By Jesse Bernstein
Senior Associate, Refugee Protection Program
On all continents individuals and their families are forced to flee their homes on account of their sexual orientation or gender identity. While all refugees are vulnerable, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) refugees face particular challenges in accessing assistance and asylum procedures. They also experience instances of violence as a cause of flight or while in countries of first asylum. Human Rights First (HRF) highlighted many of these challenges earlier this month in a policy paper presented at a Roundtable discussion convened by the UN Refugee Agency - UNHCR - on Asylum Seekers and Refugees Seeking Protection on Account of their Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. HRF's paper includes a comprehensive set of recommendations directed at UNHCR and States.
Human Rights First welcomes the statements issued after the Roundtable by the U.S. Department of State and UNHCR on the need to improve protection of LGBTI refugees.
In its statement, UNHCR recognized that laws which criminalize same-sex relations in many countries - whether they are enforced or not - pose difficulties for LGBTI refugees, and that these refugees face heightened risks of discrimination in urban settings and refugee camps. In response to these concerns, UNHCR stated it will revise its policies to recognize the particular vulnerabilities of LGBTI refugees, dangers that exist at every stage of the displacement cycle. UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Ms. Erika Feller, also reiterated UNHCR's commitment to undertake this task during the Agency's Executive Committee meeting held last week in Geneva. Similarly, UNHCR called upon states to recognize the needs of people persecuted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The United States welcomed UNHCR's efforts in this area and acknowledged that LGBT individuals "face serious threats in countries of asylum, where they may be isolated and reluctant to seek help." The U.S. went on to positively affirm that "ensuring LGBT refugees receive the protection and assistance to which all refugees are entitled is a priority." In addition, it stated its commitment to support UNHCR as it integrates LGBT issues into its protection policies and tools, including the Age, Gender and Diversity Framework. This is used by UNHCR and its partners to identify priority needs and corresponding responses.
These statements are consistent with a number of recommendations put forward by HRF in its policy paper presented at the UNHCR Roundtable. The paper, and Human Rights First's related press release, urges that LGBTI refugees be recognized by UNHCR as persons with specific needs, and that UNHCR issue practical guidance to ensure LGBTI refugees are able to access services, support and asylum procedures on the basis of equality and with dignity. Many of these points also follow recommendations presented by a number of refugee protection and gay rights groups to the U.S. Secretary of State in March.
What happened in Geneva this month was a significant step forward in the effort to better protect and serve the needs of LGBTI refugees, but more work is needed to ensure implementation of reforms on the ground. In the coming months, HRF will continue to both monitor progress toward this end and will continue to advocate for safeguards to protect LGBTI refugees.