By Dan Kent
With one of the largest refugee crises in Europe since World War II continuing to unfold in Ukraine, it is worth examining the various ramifications that such an outflow of people involves, including in other conflict zones. Although much has been discussed regarding the unimaginable human toll in death and suffering across the refugee crisis globally, less has been brought to light on the challenges that specific minorities within these populations face. Specifically, the plight of LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers is especially acute in conflict regions long rife with anti-gay sentiments. And, given the high likelihood that many refugees will not self-identify publicly as LGBTQ for fear of retribution or violence, understanding the full scale of the problem can be difficult.
The War in Ukraine
Even before the war in Ukraine, when the violence was contained to the east of the country, the UNHCR reported escalated levels of hostility towards LGBTQ people, especially prevalent in Donetsk, but present all over the country. But as the war with Russia broke out, and Ukraine made it illegal for men to leave the country as part of the mandatory draft, the LGBTQ community found themselves facing additional challenges. In a country where being gay is still taboo, being conscripted into an unwelcoming army could be a stigmatizing and isolating experience for any gay man forced to do so. Worse yet, transgender women whose IDs still mark them as male have reportedly been forced to remain in the country as well. Due to strict Ukrainian laws, even before the war, staggeringly few individuals have been able to change their gender markers on their government IDs, leading to a major challenge for transgender women who are now desperately seeking medical exemptions to escape conscription. Although local organizations have emerged to support these at-risk populations, gathering necessary resources in a conflict zone can be difficult or impossible.
But even after making it out of a war zone, Ukrainian LGBTQ refugees often encounter hostile conditions in their new asylums, too. In Poland, the ruling Law & Justice party has outlawed same-sex marriages and adoptions, and local leaders around the country have announced “LGBT-free zones” in their municipalities. National-level leaders have publicly decried the EU push for same-sex marriage. These policies create both subtle and overt barriers to accessing resources and support for new LGBTQ refugee arrivals. Similar challenges are present in Moldova and Hungary, where policies and societal attitudes make both countries equally inhospitable for LGBTQ people. In a vacuum of dedicated government resources for LGBTQ Ukrainian refugees, advocacy groups have rallied to provide support services to this vulnerable population. Although true of many Ukrainian refugees in general, LGBTQ people, in particular, are expected to move further west, towards governments that are more welcoming.
Conflicts Beyond Ukraine
In other recent conflict zones, LGBTQ people have faced similar barriers to aid and assistance, along with severe challenges in already trying and life-threatening circumstances.
In both the Iraq and Syrian crises, similar dynamics have resulted in a unique burden on the LGBTQ populations. As both countries are deeply religious and conservative societies, individuals have reported a stark fear of even their families discovering their identities. Instances of individuals being “ratted out” to the authorities and subsequently killed have been commonly reported among the LGBTQ community both in local and international news, as well as by advocacy groups. These intensely precarious circumstances are often cited as a contributor to the LGBTQ population’s poor mental health in the region. Without even family to confide in, there are precious few safe spaces for LGBTQ people in these societies. In Iraq, in particular, reports emerged in 2009 of officials systematically collecting information on people thought to be gay or lesbian, as part of a “population cleansing” campaign to force them from the country. Given that by 2021 there were over 16 million internally and externally displaced refugees since 2002 from both Iraq and Syria, even the most conservative estimates of gender and sexual diversity in the population would entail at least hundreds of thousands of individuals. Unfortunately, information like this is nearly impossible to come by, and the plight of LGBTQ populations remains obscured.
As the ultra-conservative Taliban took over Afghanistan in 2021, among the millions seeking to flee, LGBTQ people were at particular risk as they were subject to torture and murder regardless of involvement with the previous government. The situation is even more dire than before, under a government that already outlawed same-sex activity and proclaimed it punishable by death. Efforts have been made to evacuate and resettle these particularly at-risk people, but as with all evacuations from Afghanistan, this has proven slow and difficult.
Although not categorized as a conflict zone, Venezuela is still an extraordinarily violent society, with one of the highest murder rates in the world and a collapsed economy that has led to the largest refugee crisis in Latin America. Again, within this already perilous context, LGBTQ individuals are some of the most at-risk as they seek asylum or refuge in nearby countries. In particular, those entering Brazil face a government whose president, Jair Bolsonaro, has said he would prefer his son dead rather than gay, stripped the government of federal councils working on LGBTQ issues, and eliminated funding for STI prevention efforts. There have also been reports of beatings and sexual violence among the Venezuelan refugee population, particularly against trans women, and subsequent inaction by police who note they will not help them because they aren’t Brazilian. This is on top of recent research showing that Brazil is already an extremely violent place for LGBTQ individuals, whether seeking asylum or not. The challenges are often just as stark for migrants to other parts of Latin America, where sexual minorities are at higher risk of discrimination for support services and even sex trafficking.
These examples are only a few of the many challenges that refugees and asylum seekers face as they journey toward safer communities and homes. For LGBTQ members of this community, the challenges can be especially stark. Limited or complete lack of LGBTQ-specific resources and support are common across nearly all of these areas, and cash-strapped local NGOs that do stand to help are often overwhelmed with demand. Previous reports have noted that in Britain (and likely in other European asylum systems), LGBTQ claims have been rejected at a disproportionate rate, sending refugees back to their unfriendly homes. And even after reaching the safety of second or third countries, they continue to face risks of discrimination, violence, and lack of support for their specific needs.
Humanitarian crises like the ones that have played out in the recent past are challenging on many levels. Perhaps the greatest challenge for sexual minorities across all of these contexts is the often invisible nature of LGBTQ refugee and migrant experiences. While facing outsized instances of violence and discrimination on top of their experiences as refugees, these people often hide their identities. Among the considerations given to support these populations, governments and international NGOs can respond by affirmatively and openly offering pathways, resources, and services to sexual minorities with safeguards for their identities, as well as raising the visibility of the nature of the problem.
Dan Kent is a research and evaluation professional currently working in philanthropy in New York and is a staff writer for the Emerging Voices column.