By Elizabeth Drew
The stakes for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) refugees and asylum seekers are high: many people fleeing persecution based on their sexual orientation or gender identity encounter violence and abuse in the countries they’ve fled to, where they remain invisible and at risk, often isolated from even community-based support.
The Obama Administration continues to advance a comprehensive human rights agenda that includes elimination of violence and persecution based on sexual orientation or gender identity. I represented the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) at a roundtable in Geneva on this theme last week. The roundtable, the first of its kind, will result in enhanced policy and operational guidance for staff of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at headquarters and in the field. A group of representatives of different governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and academics met from September 30-October 1, and — despite the jetlag suffered by participants flying in the previous day from as far away as Australia, Kenya, Uganda, Canada and the United States — we had a remarkably dynamic and productive discussion. We were especially pleased that UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres and Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller welcomed us to a reception after our first day of talks, reflecting the commitment of UNHCR’s senior leadership on this issue.
I moderated a session on good practices and current initiatives, describing PRM’s efforts to integrate and elevate this issue within our broader work, including our convening a working group with NGOs and other U.S .government offices on this issue and supporting a regional pilot program to build capacity to address LGBT protection challenges. The group welcomed U.S. leadership on this topic, and was appreciative of our public statements, including PRM Assistant Secretary Eric Schwartz’s speech at the State Department’s LGBT Pride Month event in June. My government representative counterparts spoke about their efforts on this front, and NGO participants shared the innovative programming work they’re doing in Kenya, Uganda and the Middle East, particularly in the area of staff training and sensitization.
Our group parted on Friday with both a renewed sense of urgency and ideas for a way forward.
Elizabeth Drew is a Special Assistant for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.
Elimination of Violence and Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation
Comments by Elizabeth Drew to UNHCR Roundtable on Asylum-Seekers and Refugees Seeking Protection on Account of Their Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Source: US State Department
Thank you. It's an honor to be here, participating in such a dynamic discussion on this critical issue. I also want to recognize the leadership of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for hosting this roundtable and commend the Agency's ongoing efforts to enhance protection for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) refugees and asylum seekers.
The Obama Administration has made clear that our comprehensive human rights agenda includes the elimination of violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The U.S. recently joined the United Nations General Assembly core group on LGBT issues, and earlier this month the U.S. co-sponsored the high-level LGBT panel at the UN Human Rights Council.
We're very fortunate to have Secretary Clinton leading the Department of State in elevating our human rights dialogues with foreign governments and advancing public diplomacy to protect the rights of LGBT individuals. We are also leading by example, extending benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees, making it easier for transgender Americans to amend their passports, and including gender identity along with sexual orientation in the State Department Equal Employee Opportunity Statement.
So what role do those of us who work in the refugee field play within this much broader effort to protect and empower LGBT persons worldwide? The answer is that LGBT refugees and asylum seekers and the people who work to protect and assist them are on the frontlines of this battle. We've all talked about what's at stake. We know that in some countries, people are threatened, tortured and even killed for their sexual orientation or gender identity, or for not conforming to social and cultural norms about how men and women should behave, dress, or speak.
LGBT individuals who have fled their own countries may continue to face serious threats in countries of asylum, where they may be isolated and reluctant to seek help. For our Bureau, ensuring LGBT refugees receive the protection and assistance to which all refugees are entitled is a priority. And it is part of our mandate.
To integrate and elevate this issue within our Bureau, we've established a working group on LGBT protection that includes NGO representatives, PRM staff, and other U.S. government offices involved in refugee protection and assistance. And, in collaboration with our partners, we will continue to identify areas where improvements can be made to our system of expedited resettlement for all highly vulnerable refugees.
We are also consistently and publicly articulating our position on these issues in order to set the standards for our own staff and partners; to encourage other states to meet their protection obligations; and above all, to keep faith with the victims of this type of persecution. The U.S. Delegation will be raising LGBT protection concerns in the U.S. statement on protection at the 61st session of the UNHCR Executive Committee next week, and we continue to look for ways to raise this in public forums.
This roundtable is an important start in bringing together experts on not only refugee and asylum issues more broadly, but also colleagues who can speak to a range of challenging LGBT issues that we all need to think about - including protection for transgender and intersex persons and the different risks faced by lesbian women, gay men, or bisexuals.
Though we've made a lot of progress in my government, we still need to institutionalize regular training on gender concepts that include LGBT issues. On the issue of gender based violence, including sexual violence, we plan to enhance our Bureau's work on prevention and response. And we will make clear to new and current staff and partners that gender-based violence includes violence directed at individuals because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
As we've discussed, this violence is often rooted in destructive notions of how men and women should behave and interact, and we cannot make progress towards achieving gender equality and stopping the persecution of LGBT persons without acknowledging and addressing these fundamental problems.
To that end, we are very committed to supporting UNHCR's efforts to effectively integrate LGBT issues into the Agency's groundbreaking age, gender, and diversity mainstreaming (AGDM) strategy. It is very encouraging to see how seriously and thoughtfully UNHCR has been approaching this, actively seeking feedback from partners as they revise the AGD strategy. As part of that process, we are very interested in obtaining better data about the challenges for LGBT refugees and asylum seekers and learning how we might develop indicators to track our progress as part of these broader efforts at accountability.
What kind of metrics can we use to see whether we are addressing the needs of LGBT refugees and asylum seekers, and communicating effectively with an often invisible population? What data do we have already, and what information are we missing? As many colleagues have noted already, we also need to improve coordination within the UN system, and clarify the roles and responsibilities of the different agencies involved in human rights reporting and efforts to prevent persecution of LGBT persons in their countries of origin.
As we move forward, we should aim to be both strategic and opportunistic, integrating these issues within existing policy and programming initiatives, and public engagement opportunities, even as we develop a comprehensive strategy that will inform future efforts.
We look forward to continued collaboration in this area with all of you.