Particular issues faced by LGBT refugees

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Credit: De Freezer (CC)

This is the second of two interviews with Dr. Kathryn Lum, a lecturer in Global studies at Nottingham Trent University. She works closely with a refugee aid organisation called Kairos, and writes about gender and migration. The first interview, on the subject of women refugees, can be found here. This one will address the special problems faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) refugees.

Well established principles of international law use the following definitions:

  • sexual orientation is understood to refer to each person’s capacity for profound emotional, affectional and sexual attraction to, and intimate and sexual relations with, individuals of a different gender or the same gender or more than one gender.
  • gender identity is understood to refer to each person’s deeply felt internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond with the sex assigned at birth, including the personal sense of the body (which may involve, if freely chosen, modification of bodily appearance or function by medical, surgical or other means) and other expressions of gender, including dress, speech and mannerisms.

According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) guidelines, “International Human rights law prohibits discrimination and violence on the grounds of sexual orientation and/or gender identity. LGBT individuals are entitled to live in society as who they are and should not be required to hide their sexual orientation or gender identity in order to avoid persecution and other harm.” Yet violence and discrimination against LGBT individuals persists and is especially prevalent with regard to refugees and asylum seekers.

QCEA: How many LGBT refugees are there?

Kathryn: We don’t know for sure. There are few statistics kept separately from other asylum applicants. In Belgium and Britain statistics are collected, but in Britain they are difficult to access. In Belgium I believe access to these statistics is freer. Governments like to collect this information but not reveal it. Even in those situations, information is grouped together and we can’t separate out lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual or intersex claimants. With no data, we can’t evaluate the situation. It is difficult to know for example, if LGBT asylum applications ate increasing, staying stable or decreasing. And where do most LGBT asylum applicants come from? The data from Belgium reveals very large increases over the last five years. In 2013, in Belgium, LGBT asylum cases represented 20% of the total asylum decisions taken in Belgium. That is quite a large amount!

QCEA: Can you outline for us some of the unique problems faced by LGBT asylum seekers?

Kathryn: The most egregious are the requirements for proof, compounded by the culture of disbelief, stereotypes, lack of training for caseworkers, and lack of safety in accommodation. In many ways these mirror the problems faced by women. With regard to accommodation, there is the added problem that many LGBT asylum seekers do not feel free to be themselves in refugee accommodation and are forced into the closet or face intimidation/violence if they don’t closet themselves.

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Credit: Culturetastic (CC)

QCEA: Can you say more about these? Let’s start with the issue of proof.

Kathryn: In order to claim asylum, an LGBT individual must offer proof of sexual orientation or gender identity. Until 2014 it was legal in the EU to determine sexuality by physical ‘tests’: sensors were attached to the body, heterosexual pornography was shown and if there was any response the asylum claim was rejected.

Until 2013 in the UK caseworkers looked for the presence on smartphones of explicit sexual material with the claimant involved. It should be noted that while this material was frequently requested, it was not an official requirement.

However, in 2014, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that questions can’t violate personal dignity and that the private and family life of claimants must be respected. Further, the use of sexually explicit material and of phallometric tests in the interview process is now prohibited.

Yet the culture of disbelief is still strong. Claimants have to prove sexual orientation as well as persecution. The asylum officer or caseworker has to believe the claim, and their focus is often on sex, not on love or attraction. Often the caseworker will look for evidence of outlawed sexual activity such as the presence of certain types of dating apps on the claimant’s phone. But these are not legal in many places, and so they will be absent. A caseworker may also ask “Have you gone to such and such gay bar or club in the UK”. But this is assuming that the claimant knows about that place, is interested in nightlife or has the money to frequent such places.

Testimonials from partners are one possible piece of evidence, but those are not easy to have, as many partners (who may still be in the home country) are not willing to testify to illegal activity.

This is especially the case with lesbians Not all countries criminalise lesbian same-sex sexuality, but the absence of this explicit legal prohibition does not mean that there is no social oppression – far from it. In addition, in order to survive in a very homophobic country, you need to be as invisible as possible. Many gays and lesbians may not have had a partner at all – this is even more the case for lesbians, who may not be in a position to meet anyone like themselves where they live due to lack of mobility/freedom for women and the complete social invisibility of lesbians. So from the caseworkers’ perspective there is “no proof”.

Bisexuality is very difficult to prove. If barbed-wire-1199172_1920you’ve ever had encounters with the opposite sex you can be disqualified. If a woman is applying and she is a mother or was previously married, her claim will be even more distrusted. Of course, in many cultures it is obligatory to get married to the opposite sex quite young- there is still lack of understanding of “compulsory heterosexuality”.

QCEA: Do the stereotypes of the caseworker play a part?

Kathryn: Yes. If the claimant doesn’t fit the eurocentric heterosexual stereotype of LGBT individuals, claims can be denied. Many of the stereotypical characteristics that the caseworker may be looking for have been savagely suppressed in the home country of the claimant, and so would never be shown even if they were present.

QCEA: What are some of the problems that LGBT migrants face in accommodation and/or detention centres?

Kathryn: There is a real lack of safety in these centres. Migrants who are visibly LGBT are often abused and bullied in the places that are supposed to be a refuge for them. Those who are not visibly LGBT can’t come out in accommodation or detention centres, as it’s not safe for them.

QCEA: Do LGBT migrants need special support during the interview process?

Kathryn: Yes. Often interpreters are required for the interview, and they can be homophobic or simply uncomfortable talking about sexual topics. Sexuality is a very private issue. We don’t tend to talk about it even in our home countries, our home culture, our families. Speaking to a stranger in a foreign language about these private subjects is very difficult.

QCEA: What kind of training do the caseworkers receive?

Kathryn: Not enough, and not the right kind. They have guidelines, but they are not equipped to evaluate the situation faced by LGBT migrants. Caseworkers assume that Europe is safe for them and it is not. Western Europe is relatively open compared to some countries where homophobia is very virulent and still institutionalised. But in Western Europe there is still much discrimination and prejudice. Until recently, applicants would often be back to their home countries with the admonition to ‘just be discreet’. Again, here the emphasis is on sex and not on family life. In 2010, the UK Supreme Court ruled that if a person has to live discreetly in order to return to their home country, they are a refugee and cannot be sent back on “live discreetly” grounds.

There is a list of ‘safe’ countries for migrants, but homosexuality is often illegal in those countries. It’s not examined in their reports separate from other human rights issues. What’s needed is not sensitivity training, but anti-homophobia training to help the caseworkers understand the dangers faced.

QCEA: Do trans migrants face special challenges?

Kathryn: Any transgender claimants have exponentially more problems. Take detention, for example. A trans woman might be put in detention with men. Guards are a problem, as is bullying. It’s not possible to get a private room, so the person is put with people who may sexually harass or bully them.

In the case of a trans person, there are the added problems that come when medical treatment, especially hormonal treatment, is stopped.

Note: QCEA interviewed someone familiar with trans issues to ask about what would happen if a trans person in transit were forced to stop his/her treatment. “Initially, there may be no immediate physical effect; over time, physical changes will become apparent: a trans man who has not had a hysterectomy can become pregnant if raped. A trans woman will begin to re-grow body hair, have a lower voice, etc. As devastating as the physical changes are, the psychological changes can be worse. Psychological support is crucial for trans migrants.”

QCEA: What changes would you recommend to the current system to improve the experience of LGBT migrants?


  • LGBT-specific shelters can be set up and funded by governments, such as those that already exist in Cologne, Berlin and Amsterdam. There are also plans to open LGBT-specific refugee shelters in Milan, Modena and Bologna.
  • Intrusive, humiliating and inappropriate questions by caseworkers need to be banned.
  • The most important change that needs to occur is one of mindset: there is an obsession on the part of caseworkers with sexual activity as the standard of “proof”, rather than emotion/affectivity and identity. Same-sex sexual orientation is essentially reduced to sex and this needs to change.
  • In the UK, LGBT asylum claimants can even be asked for the exact addresses of gay bars and clubs. This is ridiculous (most British LGBT´s would not be able to answer this question). Questioning should instead focus on – when did you realise you were different growing up?

QCEA: Thank you, Kathryn, for sharing your experience and expertise with us.

You can contact Kathryn at If you’d like to read more about the experiences of LGBT refugees, see the report “No Safe Refuge” published by the UK Gay and Lesbian Immigration group and Stonewall.

Since this interview, there is some good news: the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg has just ruled that LGBT asylum seekers can no longer be subject to psychological tests to prove their sexuality. So now both physical and psychological tests that are degrading have been banned. Slowly but surely, legal progress is being made. Seeing this legal progress translate into social progress on the ground will take time however.

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