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.