Gay and transgender refugees seek safety in the Middle East

On Aug 15, 2016 UNHCR published this article:

LGBTI refugees in the region face a heightened risk of violent abuse, including murder, sometimes at the hands of extremists or criminal gangs.

A refugee speaks about the challenges faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in the Middle East.  © One Cup Media/Mosaic/UNHCR

BEIRUT, Lebanon – As a transgender woman, Nadia* long struggled to find acceptance in her native Iraq, where years of abuse culminated in her abduction by an extremist militia targeting transgender people.

“They tortured us and beat us severely,” she says, recalling how some of her peers had their orifices sealed up with glue. Several were killed.

After a harrowing flight across the Middle East in search of safety, she is now under the protection of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in Lebanon and feels ready for a new start.

“I’ve said goodbye to Iraq forever and it hurts,” she says.

Raised male by a cold mother and an abusive father, Nadia, 23, self-identifies as female. Her flight took her from the sectarian strife of post-war Baghdad to Kurdistan, Iran and now Lebanon. Soon, she hopes to resettle in a new country.

“I thought I was the only one on the planet who had this.”

But she cannot bury the confusion, betrayals and abuse of the past. “I thought I was the only one on the planet who had this,” Nadia says, speaking of her transgender identity. “I wondered why I was like that. It was disgusting, really disgusting,” she said, referring to the reaction of those around her.

Similar experiences are recounted by a host of other lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people – collectively known as LGBTI – now living as refugees under UNHCR protection across this conflict-torn region.

As refugees, the perils are often magnified, according to testimony gathered by UNHCR and its partners. LGBTI refugees face a heightened risk of harassment, arrest, kidnap, torture, rape and even murder. Some, like Nadia, are targeted by extremists or criminal gangs. There are also daily concerns like finding jobs and shelter, hard enough for other refugees.

Lebanon is considered more tolerant of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities than most of its neighbours. Still, its criminal code prohibits sexual relations “contradicting the laws of nature,” and that can trigger prosecutions.

LGBTI refugees in Lebanon tell their stories

There is a lack of data on how many LGBTI people are in need of assistance, but MOSAIC, a UNHCR partner working with marginalized groups in Lebanon and other parts of the region, says its services have reached 810 LGBTI people so far this year. But that merely scratches the surface.

“So much depends on how they come here and whether they have support already,” says MOSAIC’s founder, Charbel Maydaa. “There are many factors that define safety. Are they in a safe house? Are they properly registered and protected? Do they have access to support organizations? Being a refugee and LGBTI can be a double stigma.”

For its part, UNHCR recently rolled out the largest and most comprehensive training package of its kind for staff and the wider humanitarian community working with forcibly displaced LGBTI people. It has also provided an overview of its progress made in protecting LGBTI refugees and others of concern.

In Lebanon itself, specialized social workers provide psychological counselling and referrals for medical assistance – especially post-trauma care. Other assistance to LGBTI refugees includes shelter, mental health aid, and legal and emergency cash assistance. When necessary, refugees are resettled.

UNHCR also works closely with partners like MOSAIC, the ABAAD-Resource Centre for Gender Equality and the Makhzoumi Foundation, which provides individual and group support to LGBTI refugees. UNHCR and its partners have trained police to help them understand the community’s needs, and recently introduced rainbow ‘safety’ badges to highlight frontline staff trained to respond to the needs of the community.

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