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

But advocates are pushing for more change. In March a group of LGBT and human rights organizations wrote to Secretary Clinton asking that the State Department create a designated category for those persecuted on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in three countries where they face “imminent danger”: Iraq, Syria, and Uganda.

One organization urging this category, the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, conducted dozens of interviews with individuals, and reported that militia groups "have threatened scores of LGBTI and emo Iraqis with 'blocking' — beating a person to death with a cement block — and Iraqi officials have reported finding several dead bodies of young men with crushed skulls.”

In order to access the U.S. resettlement process, LGBT people must first leave the country where they are being persecuted. But in Iraq and many other countries, most simply don't have the means or support to do so. Even if they do escape, refugees are often at risk in the countries where they have fled to, as Human Rights First pointed out in its report.

A State Department official said, however, that at present, the U.S. is unlikely to create a designated category for persecuted LGBT people within the three nations specified.

Many advocates also expressed frustration that refugees who have been referred to the U.S. resettlement program often see substantial delays with no explanation. Neil Grungras, executive director of the San Francisco-based Organization for Refuge, Asylum, and Migration, has seen what these delays can do to gay refugees who are barely getting by and are often targeted with violence. In Turkey, where ORAM has done significant work with LGBT refugees, he described the current case of a young gay refugee who was referred by UNHCR to the U.S. Resettlement Support Center in Istanbul. There the young man was interviewed by officials last July, and through ORAM he was connected with a Bay Area "guardian group," an organization that provides vital community support to newly arrived refugees, helping them to access social services and find affordable housing.

But Grungras said the young man has not heard from U.S. officials since December, when he received a letter informing him that his case was still under review. To make matters worse, he has a heart condition and has attempted suicide on several occasions. "What we've identified [in Turkey] is this situation where people have severe problems, no community, no family, no place to live," Grungras said. "They're stuck."

Hayriye Kara, an attorney and refugee coordinator for the LGBT group Kaos GL in Ankara, Turkey, said the organization usually suggests other countries, such as Canada, when gay and transgender clients ask where they should seek resettlement. "Most of them think that they will be resettled in one year. But it does not work like that," Kara said. "I think LGBT refugees need more legal protection. And also more support. ... President Obama's statement is not enough."

Next week refugee groups are meeting with State Department officials to discuss expedited resettlement (a State Department spokeswoman declined to confirm the meeting, though she explained, "We frequently meet with our partners in the resettlement community and welcome the exchange of views on how we can improve our systems and processes"). For the administration to achieve its promises to LGBT refugees in harm's way, a formalized system that is both transparent and concrete is desperately needed, advocates said.

"If someone's case is of sufficient urgency that the government deems an expedite necessary, there must be some set of guidelines for what that expedite entails," said Becca Heller, director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project. "There needs to be a fair process — clear standards for what merits an expedite, a point of contact to request an expedite, a set time period in which the requester will receive a response as to whether the expedite has been granted, and a time frame. And this absolutely must apply to security clearances."

"Everyone has good intentions," Heller said. "But everything is still a mess."

Tags: World

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