OPINION: Governments should provide safe havens for LGBT+ asylum seekers

by Kimahli Powell | Rainbow Railroad
Friday, 24 May 2019 11:37 GMT

Transgender migrant Nati Vanegas, aged 18 from Honduras, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America en route to the United States, has makeup applied whilst resting in a makeshift camp in Juchitan, Mexico, October 31, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Since January, Rainbow Railroad has received more than 1,000 requests for help from LGBT+ people in danger

Kimahli Powell is executive director of Rainbow Railroad, a charity that helps LGBT+ people escape violence and persecution in their home countries

Just weeks ago, Brunei, a small southeast Asian nation, legalised a terrifying and draconian measure that, among other atrocities, introduced death by stoning as penalty for sexual relations between men. An international outcry ensued, leading the country’s authorities to announce a moratorium on the death penalty for gay sex.

But while any moratorium on the murder of LGBT+ people is positive, the gay and transgender community is still at risk in Brunei — they still face fines, whipping, jail time, ostracism, stigma and daily fear that this reprieve could be lifted at any time. While Brunei may not impose the death penalty, in some ways the damage has already been done, as state-sponsored homophobia breeds the hostility and stigma that puts lives at risk. As such, LGBT+ people in Brunei still stand at a perilous precipice.

They are not alone.

According to a 2019 report from the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association on state-sponsored homophobia, 70 countries criminalise same-sex intimacy, and 11 allow for the death penalty. That means that millions of LGBT+ people across the globe are at risk of violence — state-sanctioned or otherwise — prison, torture, public beatings and even death simply because of who they are.

Against this backdrop is a global refugee crisis that, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, is only expected to get exponentially worse as the climate crisis continues. Currently, there are an unprecedented 68.5m displaced people forced from their homes around the world. LGBT+ refugees are uniquely vulnerable as they face widespread discrimination and abuse as they move through international refugee systems.

All this with the rise of populism on a global scale that has seen some countries rolling back rights and protections for gay and trans people. This has had a dual impact — not only does it embolden homophobic and transphobic discrimination in regions that criminalise LGBT+ people, making those precarious situations even more dire, but it also creates barriers in countries that would otherwise be positioned to help these individuals when in jeopardy.

The effect is widespread, including state-sponsored detentions, beatings and targeted killings in places like Tanzania, Egypt, Chechnya and Indonesia, as just a few examples.

These are among the most vulnerable, most at-risk people on the planet right now. These are people who cannot wait for new immigration laws or bills supporting LGBT+ equality. Their very lives hang in the balance right now.

Since January of this year, Rainbow Railroad has received more than 1,000 requests for help from LGBT+ people in danger. This is a crisis that needs immediate solutions. And world leaders need to step up to the plate.

Indeed, as the fight for equality across the world pushes forward, the best, most-effective solution is for world leaders to create safe havens for this at-risk community. Some, such as Canada, have already taken some important steps to welcome more LGBT+  refugees and reduce barriers for asylum seekers. That is laudable, but much more must be done, especially as other country’s leaders have rolled back the pace of progress.

Governments and lawmakers can and must make a difference. There is enough space in this world for all of us to live freely, and without persecution because of who we are or who we love.

There are many ways that leaders can support and provide aid to LGBT+ refugees and asylum seekers:

They can create pathways to safety to their own countries.

They can enable resettlement options for refugees and asylum seekers to become independent citizens that can meaningfully contribute to their new country and local community.

They can ensure fair and humane treatment of asylum seekers.

When I think of the extreme anti-LGBT+ actions in places like Brunei, I want a counterbalance. I want to be able to point to countries whose actions towards the LGBT+ global community stand in defiance to hate and reflect the best parts of our shared humanity. That must include providing refuge to those who need it.

If not our world leaders, then who?