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Many NGOs Neglect Queer Refugees

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"In Honduras there is a lot of violence against homosexuals," A.T. told a social worker from the Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration (ORAM). "The fear of coming out of the closet is like a terror. I had an experience with a friend that was openly gay. We went to primary school together, and I saw the violence against him."

This traumatic childhood experience forced A.T. to lead a closeted, depressed, and fearful life in his native country. (His full name is not being provided for his protection).

"The biggest impact that it had was the fear, the fear of being openly gay in front of friends," he said. "Everything had the effect of making me depressed, where I would leave the house and not return. I couldn't eat. I couldn't even laugh, because of pretending to be what I wasn't. So the moment came when I had to decide, 'Well, I can't remain living as a heterosexual in Honduras.'"

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals from all over the world flee their home countries out of fear for their lives. A.T. is one of the more fortunate ones. He fled to the United States, leaving everything behind. Luckily he had friends and family who helped him settle in Houston, where he was embraced by the LGBT community. He applied and was approved for asylum and now lives openly as a gay man in San Francisco.

"This was my salvation, coming here, because I am safe to decide what I want to do with my life. In my country I couldn't be the person that I am now, the person that can talk to other human beings and feel good about my sexuality," he said.

ORAM, an agency that advocates for LGBTI refugees worldwide, knows that not everyone is as fortunate as A.T. Many queer refugees find themselves without any friends and family to turn to, having been cast aside as a result of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Worse, they often get no support from organizations that are supposed to help refugees.

A survey conducted by ORAM and Indiana University found that while non-governmental organizations (NGOs) worldwide provide crucial protection for refugees, these very groups often fail to adequately protect LGBTI refugees. Many of these NGOs ignore the refugees' unique plight or are ill-equipped to work with queer people. Those gaps were identified across the globe but were starkest in countries where protection is most needed.

"Refugees fleeing persecution because of their sexual orientation or gender identity face further harm from the culture of silence in the international refugee protection system. They are placed in housing where they are exposed to violence, or are compelled to hide the true reason they were persecuted, which puts their legal status in jeopardy," said Neil Grungras, Executive Director of ORAM, in a statement. "Among the most pervasively and violently persecuted in the world, LGBTI individuals are virtually invisible in the international refugee protection realm."

"There appears to be a vicious cycle," said Indiana University sociologist Oren Pizmony-Levy. "Many NGOs do not welcome LGBTI refugees, and the asylum seekers don't approach them. NGOs think that persecution based on sexual orientation or gender identity is not serious, and NGOs tend to overlook the problem."

Not all queer refugees are able to flee to countries like the United States, where there are communities and organizations willing and able to take them in and help them settle into their new lives of freedom. Many refugees only get as far as nearby territories, which share the same homophobia and transphobia prevalent in the countries they are escaping. We can help by encouraging NGOs to be more sensitive and supportive of the needs of all refugees, including LGBTIs.

A version of this piece originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds.