12-12-2011By Duncan Breen
Senior Associate, Refugee Protection Program
Last week, representatives of 145 countries gathered in Geneva to recommit their governments to the protection of refugees and other persons of concern. The meeting also commemorated the 60th anniversary of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 50th anniversary of the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, documents that serve as the bedrock for refugee protection policies around the globe.
During the meeting, a number of countries – including the United States, Canada, Finland and Spain -raised specific concerns about persecution against people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. LGBTI men and women are often forced to seek asylum in other countries because it is no longer safe for them to remain in their homelands.
Human Rights First long advocated for the protection of LBGTI refugees who often face persecution in the countries to which they flee, in addition to in the countries from which they fled. In countries that criminalize same sex acts, LGBTI refugees are often fearful of police and of approaching the government for protection. They are also sometimes the targets of bias-motivated violence. In addition, these people frequently find themselves marginalized within refugee communities and they face increased obstacles in accessing assistance from government institutions, including health care providers, as well as some NGO and UNHCR staff who express prejudice and/or insensitivity towards LGBTI persons.
Just ahead of the Geneva gathering, Secretary Hilary Clinton delivered a landmark address at the United Nations that affirmed the United States’ commitment to protect the rights of LGBTI persons. Just hours before Secretary Clinton’s speech, the White House also issued a memorandum outlining steps the Obama Administration plans to take to support LGBTI persons. Together, these announcements provided an important foundation for efforts to increase assistance to those who have sought the protection of other states due to persecution on the basis of their sexual orientation. Among the key directives touted by President Obama and Secretary Clinton were the following:
- The Departments of State and Homeland Security shall enhance their ongoing efforts to ensure that LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers have equal access to protection and assistance, particularly in countries of first asylum.
- The Departments of State, Justice, and Homeland Security shall ensure appropriate training is in place so that relevant Federal Government personnel and key partners can effectively address the protection of LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers, including by providing to them adequate assistance and ensuring that the Federal Government has the ability to identify and expedite resettlement of highly vulnerable persons with urgent protection needs.
In addition, in its statement during the UNHCR ministerial meeting, the United States further pledged the following to strengthen assistance to LGBTI refugees:
- The U.S. will develop an electronic resource center that catalogues available community resources and identifies supportive communities for LGBTI refugees resettled in the United States; and
- The U.S. will add language to one or more grant announcements that identifies LGBTI refugees as a vulnerable population in need of targeted services.
Human Rights First welcomes these measures and especially appreciates the recognition of the need to provide access to expedited resettlement for highly vulnerable individuals with urgent protection needs. Additionally, at the ministerial meeting, Canada, Portugal, the Czech Republic and others committed to strengthening resettlement capacity, including resettlements on an expedited basis. Efforts to further strengthen and increase resettlement quotas were also undertaken by Sweden, New Zealand, Australia and others.
Last week’s events are important milestones in the ongoing efforts to protect LGBTI refugees and improve access for vulnerable groups to resettlement on an expedited basis. These steps alone, however, are not enough. Human Rights First notes that the following are key next steps in the fight to protect the rights of LGBTI refugees:
- Refugees at risk of harm in countries of first asylum should have effective access to emergency protection including emergency resettlement in cases where refugees face a high risk of violence and where limited ability to provide safe shelter exists. States providing emergency resettlement should strengthen existing systems and ensure that these are accessible to LGBTI refugees;
- The United States, as the largest provider of resettlement places, should make further improvements to its ability to provide resettlement in emergency cases, including by continuing to address delays in the security checks and other elements of resettlement processing to strengthen the United States’ ability to protect refugees facing imminent security risks;
- UNHCR should continue to provide leadership from headquarters by continuing to issue guidance on the protection of LGBTI refugees and revise existing protection tools to ensure the protection of LGBTI refugees is explicitly addressed;
- UNHCR, NGOs and States should take further steps to provide protection to LGBTI refugees and other vulnerable groups, including by ensuring access to essential services; access to asylum on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity; access to police protection when facing security threats; access to safe shelter when LGBTI refugees face a high risk of violence; and access to emergency resettlement when effective protection in the country of asylum is not possible.
For more information about the challenges that LGBTI refugees often face, read Human Rights First’s report Persistent Needs and Gaps: the Protection of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) Refugees. In addition, Human Rights First will release its report documenting protection gaps facing LGBTI refugees in Uganda and Kenya in early 2012.