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Support, Not Stereotypes, When Interviewing LGBTI Refugees

When the Canadian legal system erupted into a debate last month over how to prove someone is gay, one of the most enlightened countries in the world showed that even it is not prepared to protect the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people who manage to arrive at its shores.

Avatar of Alessia Valenza

15th August 2012 16:54

Alessia Valenza | ILGA North America

To make matters worse, the ensuing discussion could further endanger the fate of LGBTI asylum seekers by sidestepping a tried-and-true solution that can make the Canadian system much more responsive to these refugees’ cries for help.

Leaving LGBTI refugees to fend for themselves is nothing new. Last month, ORAM and Indiana University released the first-ever survey of attitudes of global refugee support organizations about LGBTI people. We found that many organizations worldwide are blind to these refugees’ plights or are ill-equipped to work with them. A few even said they would deny services to people escaping abuse because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The results of our international survey reinforce what we know from LGBTI refugees themselves: that they feel obliged to hide their identities even from those who are responsible for protecting them.

Given this sobering reality, it should not surprise anyone that LGBTI refugees do not carry evidence of their sexual orientation or their gender identity — even in the rare instances where that proof exists. In Canada, Nigerian-born Francis Ojo Ogurninde supplied the Immigration & Refugee Board with letters showing that he was sought by the police in Nigeria for being gay. He also presented an affidavit by his male partner, and showed connections with the gay community in Toronto. Even so, the board wasn’t convinced he was telling the truth about his sexuality, apparently because he didn’t "act gay." Thank goodness that decision was overturned — two long years later — by a judge who ruled it was "inappropriate for officers to rely on stereotypes." Yet stereotypes are often all refugee systems have when it comes to gay refugees.

When converts to Christianity escape religious persecution, they are not required to produce documents of their faith and are not judged by shallow stereotypes of how Christians "act." Most adjudicators understand that faith resides inside you — not in how others believe you should look or behave.

Yet when LGBTI people apply for protection, they are often confronted with adjudicators who know too little about what it means to be a sexual minority, and who have insufficient training about the travails of LGBTI refugees. Too few understand that most LGBTI refugees have made it to safety precisely because they hid their sexual orientation or gender identity — especially from authorities. It is illogical and harmful to expect that LGBTI refugees will blithely bare their vulnerable lives on the inspection table when they have spent every moment until that point trying to hide.

Too few refugee adjudicators have the training needed to accurately identify refugees fleeing persecution based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. They often make erroneous decisions, and they sometimes send LGBTI refugees back into the jaws of their persecutors. They force LGBTI people to make an impossible choice: Expose your identity and put your life at risk so you can later document your persecution, or forego refugee status altogether.

We should not require refugees to provide documentation that often simply does not exist. The burden should instead be on the refugee system to be more savvy about the questions that should be asked to determine the authenticity of persecution claims. With advice from Canada’s own Professor Nicole LaViolette of Ottawa University, ORAM is assembling a powerful training program for working with LGBTI refugees — materials that teach what to ask instead of relying on stereotypes.

The shroud of silence surrounding LGBTI refugees must be lifted. Only when refugee officers truly understand sexual minorities and homophobic persecution will they be able to respectfully investigate the authenticity of these claims. A thorough training and the right questions will mean the difference between life and death for many LGBTI refugees who are seeking protection now, and for those who will flee for their lives in the years to come.