Washington forum debates protection for refugees persecuted for their sexuality

UNHCR calls for stepped up efforts to protect the thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers persecuted every year for their sexual orientation and gender identity.

The meeting in Washington discussed the challenges faced by refugees and asylum-seekers because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.  © REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang

WASHINGTON, DC, United States, April 19 (UNHCR) - A senior UNHCR official has called for stepped up efforts to protect the thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers persecuted every year for their sexual orientation and gender identity.

"We, along with the rest of the international community, must renew efforts to protect this vulnerable group," said Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR's representative in the United States, referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex refugees and asylum-seekers in countries of first asylum and resettlement countries.

Cochetel, addressing a Washington conference organized by the US-based Human Rights First organization, added that their lack of resources and access to safety must be a concern for everyone.

The recent three-day meeting brought together civil society groups, US government officials and UNHCR staff to discuss protection issues, best practices and the challenges faced by this vulnerable group of forcibly displaced people.

They heard about specific cases of abuse, including the story of a young Somali asylum-seeker who was kidnapped in Kenya and repeatedly raped. When the man finally managed to escape, he resorted to commercial sex work just to keep alive. His case was put forward as an example of where protection systems were failing to help people being persecuted due to sexual orientation and gender identity.

East Africa is one of many regions where homosexual conduct is condemned and criminalized - sometimes resulting in the death penalty. Many refugees are deprived of employment and housing, isolated from the rest of the community and in dire need of assistance.

Delegates heard that 75 countries in the world criminalize consensual same-sex relations, including the death penalty in seven of them. But in many other countries, prejudice against homosexuals is deeply entrenched and can lead to persecution and abuse.

Apart from gays and lesbians, other sexual minorities such as bisexuals, transgender people (whose gender identity or expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth) and intersex people (whose sexual anatomy is not considered standard for a male or female), are subject to extensive discrimination and abuse in many parts of the world.

Most industrialized countries recognize that sexual minorities may be eligible for refugee status under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. However, practices vary and some jurisdictions are more restrictive than others. The proportion of gay men seeking asylum is generally higher than that of lesbian women.

Neil Grungras, executive director of the Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration (ORAM), told the gathering that 21 per cent of the world's people live in countries where same-sex activity is persecuted and criminalized. ORAM, which focuses on refugees fleeing sexual and gender-based violence, is working closely with UNHCR to increase protection for refugees persecuted for their sexuality.

He noted that such victims were not guaranteed safety after fleeing their homeland. "They very often escape to a country that shares the same treatment of LGBTIs as the country they just came from. That's an enormous protection gap," Grungras noted.

As discrimination and persecution against this group have become more visible in recent years, UNHCR has become more involved in improving protection measures for those at risk and will soon release new guidelines for humanitarian workers

In October last year, the UN refugee agency organized a two-day meeting in Geneva of governments, NGOs, academics and judiciary professionals to discuss the particular vulnerability of this group.

By Dasha Smith in Washington, DC, United States