fully realised in just a few paragraphs. One clear thing throughout this is that the current system is unfit for purpose. The idea that one can hide gender and sexuality in order to assimilate into a hostile culture directly contravenes Article 19 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights - the right to freedom of expression. Freedom is not found in hiding your identity, and it is not found in a system that re-traumatises and casts perpetual doubt on your experiences. One anonymous voice commented that: “None of the things that I said they believed. Not even one of the 300 asked. They just believed that I am from Zimbabwe. The rest, nothing.” The queer refugee is met with cold disbelief rather than safe refuge - because the current attitudes towards them are unfit for purpose. Sexualities and gender identities are structurally disadvantaged to meet the unreasonable demands of “proof”, and
The best thing we could do globally is invest in local, grassroots movements in LGBT-phobic countries to bring about acceptance and change. The least we can do is provide safe asylum for those fleeing persecution. As it stands, we are failing to achieve the bare minimum.