When the Canadian legal system erupted into a debate last month over
how to prove someone is gay, one of the most enlightened countries in
the world showed that even it is not prepared to protect the lesbian,
gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people who manage to
arrive at its shores. To make matters worse, the ensuing discussion
could further endanger the fate of LGBTI asylum seekers by
sidestepping a tried-and-true solution that can make the Canadian
system much more responsive to these refugees' cries for help.
Leaving LGBTI refugees to fend for themselves is nothing new. Last
month, ORAM and Indiana University released the first-ever survey of
attitudes of global refugee support organizations about LGBTI people.
We found that many organizations worldwide are blind to these
refugees' plights or are ill-equipped to work with them. A few even
said they would deny services to people escaping abuse because of
their sexual orientation or gender identity. The results of our
international survey reinforce what we know from LGBTI refugees
themselves: that they feel obliged to hide their identities even from
those who are responsible for protecting them.
Given this sobering reality, it should not surprise anyone that LGBTI
refugees do not carry evidence of their sexual orientation or their
gender identity -- even in the rare instances where that proof exists.
In Canada, Nigerian-born Francis Ojo Ogurninde supplied the
Immigration & Refugee Board with letters showing that he was sought by
the police in Nigeria for being gay. He also presented an affidavit by
his male partner, and showed connections with the gay community in
Toronto. Even so, the board wasn't convinced he was telling the truth
about his sexuality, apparently because he didn't "act gay." Thank
goodness that decision was overturned -- two long years later -- by a
judge who ruled it was "inappropriate for officers to rely on
stereotypes." Yet stereotypes are often all refugee systems have when
it comes to gay refugees.
When converts to Christianity escape religious persecution, they are
not required to produce documents of their faith and are not judged by
shallow stereotypes of how Christians "act." Most adjudicators
understand that faith resides inside you -- not in how others believe
you should look or behave.
Yet when LGBTI people apply for protection, they are often confronted
with adjudicators who know too little about what it means to be a
sexual minority, and who have insufficient training about the travails of
LGBTI refugees. Too few understand that most LGBTI refugees have made
it to safety precisely because they hid their sexual orientation or
gender identity -- especially from authorities. It is illogical and
harmful to expect that LGBTI refugees will blithely bare their
vulnerable lives on the inspection table when they have spent every
moment until that point trying to hide.
Too few refugee adjudicators have the training needed to accurately
identify refugees fleeing persecution based on their sexual
orientation or gender identity. They often make erroneous decisions,
and they sometimes send LGBTI refugees back into the jaws of their
persecutors. They force LGBTI people to make an impossible choice:
Expose your identity and put your life at risk so you can later
document your persecution, or forego refugee status altogether.
We should not require refugees to provide documentation that often
simply does not exist. The burden should instead be on the refugee
system to be more savvy about the questions that should be asked to
determine the authenticity of persecution claims. With advice from
Canada's own Professor Nicole LaViolette of Ottawa University, ORAM is
assembling a powerful training program for working with LGBTI refugees
-- materials that teach what to ask instead of relying on stereotypes.
The shroud of silence surrounding LGBTI refugees must be lifted. Only
when refugee officers truly understand sexual minorities and
homophobic persecution will they be able to respectfully investigate
the authenticity of these claims. A thorough training and the right
questions will mean the difference between life and death for many
LGBTI refugees who are seeking protection now, and for those who will
flee for their lives in the years to come.