By Gizem Yarbil
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) refugees are among the most vulnerable refugee groups in the world today, according to Neil Grungras, the executive director of Organization for Refugee, Asylum & Migration (ORAM).
ORAM is a San Francisco based, not-for-profit international organization providing advocacy for refugees who have fled sexual or gender based violence. Many of ORAM’s clients have undergone or have been marked for imminent imprisonment or torture. Some face execution.
Many of them flee not only prosecution by law but also their own families. They often leave home with no possessions and have no support from anywhere. On their journey to a “safe haven,” usually in western countries like the U.S. or Canada, these refugees first arrive in transit countries, which are neighboring countries adjacent to where they’ve just escaped.
These countries are also called “countries of first asylum.” Here, they often face harassment, physical violence and marginalization.
ORAM is currently providing legal representation to LGBT refugees in Turkey. The vast majority of them are Iranians who have fled execution or other severe punishment in Iran and Turkey happens to be their “country of first asylum.”
Worldfocus producer Gizem Yarbil interviews Neil Grungras about ORAM’s refugee clients in Turkey. A refugee and immigration advocate with more than 20 years of experience, he has worked extensively on behalf of vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers.
Worldfocus: Can you tell us about your clients you currently work with in Turkey? Where are they mainly from and what kind of prosecution are they fleeing?
Neil Grungras: Our clients in Turkey are predominantly sexual minorities - lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender individuals from Iran. The abuses they face almost always emanate from the Iranian authorities. These include harassment, arrest, interrogation, torture, beatings, and execution.
It is estimated that 4000 LGBTs have been executed in Iran since 1978. While no one can be certain of the exact figure, LGBTs live in constant fear of discovery or outing there.
Worldfocus: Why did these LGBT refugees choose to go to Turkey and what are some of the challenges facing them there?
Neil Grungras: Most of our clients have fled to Turkey in fear of imminent arrest or other serious harm. Iranians find it extremely difficult to access Europe or North America. At the same, time, those who hold passports are able to enter Turkey without visas, and transportation there is plentiful and affordable.
Clients who go to Turkey do so with much trepidation. While the Turkish government does not persecute LGBTs, conditions in Turkey for these individuals are extremely harsh. Like other refugees there, our clients are typically not permitted to work, and have no access to normal health care, social assistance or housing. LGBTs in Turkey are also targeted with violence by local populations, and the authorities are often unable to extend them protection. Several of our clients in Turkey have been beaten and many have been threatened with violence. In some towns, the situation is so severe that some refugees fear venturing outside in daylight. During the past year, many of our clients have reported threats and actual violence against them. A few clients were beaten so seriously that they required hospitalization.
We recently detailed these and other abuses in our co-publication with Helsinki Citizens Assembly – Turkey titled Unsafe Haven: The Security Challenges Facing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Asylum Seekers in Turkey [PDF].
Like LGBT refugees elsewhere, those in Turkey are “doubly marginalized,” and the few survival mechanisms available to other refugees are closed off to them. For example, while most refugees seek housing with their own countrymen and countrywomen, LGBT refugees are often targeted BY their compatriots, who view them with shame and treat them accordingly. This “double marginalization” can bring lethal consequences.
It is also important to understand the unseen yet very real subjective component of our clients’ fear. All have come to Turkey after a lifetime of fear of discovery, followed by the direct threats or violence which compelled their departure from their home countries. Most have been deeply traumatized by these events. All bear the physical and emotional scars of the past. They are the least capable to deal with the kind of abuse they must endure in Turkey.
Worldfocus: How long does it usually take a LGBT refugee to get resettled in a western country and do they have any legal protection in their “countries of first asylum” until they get fully resettled?
Neil Grungras: Bear in mind that most refugees fleeing persecution escape to adjacent countries, which often share cultural, religious and moral traditions with the place they have escaped. They must often live in close quarters with other refugees and migrants from their countries of origin, who are most often extremely hostile to them. For this reason, most LGBT refugees are afraid to “come out” in their countries of first asylum. Most in fact never seek protection due to this and similar fears. ORAM will soon launch a survey of refugee assistance organizations in key areas. We decided to undertake this after coming to understand that even the humanitarian agencies and NGOs assigned to assist refugees in countries of first asylum can be hostile to LGBTs who may seek help.
Turkey, which as we discussed. can be a dangerous place for LGBT refugees, is relatively “mild” in this sense. Consider that most Afghani LGBTs who flee their homes must spend time in Iran. Likewise, most LGBTs leaving Sudan will go to Egypt. Yet both Iran and Egypt produce their own LGBT refugees.
The fear factor is most insidious in environments where refugees’ movement is restricted. This is the case, for example, in the refugee camp context. But other places are often not much better. In Turkey, where there are no camps, refugees are required to live in towns called “Satellite Cities” and are not permitted to leave without police permission. In such places, once one is discovered, the dangerous consequences can be inescapable.
As for resettlement, the vast majority of refugees in the world – LGBT or not – are NEVER resettled. Most eke out miserable existences in countries of first asylum. The lucky few are resettled, but this takes years. In Turkey two years is the absolute minimum. Many wait three, four or five years.
Worldfocus: How is it different to be a LGBT refugee than a political or ethnic one for example? Do you think LGBT refugees are at a disadvantage and is it harder for them to make it to a safe haven?
Neil Grungras: In 25 years of working with a variety of refugees, I have never seen a group which encounters more hardships — on any of these fronts. Political and ethnic refugees can usually look to their families or their communities for support. LGBT refugees are typically escaping from their families or communities, and must continue to do so in their countries of first asylum. They arrive with virtually none of the skills or resources needed to survive, and must often hide from the only communities which speak their language. Most are barred from the few employment opportunities available and from the other scant resources which refugees can access in countries of first asylum. I never cease to be amazed at the fortitude our clients have to overcome these mountainous obstacles.