Within the media, there are not many positive presentations of the individual identities of those who are forcibly displaced: in 2015, then Prime Minister David Cameron described groups of refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea as a “swarm”, whilst only a year later the then UKIP leader Nigel Farage unveiled a poster which showed a queue of migrants, with the poster suggesting Britain had reached a ‘breaking point’. Both of these men lumped together refugees and migrants into one faceless mass, minimising the identity, agency, and stories of the 79.5 million forcibly displaced people around the world (as of 2020). These depictions of refugees are simply not acceptable and seem to suggest that the only identity these people have is their statuses as refugees or asylum seekers.
It is at this point that the concept of intersectionality is particularly useful. Coined in 1989 by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, the term can be used to “describe how race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics ‘intersect’ with one another and overlap”. This term provides broader scope for the recognition of the individuality of each and every refugee, potentially providing scope for governments and charities to cater to the unique needs of each refugee they encounter. The concept of intersectionality is particularly useful for the consideration of minority groups, such as members of the Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ+) community. An intersectional approach to refugee identities would allow for the embracing of the complete totality of each individual refugee, taking into account their background, age, gender, sexuality, and many other factors that make them who they are.
The challenges faced by LGBTQ+ refugees
Whilst the procedures implemented by governments to categorise and resettle refugees are problematic, often catering towards straight and cis-gendered people, the problems faced by LGBTQ+ refugees often are much more extensive than just navigating the bureaucracy of resettling.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in an integration handbook for LGBTQ+ refugees, outlines the need for “an inclusive response to [the] reception and integration” of refugees, which emphasises the “specific needs of LGBTIQ+ persons”. What this highlights is the need for a specified approach towards the resettlement of LGBTQ+ people, something that the media’s homogenous depiction of refugees does not allow for. For example, LGBTQ+ refugees may face discrimination from other refugees as well as their host countries, meaning that lumping all refugees together as one faceless mass, will endanger those minorities who have specific needs. The UNHCR suggests specialized services for LGBTQ+ refugees, and an appropriate match between the refugee and their host country, as well as the need for private housing to enable the individual to live as authentically as possible, without risking discrimination from other refugees or locals of the host country. The United Kingdom specifically has faced criticism regarding the treatment of its own transgender citizens, making the problems faced by transgender refugees even more stark.
Furthermore, a report published by Micro Rainbow, a charity focussing on the needs of LGBTQ+ refugees and asylums seekers, which looked at the poverty of lesbian and gay refugees, outlined the problems faced specifically by LGBTQ+ refugees, with 85% of those interviewed by Micro Rainbow feeling they had been discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation. The lack of support system faced by lesbian and gay refugees was also highlighted; those who had ‘come out’ (revealed their sexuality) to their families had often been ostracised by their families, meaning they had little or no contact with them, and 36% of interviewees said they didn’t socialise with co-nationals in the UK, ‘unless they were also lesbian and gay, and mostly also refugees.’ This report highlights the striking need for a support system specifically for LGBTQ+ refugees, which will allow them to integrate, and feel safe in their host country, around others who will affirm their identity.
The trans experience: Alana
Alana is a transgender woman, a refugee, and a board member for Micro Rainbow, and wrote about her unique experiences as a trans refugee for Migrant Help UK. Alana outlines the ‘unique’ nature of the ‘obstacles’ that transgender refugees face, describing the asylum-seeking process as ‘dehumanising and hurtful’ and outlining the lack of support in regards to mental and physical health care, which led to her having to abandon her medical transition after she was unable to access the hormones and medications she needed. Furthermore, Alana emphasises the fact that most gender clinics are located in London whilst most asylum seekers are housed outside of London, preventing any transgender or gender non-conforming refugees from getting the specific help they need, even if it does exist. Again, the term intersectionality can be used here again to look at how refugee status can intersect with class and financial security to negative impact the changes of positive resettlement in a host country for refugees and asylym seekers.
The rise of hate crimes in the UK over the past five years, as outlined in this BBC article, were also highlighted by Alana who still faces rampant transphobia, ‘even two years after being granted refugee status.’
Alana’s experiences highlight the unique nature of the obstacles faced specifically by transgender refugees, demonstrating the importance of intersectionality in the consideration of how best to help anyone who has been forcibly displaced from their home country.
How, then, can we translate a recognition of the intersectionality of identity into a material approach towards the identity-building and integration of individual refugees?
The UNHCR emphasises the need to centre the voices of LGBTQ+ people, such as Alana’s, in order to learn and engage directly with their needs and learn from their lived experiences. This goes hand in hand with the need for financial security for all refugees that the UNHCR emphasises. In language courses provided for refugees who may not speak the host country’s language, the UNHCR highlights the need for LGBTQ+ inclusive language, which will allow those refugees who identity as LGBTQ+ to feel recognised and validated. Furthermore, finding safe and inclusive workplaces for LGBTQ+ refugees, which have pre-existing anti-discrimination legislation in place, will allow for the integration of LGBTQ+ refugees into the wider community.
The importance of LGBTQ+ centred healthcare is also highlighted by the UNHCR, with the need for good physical healthcare as important as the need for good mental healthcare, with each having a direct impact on the other. Healthcare is especially important because affirming physical healthcare can have a direct, positive outcome on the mental health of individuals, with trans-inclusive healthcare requiring the affirmation of ‘people’s identities without bias’. For trans men, this entails breast cancer and cervical cancer screenings whilst for trans women this requires screenings for prostate cancer. These requirements, alongside other things such as access to hormones and medication, and mental health support, as TGEU highlights, are not luxuries but absolute basics for the wellbeing of every trans person.
In terms of recognising and celebrating the multiplicity of all refugees, it’s further important to centre the voices of LGBTQ+ people. The University of British Columbia’s Social Justice Institute ran an exhibit titled ‘Painted Stories of Migration’ which sought to centre stories of LGBTQ+ refugees through artwork. Together, the participants painted a mural, titled ‘We Are All Humans’ which demonstrated the individual complexity of each refugee and their own stories, with a focus on intersectionality challenging “the single story of a refugee and instead [showing] how race, sexuality, gender, class, and ability intersect into their lives.”
Ultimately, the best approach towards supporting the individual identities of refugees is one that centres on embracing the totality of each person. There is a requirement for LGBTQ+ inclusion in every aspect of the refugee resettling process, from the language taught in language classes, to the homes provided by governments. There is also a need for empathy and understanding, as well as complete tolerance from host countries; being a refugee can already entail traumatic consequences, with refugees and asylum seekers more likely to experience poor mental health than the population of the host country they are resettled in, according to the Mental Health Foundation. Minimising the impact of the resettlement process on the mental health of individuals, after the trauma of having to leave your home and country, is perhaps the most important thing.
A basic human right for each and every individual, whether a refugee or not, is to live as authentically as they can and as the ‘Painted Stories of Migration’ project quotes: “Migration is always difficult, don’t make it more difficult.”