Thursday, January 11, 2007

What persecution has done to gay people in much of the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa

Many of us in Europe and North America have read reports of the oppression, including executions and long term imprisonment, of gay people in many non- Western countries, but it may be difficult for some of us comprehend the dimensions of the damage that this oppression has created not only to the bodies but also in the hearts and souls of its victims. It has not only created an atmosphere in which gay men and women are filled with self loathing and afraid to realize themselves by acting on their sexual orientation; it has resulted in a situation in which gays are so paralyzed by fear and lack of self esteem that they do no even run for their lives or seek relief from their oppression.

Officially, at least, there is a way out for many gays suffering persecution or fear of such in Africa and Asia: an asylum claim in the West. There are, however, very few gay men and women from countries such as Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or many African countries, where homosexuality is punishable by death or long prison terms, who have sought asylum in Europe or North America.

Most European and even North American governments would be practically obliged by their asylum laws and policies to grant them refugee status under the 1951 Geneva Convention as members of a persecuted social group. Even if those applying have not been directly persecuted, they would qualify because they could be judged as having a reasonable fear of persecution. With few exceptions, the few cases that have been presented in the West with such a claim, especially from countries where homosexuality between consenting adults is illegal and severely punished, have been positively adjudicated.

Since April 1993 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has recognized in several Advisory Opinions that gays and lesbians qualify as members of a "particular social group" for the purposes of the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. In its publication "Protecting Refugees," the UNHCR states: "Homosexuals may be eligible for refugee status on the basis of persecution because of their membership of a particular social group. It is the policy of the UNHCR that persons facing attack, inhuman treatment, or serious discrimination because of their homosexuality, and whose governments are unable or unwilling to protect them, should be recognized as refugees." (UNHCR/PI/Q&A-UK1.PM5/Feb. 1996)

There are, of course, large numbers of people from these countries trying to enter Western countries for economic reasons and who file spurious refugee claims. Many gay people from such countries, on the other hand, should not have much trouble receiving legal, refugee status if they would, in fact, apply on the grounds of persecution or fear of such because of their sexual orientation. Nevertheless, in my over 25 years of experience working in refugee assistance programs in North America, Europe, and Africa, and after having heard the claims of persecution from literally thousands of asylum applicants over the course of the years, I have never received a claim of persecution from someone because of sexual orientation.

Of course, leaving one’s native country and culture is not easy. There is, of course, also the risk that a gay person may have the bad luck of having a homophobic asylum adjudicator or judge handle his asylum request when he arrives in the West. But here he would have the support not only of an organized gay community, but also of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Even in the off chance that his initial request would be rejected, the chances of his winning on appeal or at least being given permission to stay in the West are very good.

That so few gay people have chosen to use this option is good indication of the devastating psychological effect of growing up gay in such an environment. One could posit that they are so ashamed of their sexuality, still so afraid to admit it, even to themselves, that they cannot utilize this path of escape.


Blogger Sam said...

Bruce, very interesting post.

How did you come to have so many years in refugee assistance programs?

The group I worry most about dealing with homophobia are teens. Adults have many avenues at their disposal with which to deal with persecution of any kind, but for teens, the effects can be devastating pyschologically. It is extremely alarming to me that it is estimated that somewhere between one third and nearly half of all teen suicides in the US are the result of anxiety and panic over gender and sexual identity issues. I wonder what the statistics are for Africa and Asia?

2:38 PM  
Blogger Joshua said...

Well, they put themselves at tremendous risk by filing for asylum due to their homosexuality. What are they to do - from the time that they expose themselves, until the time they actually leave the country? I'm sure that many people have false claims raised against them in order to imprison or persecute - to get around the homosexulity-refugee thing. And I'm not sure I'd trust that things would go smoothly just because it's out there-in-the-universe that asylum exists. Their lives have not demonstrated that they should trust any kind of instititions - yet alone in another country. Besides all of that - it is extremely difficult to move to another country. What does one do for a job if they are underskilled? How do they afford a roof over their head? Who is going to help them learn the language of whatever country the go to? Will they be forbidden to have their family come and visit them and would they be able to go visit their family? I'd imagine that many have financial obligations to their family (helping to support them, etc).

4:26 PM  
Blogger RIC said...

Are you that sure about Mr. António Guterres' goodwill towards persecuted gay people? I am not, and I think I shall never be.
I remember quite well the answer he gave journalists short before elections less than ten years ago, when he was asked what he thought of homosexuality. As a good catholic he answered: it's a disease/disorder of the psychiatric field. Period.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch? I do believe they'll do everything they can to help those people. But this High Commissioner?! Sorry, Bruce, but not even in a million years! You live – at least part of your life – in a catholic country. You know for sure how cunningly socialist politicians combine ideology with religion...
Maybe this is one of the many reasons why you «have never received a claim of persecution from someone because of sexual orientation»...
Sad indeed...

10:18 PM  
Blogger Bruce said...


You cannot apply for asylum when you are still in your home country; you must apply for it in the country in which you are seeking asylum. By definition, you have to be outside your country of origin.

Obviously, there is risk involved. My point, however, is that people suffering other forms of persecution, frequently less serious than that suffered by gay people, do in fact take that risk, go to Europe or North America, and file for asylum. Hundreds of thousands of them each year. Why are gay people, who generally would have much stronger asylum claims than many of those who do file, so reluctant to take this step?

If a person is granted asylum he has a right to bring his parents and children to the country of asylum. Is is also possible, in many cases for him to arrange for immigration of siblings. He also has a right to state benefits that will help him get resettled. It's not easy, but it's possible.

Ric, thankfully, the UNHCR's position doesn't depend upon the personal whims of the High Commissioner. It's a matter of record and agency policy.

UNHCR has, in fact, refused to recognize some gay cases, despite their published policy. But they may have been refused on other grounds. I, unfortunately, don't know the details. But if these cases are, in fact, legitimate and they are not excludible on other grounds, UNHCR would have to accept them on appeal.

12:44 AM  
Blogger Bruce said...


I would mistrust any statistics of this type from Africa and Asia. It would be necessary, for a case of suicide to be registered as motivated by persecution because of sexual orientation, for the authorities to recognize that there is, in fact, persecution because of sexual orientation in their country, or at least some sort of problem.

Moreover, the victim's family would probably have to report the matter as such, or at least the victim should have contacted some sort of "hot line" for help. None of this is very likely.

In short, Sam, we can know the dimensions of the problem only when steps have already been taken to address it.

(I've been professionally involved with refugee assistance programs since 1974. And I wasn't exactly a child then, either.)

1:05 AM  
Blogger Sam said...

Yes, I'm suspicious of the statistics here too, for the same reasons. How could someone know that their 14 year old's suicide would be motivated by gender/sexual id disorder? I suppose in some cases the parents just know, or the circumstances of the death make it clear, etc. Still, reaching young people who have this kind of anxiety is important. i wish I knew what more to do than give money to hotlines, which i've done for a long time. And honestly, if kids at risk are plugged in enough to call a hotline, they are already moving beyond the kind of anxiety that really puts them at risk I feel.

Someday, hopefully, we will all be in a place where asylum and initial gender/id disorder are not huge issues. Recent events in Spain are certainly encouraging, are they not?

8:22 AM  
Blogger thephoenixnyc said...

Wow,, what a fascinating post. I had never really considered this point before.

"I have never received a claim of persecution from someone because of sexual orientation."

That is amazing to me. Perhaps te fear and repression are so ingrained that they cannnot bring themselves to say it.

Perhaps they think that that claim is no basis for them to recive asylum and that the West is just as bigoted (they are mostly right).

9:06 AM  
Blogger gayuganda said...

Hi Bruce,
bringing this post to my attention reminded me of at least 2 gay Ugandan friends who have claimed refugee status because they are gay. I comment about them here, with reasons as to why I think most Ugandans, and other Africans would not want to claim status as refugees. Oh, I may be wrong. But again, I may be right, but there are some definite challenges, some of which were described by some of the comments on your blog. Check out Claiming asylum as a gay Person

10:07 AM  
Blogger gayuganda said...

Forgive me but the link was not okay. Comments on the GayUganda blog link are here
Seeking Asylum as a Gay Person

10:13 AM  
Blogger Bruce said...

Gay Uganda, Thanks for your addressing this issue on your blog.

Your piece essentially supports my position that African gays don't apply for asylum in Europe or North America because they themselves, because of the repression and persecution they have suffered, have trouble with their own homosexual identities. It is a recognized clinical sympton of long term persecution that the visctim eventually begins to agree with the persecutor.

As for publication of their asylum claim in Ugandan newspapers, that is really a result of their own behavior. The fellow in Canada spoke to the Canadian press about his asylum claim. By strictly observed international agreement, all asylum claims are confidential, and any government official who would break this confidentiality would be suspended and liable for prosecution.

6:48 AM  

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