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The Cost of Freedom

According to the San Francisco-based Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration (ORAM), LGBTQ refugees are among the most vulnerable refugee groups in the world today. Fleeing not only the law but also some of the most heinous torture one can imagine next to death, many migrants flee from simply their own families and friends – an entire \nsecurity net quickly left behind overnight. That trauma (which can retraumatize depending on where the queer asylum-seeker is resettled) is as fragile for the victim as \nit is to the international community worker who is lending a helping hand.

Avatar of Alessia Valenza

2nd March 2011 00:56

Alessia Valenza | ILGA North America

The plight of the LGBTQ refugee can be found in a small section of a queer magazine. It’s tucked nicely away in the later pages of your daily newspaper, or explored as part of that occasional TV news broadcast, or spun like an urban legend by a friend in the queer community. Unbeknownst to many, Canada is the first country to assist in resettlement based on sexual orientation and gender identity (more on Canada’s laws in the next issue of Outlooks). That’s a milestone for our immigration system and its limitations of about 12, 500 refugees per year, but to our on-the-ground community support workers, it’s a drop in the bucket for a rescue mission we have yet to fully realize.

Sharlyn Jordan is a Vancouver activist who developed her post-grad psychology interests (and thesis) around the LGBTQ refugee process, after volunteering herself with Vancouver’s Rainbow Refugee Committee. The organization started in around 2000 as anoffshoot of LEGIT (Canadian Immigration for Same Sex Partners).

"LEGIT supported same sex national partners and a lack of recognition of that in immigration law,” describes Jordan. “Eventually they started to form a separate group to look at asylum seekers and more complicated processes. When they started, they thought private sponsorship would be the way to go; but many of the people coming to meetings turned out to be inland refugees."

As Jordan observes, inland claimants in Canada can range from Central and South American countries to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Botswana. Meetings of the Rainbow Refugee Committee are held about twice monthly, she says, with one meeting devoted to the inland process and the other being more social in nature. As resettlement can be a truly isolating experience, meetings are designed as peer exchange between newcomers and those more advanced in their reintegration to Canadian life and culture.

In addition to peer support, the Rainbow Refugee Committee acts as a liaison for the overseas refugee still awaiting resettlement. Not unlike similar non-profits across Canada dedicated to their escape, the Committee works through the political channels at the Immigration Refugee Board (IRB), Citizenship and Immigration (CIC) and the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to monitor safety as refugees make their overseas claims.

"It can be quite dangerous and unsafe during the overseas application," stresses Jordan, "and people making overseas claims have very few NGOs to help them on the ground. For example, two men who recently needed to flee Pakistan could get into Iran and Afghanistan, neither of which is safe. So, one of the things we’ve been able to do there is to ask the Canadian Government and UNHCR to monitor their situation.”

Across the country, Arsham Parsi is well known in Toronto’s LGBTQ community as the founding Executive Director of the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees (IRQR). Parsi himself took refuge in Canada in 2006 when he fled Iran; an internationally connected queer activist at the time via Internet and word-of-mouth, it was through those same channels that he found out his life was in danger.

“I first applied at the UNHCR in Turkey,” recalls Parsi, “and was granted asylum after two months. I started my activism in 2001, so, for four years, I was never arrested, but I feared it based on interviews I was doing. The police were looking to find me after finding out about me from friends who were arrested before. I had a fear of persecution not only because of being gay but being an activist, which is [often] interpreted as trying to change Islamic rule and being against God.”

Today, Parsi represents “vulnerable” cases like his own, both from his office in Toronto and regular visits to Turkey to directly help refugee claimants at the UNHCR. Amidst other useful info, IRQR’s website often recounts the horrors and atrocities faced by queer Iranians, such as the recent story of young lesbian Yeganeh Dadui, who took a long time to equate “queer” and “Iran” to herself both abroad and when she first settled in Canada. In Iran, where homosexuality is punishable by death (in some cases women are vulnerable to rape just to “cure” them), the husband is the carrier of the passport, or the father (in the case of single women). With little visa potential and only a prayer in sight while getting on the train to Turkey (a country not requiring a visa), it can leave women in a particularly vulnerable state upon arrival anywhere they land.

“Most people who come to Canada don’t shout their sexual orientation,” says Parsi, who now assists in setting up a buddy system for new arrivals in Toronto and assessing writing affidavit letters that may support queers before government. “They have their freedom, they’re happy, but they don’t jump into a Canadian gay pride for a photo op, as I’ve seen some people do like it’s evidence they need to prove their case.”

Parsi, who himself waited thirteen months in Turkey before coming to Canada officially, had his activist organization to fall back on during the wait. And, while he considers himself much luckier than many Iranians in Turkey, he himself was beaten up in the streets, either for his ethnic origins or for being gay, or both. For transsexuals, he mentions, or those experiencing gender identity challenges, the scenario is now darker.

“There are trannies in Iran getting raped, blackmailed or even bribed by both their doctors and their lawyers to perform the operation,” says Parsi, who recently got word from three doctors at Tehran University that an 18-year-old transgendered boy has been deemed gay by the doctors, and trained to become a straight man. To make things more complex, an Iranian state sponsorship of sex-change is available to gay men in Iran, a country where male and female gender roles are so black and white, that nearly 45 percent of sex-change operations polled in 2004 were completed on homosexual – not transgendered – individuals. If you’re gay in Iran, it appears, you need to be straight or a woman.

A 2009 publication by ORAM and the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly reports the (mainly Iranian) challenges overseas. Entitled "Unsafe Haven: The Security Challenges Facing LGBT Asylum Seekers and Refugees In Turkey," the report details the struggles one faces as a queer refugee: reporting to [sometimes homophobic] local police on a weekly or daily basis to track whereabouts; proof of sexual orientation or gender identity that includes testing of sexual response (used also for criminals and pedophiles); temporary stays in smaller towns or camps where homophobia once again rears its ugly head; even the day-to-day isolation and struggles of overcoming one’s lack of housing, employment and language barriers.

Parsi was inspired by the Underground Railroad in naming the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees, and his success — with IRQR, along with ORAM’s report on Turkey — has assisted other NGOs in Canada with some statistical evidence of the plight of LGBTQrefugees, despite how different things may be to another organization. Pride Uganda Toronto, for example, deals with not only queers facing a death penalty but the constant harassment of activists in African countries forced to close up shop and flee themselves after trying to help others.

With a mailing list of 6,000, two new cases a month and backed by a government that has already demonstrated its support for Iranian queers in flight, IRQR has received 335 cases, reports Parsi. Of those, 170 are already resettled (internationally), 40 have been granted asylum and 70 cases still await determination. Six percent of IRQR’s cases, adds Parsi, are false claims, and when you’re dealing with sexual orientation and gender identity, there’s a grey zone that’s more challenging than the average refugee claim. Parsi cites as an example, a “bisexual” client with no support for his claims who, upon landing at a Canadian airport, identified himself as a “faggot” and allowed officials to interpret that on their own. It was clear to Parsi, upon contact with the individual, that he was not dealing with an LGBTQ refugee.

“We’re not decision makers,” says Parsi. “We investigate who the people are, how long they’ve been in contact with us, and who knows them for instance. When we are sure it’s all legitimate, an affidavit letter can support that.”

All interviewed for this Outlooks series agree that both Internet and media awareness have created a very steady increase of LGBTQ claimants getting in touch with our Canadian organizations for support. And, as we all deal with backlash that this awareness equally may create, both Jordan and Parsi concur that government officials’ handling of these refugees are “under construction” when it comes to the determination process. As Jordan remarks, there is also a lot more we, as individuals, can do to help.

“It’s been great to see the traction building over the last couple of years,” says Jordan, “but in terms of community organizing, there is so much we can do. We need people to help organize private sponsorships, such as becoming a financial sponsor or, if no income, part of a settlement support team. There’s also an ongoing need to watch politically any measures that might jeopardize the rights of refugee protection in Canada . We can ask to protect those asylum rights, and get in touch with our MPs.”

Parsi’s own migration to Canada was but one success story of many — we hope — to come. He recalls the day of his arrival in Canada as his “second birthday.”

“I had a very interesting conversation in Parliament when I arrived,” says Parsi, “and someone asked how I saw Canada over my first four days. I told him that the only thing I noticed was that I have to pay tax on everything! He laughed, but I told him we should tax freedom, because you know what? We have no idea how valuable it is.”

Here are just some of the growing organizations available in Canada that can assist with the resettlement of LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers:

AGIR – Action for LGBTQ Immigrants and Refugees (Montréal):
Arsham Parsi (IRQR E.D. and Toronto activist):
Capital Project Pilot (Nicole LaViolette, Ottawa): email
Canada Citizenship and Immigration (CIC), Resettlement Assistance Program (RAP)

and Interim Federal Health Program (IFH):
EGALE – Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere:
Honourable Immigration Minister Jason Kenney (Calgary Southeast):
IRB – Immigration Refugee Board:
IRQR – Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees (Toronto):
ORAM – Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration (also publisher of the downloadable PDF document "Unsafe Haven":
Positive Spaces (Toronto):
PUAI – Pride Uganda Toronto:
Rainbow Refugee Committee (Vancouver):
Smith and Hughes (office of Rob Hughes, Vancouver co-founder of Rainbow Refugee Committee):
SOGIC – Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Conference of the Canadian Bar Association:
UNHCR – United Nations Refugee Agency: