Gay and transgender refugees seek safety in the Middle East
LGBTI refugees in the region face a heightened risk of violent abuse, including murder, sometimes at the hands of extremists or criminal gangs.
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.
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 other national and international NGOs which provide 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.
As the terrifying ordeal of Nadia’s abduction and torture in 2012 made shockingly clear, life in Baghdad is dangerous for the transgender community. While several of her peers were murdered, others faced unrelenting harassment.
“In Iraq, gays and trans are persecuted,” she says. “Most trans commit suicide in the end because there's no life. They cannot live the way they want.”
Nadia initially fled to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and subsequently to neighbouring Iran in her quest to transition from male to female, but was unsuccessful. When she returned to Baghdad, her family abuse escalated.
“In Iraq, gays and trans are persecuted ... most trans commit suicide in the end because there's no life."
Unconvinced by a medical diagnosis that she could not become a man, her father and uncle confined and tortured her, scrubbing her skin with steel wool in an attempt to stimulate hair growth, and forcibly injecting testosterone.
She finally managed to flee to Lebanon, helped by a friendly doctor and her aunt. “My aunt told me, ‘go and never come back. If they see you they will kill you,’” Nadia says. “I have a new life because of her.”
Awaiting resettlement in Beirut has not been easy. There have been challenges finding work and paying rent as well as insults from housemates and threats from the family of her new partner, a Syrian refugee whose ring she now wears and with whom she hopes to be reunited after resettlement.
For the future, Nadia hopes to help others. “I dream of settling and adopting a family, having a baby with my boyfriend. I want to be a goodwill ambassador for trans people and raise awareness.”
For professionals like Maydaa of MOSAIC, the case of Nadia and countless others like her show that there is hope for the LGBTI refugee community in this region. But he added, “cultural change will take time.”
*Name changed for protection reasons