Out of Harm’s Way

In December, President Obama set ambitious goals for protecting and rapidly resettling vulnerable LGBT refugees worldwide. Can his administration deliver?

BY Andrew Harmon

May 31 2012 11:05 PM ET

Last month at the Human Rights Campaign's Washington, D.C., headquarters, U.S. and U.N. officials spoke on the issue at an event marking the International Day Against Homophobia as well as the release of a report by the group Human Rights First on LGBT and intersex refugees in Kenya and Uganda. Last year the two countries hosted more than 700,000 refugees who have fled war and famine in the region. The report, "The Road to Safety," addressed a daunting challenge: How can LGBT refugees be protected from violence, often in sprawling camps the size of major cities, and in countries where their very existence is outlawed?

"We met a number of refugees in Uganda and Kenya who, having fled persecution in their own countries, now faced renewed persecution and discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity," said Duncan Breen, senior associate with Human Rights First's Refugee Protection Program and principal author of the report. "Often this means particular difficulties in accessing the essential services, such as medical assistance, that other refugees can access. But a number of refugees have also been specifically targeted for violence, including by other refugees, and this makes them extremely vulnerable."

Among a variety of recommendations, Human Rights First urged U.S. officials to provide more rapid resettlement processes for cases referred to them, with an “emergency” process that takes as little as 14 days and an “urgent” process that takes no more than eight weeks. Such time frames would mean expediting security checks, better coordinating the multiple steps involved in the resettlement process, and rapidly conducting the mandatory, in-person interview by a Homeland Security official — all of which the U.S. has the capacity to do.“We’ve seen some important progress in the system,” Breen said. “But there’s a lot more that needs to happen to make sure that a greater number of people facing serious risks of violence are able to be rapidly resettled to safety. Specific guidelines with time frames for expedited resettlement from the different regions would be another important step.”

While praising the report and affirming the U.S. goal to "stand squarely on the side of the most vulnerable," Assistant Secretary Anne C. Richard, who heads the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, seemed to urge those in attendance at the May 17 event to moderate their expectations. "Rather than focusing primarily on the largely unattainable promise of expedited resettlement for some number of people, we should look at the full range of protection measures and solutions available in every case," Richard said.

"I was surprised by how fairly blunt she was," said Bromley, who moderated the event's panel discussion. "On the one hand, I applaud her honesty. And I know that PRM wants to find other ways to be helpful, to create other safety valves in the process. They're saying that they're trying to create a system to be more effective [in expediting cases]. But they always stop short of institutionalizing a formal procedure for doing so."

State Department officials point to a growing number of improvements made in the process, both involving the U.S. and its partners. Nongovernmental organizations have been advised that LGBT refugees are a priority concern, Richard said at the HRC event. Resettlement Support Center staff, who handle refugee cases referred for resettlement to the U.S., have now been trained on how to work sensitively with LGBT people. Advocates report that as recently as a few years ago, the process was plagued by hostile behavior and inappropriate questions from U.N staff, including inquiries about preferred sexual positions. Last year the U.N. released guidelines on working with gay and transgender refugees, and a State Department official said U.S. staff trainings have been received well in most of the eight resettlement centers worldwide — with a notable exception being the Nairobi, Kenya, location. "It's certainly been the biggest challenge, and it's where the reaction from local staff has been the most negative," the official said of the Nairobi center.

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