UNHCR calls upon states to recognize the needs of people persecuted over sexual orientation or gender identity

Briefing Notes, 1 October 2010

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 1 October 2010, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR is revising its policies to protect people fleeing persecution due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. This includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex asylum seekers and refugees. We call upon states to support this commitment through improved understanding and recognition of the particular vulnerabilities of these groups.

This is in light of a survey conducted in advance of a meeting we had this week with government experts, international organizations, NGOs, academics, and judiciary professionals which concluded that at every stage of the displacement cycle these vulnerable groups face danger, difficulty and discrimination. UNHCR believes these risks are significant and should not be ignored.

The existence of laws criminalizing same-sex relations in many countries (including the death penalty in seven) poses significant problems for these asylum-seekers and refugees. Such laws, whether enforced or not, impede their ability to access state protection in their home countries. When they flee, they are often reluctant to register for asylum. When they do register for asylum, they may be unlikely to testify truthfully at asylum hearings regarding the nature of their persecution.

The survey found that people from these groups are more prone to sexual- and gender-related violence during detention, both in their home countries and countries of asylum. It also found that they face a heightened risk of discrimination in urban settings and refugee camps.

Durable solutions tend to be more limited, with integration into the country of asylum and return to the home country often not being a possibility. UNHCR advocates for resettlement of individuals who face a heightened risk as a result of belonging to this social group, and calls upon resettlement states to recognize their vulnerability.

UNHCR guidelines and policies will be revised to ensure that the particular vulnerability of these groups is recognized at every stage in our interaction with refugees. The 1951 Refugee Convention spells out that a refugee is someone who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country. In 2008 we issued a guidance note recognizing that individuals being persecuted due to sexual orientation and gender identity should be considered within the 'fleeing due to membership of a particular social group" convention ground.

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International Women's Day 2013

Gender equality remains a distant goal for many women and girls around the world, particularly those who are forcibly displaced or stateless. Multiple forms of discrimination hamper their enjoyment of basic rights: sexual and gender-based violence persists in brutal forms, girls and women struggle to access education and livelihoods opportunities, and women's voices are often powerless to influence decisions that affect their lives. Displaced women often end up alone, or as single parents, battling to make ends meet. Girls who become separated or lose their families during conflict are especially vulnerable to abuse.

On International Women's Day, UNHCR reaffirms its commitment to fight for women's empowerment and gender equality. In all regions of the world we are working to support refugee women's participation and leadership in camp committees and community structures, so they can assume greater control over their lives. We have also intensified our efforts to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence, with a focus on emergencies, including by improving access to justice for survivors. Significantly, we are increasingly working with men and boys, in addition to women and girls, to bring an end to dangerous cycles of violence and promote gender equality.

These photographs pay tribute to forcibly displaced women and girls around the world. They include images of women and girls from some of today's major displacement crises, including Syria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali and Sudan.

International Women's Day 2013

The suffering and strength of displaced Congolese women

During the ceaseless cycle of violence in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, it is the vulnerable who suffer the most, especially women and children. The issue of widespread sexual and gender-based violence is a major concern for UNHCR, but it never goes away. The refugee agency has received dozens of reports of rape and assault of women during the latest wave of fighting between government forces and rebel troops as well as militia groups in North and South Kivu provinces. It is an area where rape is used as a weapon of war.

The fear of sexual and physical violence forces thousands of women to seek refuge away from their homes or across the border in countries such as Rwanda and Uganda. Often their menfolk remain behind and women become the heads of household, looking after young children. They are the bedrock of society, yet they are often the first to suffer when instability comes to their home areas.

The following images were taken recently in Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda by Frédèric Noy. They depict Congolese women who have fled their homes, leaving almost everything behind, and sought shelter in a place they hope will be better than where they came from. In many ways they have become inured to hardship, but so many of them continue to retain hope for themselves and their children. And that is an inspiration to those who help them.

The suffering and strength of displaced Congolese women

Assessing Refugee Needs in Brazil

UNHCR staff have been visiting and talking to urban refugees around Brazil to assess their protection needs of refugees and other people of concern. The refugee agency, working with local partners, carries out a three-week Participatory Assessment every year. UNHCR uses an age, gender and diversity approach during the exercise. This means also talking to minority and vulnerable groups, including women, older people, those living with disability and more. The findings allow UNHCR to develop an appropriate protection response. This year's exercise was conducted in five cities - São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brasília, Rio Grande de Sul and Manaus. Refugees taking part said the assessment allowed them to share views, problems and solutions with UNHCR and others. Various stakeholders, including government officials, aid workers and academics, also participated.

Assessing Refugee Needs in Brazil

Breaking Down The BarriersPlay video

Breaking Down The Barriers

See how sexual and gender-based violence is being addressed in a Ugandan refugee camp.