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“LGBT refugees need special consideration”
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“LGBT refugees need special consideration”

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David Masengesho 2016 picLGBT refugees and asylum seekers require special consideration, as they face double persecution in both their home countries and in the refugee and diaspora communities, writes David Masengesho, 28, a Commonwealth Correspondent from Kigali in Rwanda, currently residing in the USA.

In countries where violence, human abuse and political oppression can ruin peoples’ lives, there comes a time to make the tough decision to leave family members and property to desperately run away, hoping to get where life is protected.

Even in war-free and politically stable zones, you will find people fleeing violence and discrimination targeting people because of their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.  At least 70 countries criminalize homosexuality, some with the death penalty.

When they have to run away, the hope is to get in to countries committed to providing safe haven. They reach them after spending many years in refugee camps and going through a very sophisticated screening process, as resettlement countries take very few refugees compared to the number of those who need resettlement.  Apart from refugees resettled by western countries in collaboration with UNHCR, there are other cases where applicants try legally or illegally to touch their feet in a safe and welcoming country and start the asylum application process.  These are called “asylum seekers” and become “asylees” when they are granted asylum.

The United States brings in the biggest number of refugees in comparison with other resettlement countries, and allows application for asylum within one year of arrival, regardless of whether they entered the country legally or illegally.

While refugees come with full assistance and support, seeking asylum in the US can be hugely emotionally and financially tough, as applicants are not eligible to work or generate income.  At the same time the government prohibits federal spending on them until they become asylees. Still, they are compelled to meet their basic needs such as shelter, food, health care, and so on.

Eventually, asylum applicants get help from their ethnic or national communities established in the country; however, for the member of the LGBT community it is a different reality. Those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) can face more discrimination, threats, violence and bigotry – even in the protective countries – from other refugee and diaspora communities.  Only local individuals and organization dedicated to support LGBT people can help.

LGBT Freedom and Asylum Network (LGBT-FAN), a national coalition helping those seeking safety in the US from persecution based on sexual orientation and gender identity in their home countries, was launched in October a best practice guide designed to help service providers learn from those who have done support work, and to avoid repeating mistakes made.  The manual “Stronger Together” took the model of The DC Center Global, a program of the DC Center for LGBT community, which provides a welcome to LGBT asylum seekers from different countries and finds host families for temporary housing. This is the biggest challenge, but they must also fund raise for food and transportation and connect with pro-bono legal services. Failure to have legal representation is incredibly unsafe, and halts one’s ability to win the asylum, especially for those in detention.

The issue of LGBT refugees, asylees and asylum seekers is complex, as they represent a population needing special consideration because of unique circumstances arising from problems associated with cultural nuance, language, cultural shock, and mental health.

A recent meeting of the LGBT caucus of the Refugee Congress brought together different actors supporting refugees, asylees and asylum seekers based in greater Washington, D.C.: the International Rescue Committee, Center for American Progress, Human Rights Campaign, Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The occasion was to celebrate Human Rights Day 2015, and the representative discussed what they are trying to do to meet the special needs of the refugees. They all recognize that unavailability of data is a major problem in responding to refugees who are members of LGBT community.  As of now, there is no data collection effort to help identify LGBT people among refugees, asylees and asylum seekers to really understand the needs and the resources.  The State Department would also use that information in making change and influencing cultures of those oppressing countries.

It is said that many Africans escaping persecution based on sexual orientation choose to go to Europe because of political affinity and because they may know people.  But it can be difficult to win asylum claims based on sexual orientation in some European countries. As well, some people abuse the system by pretending to be LGBT, which puts legitimate asylum cases in Europe, the US or elsewhere under greater scrutiny.

Photo: courtesy of David Masengesho

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About me: I am originally from Rwanda, currently residing in the USA where I am an ESL instructor working with immigrants and youth at risk. I volunteer with different civil society organizations, mostly working on migration, equality and human rights. Prior to moving to the US I worked as a statistician. I have a degree in Applied Statistics and plan to work in research. My hobbies are travelling, networking, and exploring cultures.

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. Articles are published in a spirit of dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response?

To learn more about becoming a Commonwealth Correspondent please visit: http://www.yourcommonwealth.org/submit-articles/commonwealthcorrespondents/

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