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UNHCR Head of Office launches new LGBTI Asylum Seekers and Refugees Training Project

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UNHCR Head of Office launches new LGBTI Asylum Seekers and Refugees Training Project

31 January 2012
BeLonG To LGBTI Asylum Seekers and Refugees Training Project


Speech by Sophie Magennis, Head of Office in UNHCR Ireland, at the launch of the BeLonG To LGBTI Asylum Seekers and Refugees Training Project today in Dublin.

Note: The training programme, which is based on a two year pilot project, will assist service providers to better understand the particular situation of LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees and will commence in February 2012. For more information visit the BeLonG To website.

“It is a great pleasure to be here this morning on behalf of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to launch the BeLonG To LGBTI Training Project.

BeLonG To is key partner of ours at UNHCR and we are delighted that an organisation of such standing and expertise will be implementing this Project in Ireland. Congratulations to BeLonG To for their recent participation in the first ever UN level consultation on tackling homophobic bullying worldwide. The event culminated in the drafting of 'The Rio Statement', which was issued by the representatives of twenty five LGBTI organisations present at the conference. BeLonG To's work to end homophobic bullying in Ireland was identified as best practice at the Rio meeting and will be included in a United Nations toolkit which will be made available to governments and civil society organisations around the world.  Reaching out to young people who have fled persecution and who may never before have discussed their sexual orientation or gender identity is a challenging task. Ireland is lucky to have an organisation with just the skills required and the generosity to share them. 

I am glad to see people here from a wide range of agencies who will have an opportunity to benefit from the Project which, crucially is supported by the Department of Justice and Equality and by the HSE.

Globally and in Europe, the situation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people has become a much more public issue in recent years, as have the challenges they face. There is greater awareness that claims by such individuals can indeed be included in the refugee definition contained in the 1951 Refugee Convention. There are many reasons for these changes. Some relate to greater
openness towards LGBTI concerns generally. Some are surely due to sustained advocacy by human rights and LGBTI rights groups such as BeLonG To and many of you in the room here today.

The publication of the Yogyakarta Principles in 2007 was an important milestone. They affirm clearly that sexual orientation and gender identity are integral to everyone’s dignity and humanity and that they must not be the basis for discrimination or abuse.

In UNHCR, the situation of asylum-seeking and refugee LGBTI people who have had
to flee persecution and ill treatment is a priority concern. UNHCR’s work has involved clarifying the applicable international legal standards to ensure the proper assessment of such asylum claims. Our work has also involved raising awareness more generally about the challenges faced by displaced LGBTI people and tackling the homophobia that exists within our own organization and among those we work with.

In 2008, the UNHCR Guidance Note on Refugee Claims relating to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity was issued.

The note was produced in light of the need for greater awareness among refugee status decision-makers of the specific experiences of LGBTI asylum-seekers and a deeper examination of the legal questions involved. It is now being developed further to provide more comprehensive guidance on determining claims for international protection by LGBTI individuals. We hope that it will be issued in the first half of this year.

Another UNHCR tool published in August last year is the “Need to know guide” on
working with LGBTI people in forced displacement which I would recommend to all those working with LGBTI people in Ireland even if the guide is more oriented to UNHCR field settings.

UNHCR participated in the Fleeing Homophobia project which Patricia Brazil was involved in terms of research in Ireland and you have heard her reflections on that work.

As the first study to map national practice in the determination of asylum claims made by LGBTI asylum-seekers across Europe, the Project revealed inconsistent practice in assessing such claims both among and within countries. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that the common European asylum system is far from complete generally. It is also very worrying. It means that depending on where LGBTI asylum-seekers seek refuge in Europe, they may face dramatically different outcomes, some of which are not in line with international and European refugee and human rights law.

Identifying these inconsistencies, the bad practices and the good ones, as well as the standards that should apply are first steps towards rectifying the situation. The Fleeing Homophobia report goes a long way towards doing just this. The Project we are launching today has the promise of assisting further in developing consistent best practice in Ireland.

The national authorities in Ireland undertake training and provide guidance to those working in services which may be accessed by LGBTI persons, those working in reception centres for asylum seekers and officials working in the refugee and subsidiary protection determination bodies. UNHCR also provides training to officials working in the determination bodies and to interpreters who assist asylum seekers in their interactions with service providers or at the determination bodies. These initiatives are welcome and the Project we are launching today provides a great opportunity to build on the good work already undertaken.

Our hopes for this Project include that young LGBTI persons will have a greater awareness of where to go to access support and, that when they engage with services and officials at all levels of national administration, they will meet with people who understand their circumstances and have the skills to assist them. This is particularly important in cases where an LGBTI person might disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity at a late stage or may struggle to put into words their experiences if those experiences are taboo or against the law in their country of origin.

We also hope that the Project will assist the ongoing efforts of many organisations across the EU to tackle the notion that LGBTI asylum seekers may not need international protection because they can avoid persecution by being discrete at home.

UNHCR’s position on this issue is that a person cannot be expected to conceal his or her identity in order to avoid persecution. As affirmed by numerous Courts, persecution does not cease to be persecution because those persecuted can eliminate the harm by taking avoiding action. Just as a claim based on political opinion or nationality would not be dismissed on grounds that the applicant could avoid the anticipated harm by concealing his or her beliefs or identity, applications based on sexual orientation and gender identity should not be rejected merely on such grounds. As the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada put it:

“We do not tell claimants that they have a right to practise their religion so long as they hide it. A hidden right is not a right”.

The Fleeing Homophobia report pointed to an example of good practice in Ireland where the notion of avoiding persecution by exercising discretion was rejected by the decision maker concerned.  This is very welcome however, the report also identified inconsistent practice on this point in the past and this Project provides a good opportunity to promote awareness of the good practice established in Ireland and beyond.

In other EU member States, such as the UK and Belgium, UNHCR has worked together with the national authorities to elaborate specific policies and guidelines on the assessment of LGBTI claims and the delivery of training based on the guidelines. The success of these processes has been due not least to cooperation and constructive dialogue with specialized lesbian, gay and bisexual NGOs and civil society. Such cooperation has also proven productive in the context of gathering country of origin information and other matters.

We are delighted to launch this training project today which offers an opportunity to build on similar projects undertaken in other countries and to contribute additional good practice examples from Ireland to developing LGBTI practice across the EU.

To close, we wish you every success with the Project and stand ready to assist in whatever way we can.

Thank you."

Listen to the speech on near fm