Thank you, Mark, and thank you to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society for bringing us together today to celebrate this important research on LGBT refugees and asylum seekers. I’d also like to recognize Yiftach Millo, lead researcher and author of the study we are all here to officially launch, “Invisible in the City: Protection Gaps Experienced by Sexual Minority Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Urban Ecuador, Ghana, Israel, and Kenya.” I commend Mr. Millo and his team for their innovative work to help protect these refugees.
HIAS continues to be a leader in helping expose and address the barriers faced that confront lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and intersex refugees. HIAS’s energy and vision is helping us all to find solutions to a real and persistent problem. Refugees and asylum seekers are already in a precarious position – they are at risk of exploitation, attack, and destitution. A refugee who is also part of a sexual minority is at even greater risk.
It has been over 20 years since Fidel Armanda Tobos Alfonso, a gay man from Cuba, was allowed to remain in the United States based on a judgement or understanding that he was at risk because of his sexual orientation. The Toboso-Alfonso decision paved the way for hundreds of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals as well as individuals with intersex conditions, to obtain refuge and asylum in the United States.
From the beginning of his Administration, President Obama has promoted the equal rights of LGBT people both at home and abroad. His Memorandum of December 2011 affirmed United States’s commitment to promoting the human rights of sexual minorities and specifically directed U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance agencies to protect vulnerable LGBT refugees and asylum seekers.
In her landmark LGBTI speech in Geneva in 2011, Secretary Clinton stated what we all know is true, that gay rights are human rights. We all acknowledge this universal truth: that everyone, regardless of race, religion, nationality, class or sexual identity is equal and is entitled to equal protection Today, the United States Government is working very hard, across agencies, to make sure that happens.
The Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration has an important leadership role to play in this effort. One of our fundamental goals is to ensure that the global system for refugee protection responds to the needs of all refugees – regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. We have taken steps to ensure gay and other sexual minority refugees are protected by officers of the U.S. Government and by our partners in the US refugee resettlement program. For instance:
We support training of all refugee protection staff – from the DC-based program officer to the regional Refugee Coordinator to the UNHCR case worker — on how to actively include sexual minorities in our plans and programs. We support the USCIS mandate that all officers get training in the adjudication of LGBT refugees and asylum claimants. This training includes increased awareness about the issues sexual minorities face. These officers now get consistent legal and interview guidance regarding these issues.
We support humanitarian responses that meet the specific needs of LGBT refugees. For example, a man currently living in Baghdad, Iraq was subjected to continuous death threats, beaten and forced to take female hormones by his father who thought he should live as a woman because he was born with some of the physical features of a woman. He was forced to stay inside to avoid being persecuted by the larger Iraqi community, causing psychological damage. Since 2006, he has been separated from his long-term partner who lives in the U.S. In 2008, this person was detained, threatened and interrogated by border security when he tried to leave Iraq for gender reassignment surgery.
The Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), which has people on the ground in Iraq who work specifically with persecuted Iraqis on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity, referred the case to the U.S. Embassy. The embassy will make it possible to travel directly to the United States in order to reduce the risks of traveling to another country while he waits for the resettlement process to run its course. He has completed his medical check and is awaiting his security check in order to travel to the U.S. and be reunited with his partner.
We also support urban refugee protection programs that aim to reach LGBT refugees where they live and work. UNHCR is now working in Kenya with senior police officials to address concerns such as harassment, extortion and violence that specifically targets LGBT refugees. The proactive engagement of UNHCR helps lessen the fear of arrest LGBT refugees have when reporting crimes to the police.
PRM also funds research that helps strengthen and sustain LGBT refugee protection programs around the world. In addition to HIAS’ research, PRM funded the Organization for Refugee Asylum and Migration (ORAM) to research best practices for non-governmental organizations, governments, UNHCR and program funders for urban refugees in Mexico, Uganda and South Africa. This research resulted in the development of important tools that can be used to advocate on behalf of and train relevant stakeholders who engage with LGBT refugees.
What these few examples show is that my bureau and the leadership of the State Department as a whole believe that advancing the human rights of LGBT individuals is a critical diplomatic goal requiring our broadest efforts. We are urging countries to respect the human rights of all of their citizens.
This is done through direct talks led by State Department diplomats with governments, and through international partners like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and through non-governmental organizations. This “Humanitarian Diplomacy” is vital to ensure that countries of first asylum protect sexual minority refugees. But, despite our best efforts, sometimes countries fall short. Sexual minority refugees can be the targets of violence in their countries of asylum, or are unable to request assistance and may be isolated from the established refugee protection architecture. We are actively seeking solutions to prevent this isolation and shield all refugees from violence. In some extreme situations, we resettle urgent cases in dire need of protection.
So that’s what we’re doing at the State Department. But we are all here today to celebrate and delve into HIAS’s report, “Invisible in the City: Protection Gaps Facing Sexual Minority Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Urban Ecuador, Ghana, Israel and Kenya.” This report is the result of a one-year qualitative and quantitative research project by HIAS including interviews with sexual minority refugees, refugee protection agents and civil society organizations. The report presents the ways society fails to protect sexual minority refugees and asylum seekers, as articulated by those most directly affected and offers recommendations for mitigating these gaps.
Sixty-six sexual minority refugees, asylum seekers and migrants and 92 representatives of governments, internal organizations and local civil society were interviewed in nine urban locations. One finding, reflected in the report’s title, is that sexual minority refugees and asylum seekers attempt to make themselves ‘invisible’ as a defense mechanism in homophobic environments. We also know that in refugee status determination interviews, these refugees do not frequently identify their cause of persecution as related to their sexual identity.
Mental health issues are of great concern. More than 40% of the respondents suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This may affect their ability to form relationships of trust, particularly in the midst of status determination interviews. So while the situation has improved, more needs to be done, in terms of awareness, training, and protection.
There is some person, somewhere in the world right now, who is suffering and feeling abandoned – just because of who he or she naturally is. That person may be out of our sight, but should not be beyond our reach. To me, the true core of “Invisible in the City” is about how our work benefits that one person. I salute HIAS for looking out for this person and seeking to help them. Let’s hope this report will impact not just our policies, but also safeguard the well-being of people all around the world.