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Worried About LGBTI Russians? Worry About What Happens After They Flee

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OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images
OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images

Much of the recent outrage about Russia's anti-gay law misses the full context. Some are calling for a boycott of Russian vodka or the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Right-wing U.S. activists have also entered the fray, taking a stand in favor of the Duma's new legislation. Often forgotten in the mêlée are the persecuted LGBTI Russian citizens themselves. If they must flee, where can they go? Who will help them?

When I hear about legislation like Russia's, my thoughts go not to dumping vodka but to innocent people living in homophobic and transphobic environments worldwide who are forced to flee for safety, often for their lives.

There are 76 countries in the world where same-sex relations are criminalized, from Singapore (up to two years in prison) to Kenya (14 to 21 years in prison). Some countries even impose criminal penalties on doctors and social welfare workers who help LGBTI people. You might then wonder whether Russia's "anti-gay-propaganda" law is really severe enough to produce refugees. It doesn't impose the death penalty, after all. But consider: This legislation barring public discussion of gay rights, gay identity, and gay relationships "anywhere that children might be exposed" effectively gives the state license to punish "gayness." And the concern is not just the law itself. State-sanctioned scapegoating opens the door to discrimination and harassment by private citizens. Activists in Russia have pointed out heartbreaking spikes in anti-gay violence among the general public following the anti-gay legislation.

The pernicious and invisible truth is that LGBTI people are forced from their homes by state-sponsored and citizen-led discrimination and violence every day, all over the world.

As hard as it is to survive at home, becoming a LGBTI refugee or asylum seeker can be just as grueling. The first barrier is finding both the courage and the means to leave. In most countries, LGBTI refugees don't have the resources or contacts to secure a ticket and visa. The vast majority who do manage to escape end up in nearby countries: from Iran into Turkey, from Uganda and Cameroon into South Africa, from Russia into Ukraine. Unfortunately, they often then find themselves in similar peril. While their sexual orientation or gender identity may not subject them to a prison term or capital punishment in this "country of transit," our research has shown that LGBTI refugees -- strangers in a strange land -- still experience anti-LGBTI harassment and horrific assaults like "corrective rape," in addition to the xenophobic discrimination that all refugees face.

Even the global protection system is not guaranteed to provide safety and guarantee dignity. People who have managed to get out of their home country can apply for refugee status based on a "well-founded fear of persecution." Successful applicants are eventually resettled permanently in a safe place. Among the top three resettlement countries, the United States generously takes in 70,000 refugees each year, Canada accepts 14,000, and Australia 20,000. The reality, however, is that this only represents 1 percent of all refugees. The rest live in limbo for months or years, either waiting for their refugee status to be approved, or waiting to be resettled once they have refugee status. And LGBTI refugees make up only a tiny proportion of either of these groups. Why?

Whether a refugee or asylum seeker's application for protection from persecution based on sexual orientation or gender identity is met with compassion or dismissed with disgust depends entirely on the training and attitudes of the front-line officials and their employers. Some LGBTI people get respect and prompt help, but the vast majority in process of seeking protection are harassed or attacked while in line; are treated with suspicion and disdain; are asked irrelevant or wildly inappropriate questions; or are even told to just go home and "go back into the closet" in order to be safe.

Then we have the lucky ones: the LGBTI refugees or asylum seekers who win approval for permanent resettlement. Most fled with few or no resources and don't speak the new local language. New refugees or asylees often take shelter with communities of fellow nationals while they find their way. But LGBTI refugees can't find safe haven and open hands among those who share the attitudes that drove them from home in the first place. Also, new refugees or asylees often settle in places with a low cost of living. But LGBTI refugees are safest in urban areas with gay and transgender communities -- and a higher cost of living. So from persecution at home to the multiple barriers they face as refugee or asylum applicants, to particular resettlement needs, LGBTI refugees and asylees from Russia -- from everywhere -- need and deserve special attention.

Here in the U.S., the recent Supreme Court decisions around marriage equality have given us a historic surge of pride. We share a newly strengthened sense of the simple truth that LGBTI people are ordinary citizens who deserve equal respect and safety. Yet we cannot become complacent, not about domestic LGBTI rights issues, nor about the struggles of our fellow humans in other countries. If the situation in Russia does not change, a flood of Russian refugees will join those from other countries.

There are productive ways to help. ORAM and other international groups are working hard to improve the global protection system for LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers. We're training refugee professionals, providing direct legal support to refugee applicants, and working with the UN and governments to effect sensible policy changes. Those who are concerned for LGBTI Russians can show solidarity in the ways that Russian LGBTI activists themselves ask for it; help asylum seekers secure legal assistance with their applications; and offer financial, practical, and moral support to new arrivals struggling to survive and integrate.

All LGBTI people deserve to lead safe, productive lives in their home countries. When that isn't possible and forced migration is the only choice, they deserve to be treated with respect, compassion, and special consideration for the struggles of being sexually and gender-nonconforming in a dangerous world.