Photo by TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images
Out of Harm’s Way

By Andrew Harmon

Originally published on Advocate.com May 31 2012 11:05 PM ET

NEARLY SIX MONTHS AGO, the White House unveiled a global blueprint for promoting and protecting the rights of LGBT individuals, countless numbers of whom live in countries where they are imprisoned, blackmailed, and in places like Iraq, sometimes crushed to death with cement blocks.

The State Department's 2011 Human Rights Report, released last week, provides a grim, if incomplete, catalog of such atrocities. A gay and transgender resource center in Cape Town, South Africa, documented about 10 cases per week of lesbians targeted with brutal sexual assault, often referred to as "corrective rape." Violence and extortion at the hands of police officers is pervasive in El Salvador, Turkey, Indonesia, and Cote d'Ivoire. National leaders denounce homosexuality as "the divorce of humanity from its integrity" (Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) and "strange behavior that even God will not tolerate" (Gambian president Yahya Jammeh). And for country after country, the sentence "There were no known LGBT organizations" appears throughout the report like a rasping chorus.

Combating such physical and political violence is central to American foreign policy, as President Obama articulated in a December 6 memorandum and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton addressed in her seminal "gay rights are human rights" speech at the Palais des Nations in Geneva that same day. The presidential memo reflected both the growing consciousness on the issue and the concrete work already being done by the Obama administration. It also laid out ambitious objectives for one of the global LGBT rights movement’s most vexing problems: how to aid those seeking to escape violence and persecution in virulently antigay climates.

"In order to improve protection for LGBT refugees and asylum seekers at all stages of displacement, the Departments of State and Homeland Security shall enhance their ongoing efforts to ensure that LGBT refugees and asylum seekers have equal access to protection and assistance, particularly in countries of first asylum," President Obama wrote, further instructing that federal agencies must have "the ability to identify and expedite resettlement of highly vulnerable persons with urgent protection needs." Homeland Security, the State Department, the Defense Department, and other agencies engaged abroad have a deadline of next week to report on what progress has been made regarding the initiatives outlined in the memo.

But the goal of identifying and ultimately resettling at-risk LGBT individuals in the United States is constrained by a complex bureaucratic process. Security and medical checks involve multiple agencies and often delay processing, which can take a year or much longer — particularly in regions such as East Africa and the Middle East, where the problem of antigay violence is, ironically, most acute. "We're a big ship that moves slowly, and as a result, quicker resettlement of these refugees often is just not possible," a State Department official said.

The U.S. takes in more displaced individuals than any other country by far, with nearly 600,000 refugees resettled from 2001 to 2010. It also provides substantial support for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the agency that refers refugee cases to resettlement states. But there is no formal tracking mechanism for LGBT refugees in the current system, nor does there exist an official process to expedite the resettlement of those faced with life-threatening situations. If someone needs to be moved quickly, nongovernmental organizations and UNHCR typically look to countries with more rapid resettlement procedures, such as Sweden and Germany.

"The State Department has done a good job in responding to immediate needs, once a priority LGBT case is on their radar," said Mark Bromley, chair of the Council for Global Equality. "What they haven't done, and what they're reluctant to do, is to create a policy by where these cases are identified and expedited. But I think that's what the president has asked for."

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.

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."