An Invisible Minority: LGBTQ Refugees from Syria

On Oct 17, 2016 Harvard Political Review reported: LGBTQ refugees make up a small percentage of the millions of people headed from Syria to Europe and North America. Many never reveal their sexual orientation for fear of persecution, and so the obstacles they face and the abuses that they suffer remain hidden. These individuals are not only targeted by religious extremists in their home country, but also attacked in “transition countries” and refugee camps. When they do apply for refugee status, they are asked to prove their true orientation—a difficult task for individuals who have in many cases been closeted their whole lives.

Contemporary Syria has never been a welcoming place for the LGBTQ community. According to Article 520 of the country’s penal code, individuals can face up to three years in jail for engaging in homosexual activities. LGBTQ individuals were subject to verbal and physical harassment at regime checkpoints long before ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front gained power. These Islamist fundamentalist groups, however, have escalated persecution to extremes. They’ve used mobile phones and social media to track down gay men and women and have murdered their targets by throwing them off buildings or stoning them to death.

Unlike most political refugees, LGBTQ refugees typically lack familial support. According to Human Rights Watch, family members often disown or even threaten to kill sons and daughters who come out as gay. They rescind the financial support that LGBTQ refugees need to travel or study and sometimes even send the names of gay relatives to extremist groups. This means that even if LGBTQ individuals manage to make it to a more stable country like Turkey, most can’t pay for the housing and food they need to survive.
Only a fraction of refugees are legally allowed to work, and men who appear effeminate and transgender people often face housing and job discrimination. Ozlem Colak, member of a Turkish LGBT advocacy group, notes that Turkey doesn’t provide adequate protections for LGBTQ individuals, which means that most refugees will continue to “live through [harassment] in a new country where [they] don’t even speak the same language.”

The UNHCR application process for LGBTQ refugees takes around two years: shorter than a political refugee’s waiting period but far too long for an individual without a legal job or family funds. Yet it isn’t the length but rather the content of the process that poses the greatest challenge—applicants need to “prove” that they have a specific sexual orientation to interviewers. However, unlike political refugees, who don’t usually feel ashamed about revealing that they are victims of abuse by militias or governments, LGBTQ refugees have often been socialized to be ashamed of their sexuality—the “cause” of their abuse.

What this means, as Claus Jetz of Cologne’s Gay and Lesbian Association points out, is that applicants are unlikely to appear LGBTQ in a stereotypically European or Western manner. They may feel uncomfortable discussing their sexuality openly, especially since the administrators and officials from their home country—who applicants may perceive as similar to their interviewers—are generally homophobic.

Read more at An Invisible Minority: LGBTQ Refugees from Syria – Harvard Political Review

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