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Friday, 29 October 2010

ILGA conference: LGBT asylum workshop report

Source: Equality Network

These notes on the workshops Jane Carnall attended at the ILGA-Europe conference are as accurate as she could make them but absolute accuracy is not guaranteed: if anyone feels misrepresented or misreported, contact janeATequality-network.org and updates/corrections will be made.

Lunch was a brisk and busy affair - the food was better than the Bel Air hotel's grasp of queuing theory. (Two buffets, side by side, and 250 delegates all trying to eat at once.) But I had an interesting conversation with a delegate who was to speak at a workshop on Saturday about Islam and sexual minorities - he had also picked up on the rather one-way comment about "Muslim youths and gay youths" in the morning's plenary session, not quite right for the theme of the conference "challenging our prejudices".

After lunch I went on to the 2:30 panel, one of the smaller workshops on the Mezzanine floor, LGBT Asylum Seekers in Europe: improving decision-making standards.

Four speakers, three organisations: the first was Neil Grungras, ORAM (Organisation for Refuge, Asylum, and Migration), the first migration organisation focusing exclusively on refugees fleeing sexual and gender-based violence world-wide. ORAM is based in the US (San Francisco).

Grungras spoke about how many of the difficulties such refugees face are based on the way basic processes about asylum seekers are framed to assume you are heterosexual and your gender identity is cis.
  • Forms that asylum seekers have to fill in ask if they are male or female, if they are married, if they have a family: there is nowhere on the forms to come out. 
  • That training of the interviewers for asylum seekers does not include training on LGBT issues. 
  • The European Court of Human Rights has a good policy but the policy is not disseminated to people in the field.
  • The interviewers and adjudicators are not encouraged to reach out to people seeking asylum and encourage them to feel safe about coming out - and if they do come out, the questions intended to "prove" that this person is gay tend to be about sex acts, and humiliate the applicant.
Grungras pointed out that we as an LGBTI community do not want people to tell us where we fit into, what boxes we fit in, but this is what the asylum process is designed to do - to find out what box the applicant can be fitted into, what boxes the adjudicator can tick. He said that often interviewers come from the same homophobic background which the asylum seeker is fleeing - that even without intending to be abusive, interviewers use abusive or insulting language to applicants very often - example, a gay man from Iran was asked by an interviewer, for how long had he been a male prostitute? - because the interviewer knew of no other word to describe a male homosexual.


Grungras mentioned a practice more widespread in the past, now being carried out by only two countries (Czech Republic and Slovakia) of having the applicant attach electrodes to his genitals and showing him pornographic pictures to "test" whether he became more aroused at gay or het pornography, which was to "prove" his real sexual orientation. (This practice has been condemned as both highly unethical and very unreliable, but it was once widespread.)

Grungras also talked about how does an asylum seeker prove what happens to LGBTI people in their country? This led into general discussion, because the usual rule, he said, is that the adjudicator will check the ILGA website to see if homosexuality is illegal, and if so how it is punished: but if the ILGA website gives no such direct information about the country, the adjudicator may decide to assume that the person could live "with more discretion", or move away from their family (but in many parts of the world, a person cannot survive if separated from their family support network). This is called the Internal Flight Alternative (IFA) - that someone is not entitled to be a refugee if they only have to move to another part of the country to get away from their persecutors, who may be their own family.

Grungras said, the easiest "case" is a gay man from a country where sex between men is illegal who can show scars from where he has already been tortured or beaten. But what of the people who fled societal persecution before they were scarred? No one should have to show visible scars to be accepted for asylum. In many countries which persecute the worst, LGBT is not criminalised, but it is driven undergound - there is nothing about it on the Internet because a Western reporter cannot hope to find it by dropping in for a story, because the local LGBT people are careful never to out themselves to a stranger because they may be killed if they are known.

There was some discussion about the "Discretion" rule - that if someone goes home and lives quietly, conforming to their society's rules about LGBT people living in the closet, they will not be persecuted and so are not entitled to refugee status. This rule has been struck down by several countries, including most recently the UK. "You cannot ask people to go home and get killed before they can come back and get refugee status."

Grungras also talked about the "prosecution vs persecution" - the attitude by some authorities that if being gay is against the law, a lawbreaker cannot seek asylum for being a criminal escaping legal prosecution.

Sabine Jansen, COC Netherlands, spoke at length about the project for which she is the main researcher (I asked her for a copy of her presentation): this is "Fleeing Homophobia", a project of the VU University Amsterdam, funded by the European Refugees Fund (ERF).

This project aims at increasing knowledge on existing law and practices in all EU Member States. While EU institutions are negotiating the development of a Common European Asylum System (CEAS), it will provide a comprehensive picture of the existing diversity. Jansen explained the methodology of the project and its expected outcomes, linking with the advocacy strategies of LGBT organisations. She noted that the first country to rule that LGBT could be a protected group for asylum, was the Netherlands, who ruled in 1981 that gay men from Poland belonged to a persecuted group.

Then Sofia Sjöö and Emil Persson, Migrationsverket Sweden, spoke about their work on Beyond Borders - the provision of a toolkit to assist everyone in the National Migration Board (Migrationsverket) in issues of gender and sexuality in the asylum process. Sjöö said that she had been told by her friends, after she started work there, "It is very good that someone like you has started working at that place" and that when she talked to other LGBT people who worked there, that they had been told the same thing.

Sjöö and Persson - they took turns making the presentation - talked about how Beyond Borders had involved setting up mandatory classes for all staff - that everyone working in the migration system must attend these classes. I asked them for a copy of their presentation, and copies are to be e-mailed out to all those who attended the workshop.

After the presentations, we had time to discuss:
  • Many organisations that work with asylum seekers do not wish it known that they also help LGBTI people. If classes are mandatory, then they have that "out": they are required to know how to work with LGBTI people, so they cannot be blamed for it.
  • One member of the audience spoke of how the Rainbow House in Amsterdam had set up an LGBTI network for refugees.
  • Grungas concluded the workshop by speaking with passion about how it was crucial for the LGBT community in the host countries to confront their own xenophobia and reach out to the LGBT asylum seekers - to become the family support that the refugees had fled.
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