Out in the World: Report: Researchers and experts call for more data and research on LGBTQ asylum seekers and refugees

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Thursday July 14, 2022
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Ari Shaw, senior fellow and director of international programs at the Williams Institute, was the lead author of the report "LGBTQI+ Refugees and Asylum Seekers: A Review of Research and Data Needs." Photo: Courtesy the Williams Institute
Ari Shaw, senior fellow and director of international programs at the Williams Institute, was the lead author of the report "LGBTQI+ Refugees and Asylum Seekers: A Review of Research and Data Needs." Photo: Courtesy the Williams Institute

LGBTQ and human rights researchers and experts called for more data collection and research about queer and gender-nonconforming asylum seekers in two new reports.

The reports, published in June and July, highlight the need for data collection, networks and coalitions, and research to better understand and meet the multitude of intersecting experiences and needs of LGBTQ asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants.

Researchers from the Williams Institute, an LGBTQ think tank, and the Promise Institute for Human Rights, both at UCLA School of Law, and 25 experts spanning from academia to civil society organizations from around the world who are working on global LGBTQ immigration issues came together in February for a one-day conference.

Two of the participating organizations originated in the San Francisco Bay Area: Oakland-based Transgender Law Center's Black LGBTQ+ Migrant Project and the Organization for Refugee, Asylum, and Migration, founded in San Francisco.

ORAM is now under the umbrella of Alight, a global refugee group based in Minneapolis.

Representatives at BLMP did not respond to the Bay Area Reporter's request for comment by press time. ORAM Executive Director Steve Roth was unable to comment due to traveling.

Ari Shaw, 29, senior fellow and director of international programs at the Williams Institute, was the lead author of the reports. Shaw believes convening the researchers and experts is "a real important opportunity for building out our knowledge and having a more complete understanding of the dynamics and experiences that LGBTQI+ refugees are facing."

On July 7, the Williams Institute researchers published "LGBTQI+ Refugees and Asylum Seekers: A Review of Research and Data Needs," a 41-page review of more than 130 empirical studies impacting LGBTQ asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants from 2000 to the present from around the globe. The report synthesized the literature on LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers worldwide, discussed knowledge gaps, and established a research agenda.

The experts also reviewed the report and provided feedback on its findings prior to its publication, said Shaw, who co-authored the report with Namrata Verghese.

Last month, the Williams Institute published the experts' 10-page brief "Knowledge Gaps and Research Priorities on LGBTQI+ Refugees and Asylum Seekers." It summarized the discussion about issues faced by LGBTQ asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants, and stakeholders in the asylum and refugee and resettlement process.

Shaw, a gay man, co-authored the June brief with the Promise Institute's Kate Mackintosh, executive director, and S. Priya Morley, racial justice policy counsel.

The experts outlined seven priorities: coalition and network building between experts and researchers in the Global North and Global South; research on health effects of the resettlement process; experiences along migratory paths; transgender asylum seekers and refugees; expanded research on intersections of ethnicity, race, religion, and other identities; opportunities to create or expand humanitarian visa programs; and enhance SOGIESC (sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, and sex characteristics) data collection.

Much of what the researchers and experts discussed in the two documents are similar.

"The demographic data is among the most critical in many contexts," said Shaw, "because as the adage goes, 'If you're not counted, you don't count.'"

Without data, researchers and advocates don't have a sense of who LGBTQ asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants are or "how to best target resources and services," he said.

"The better we have a sense of basic and grounded characteristics: who people are, where they're coming from, and what their experiences are in the system, the better we'll be able to create laws and policies and provide necessary resources to people who need them," Shaw added.

However, the experts prioritized building coalitions and networks with stakeholders at the top of their seven recommendations. Data collection bookended their priorities at the bottom, according to the brief.

Growing problem

The reports are a part of a series of papers focused on LGBTQ asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants' experiences and key players published in 2021 and this year by the Williams Institute.

Last year, a Williams Institute study found an estimated 30,900 LGBTQ people applied for asylum in the U.S. between 2012 and 2017. Nearly 4,000 of those applicants sought asylum because of fear of persecution due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, according to the July 7 news release announcing the release of this month's report. According to the 2021 report, most LGBTQ people seeking asylum in the U.S. came from the Northern Triangle region of Central America (Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador).

Overall, in 2021 there were 26.6 million refugees and 4.4 million asylum seekers worldwide, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The refugee agency doesn't collect demographic data based on SOGIESC principles. It is unknown how many LGBTQ asylum seekers and refugees there are worldwide, according to the June 2022 report.

Experts and researchers believe the number of LGBTQ people seeking to resettle in safe countries will grow, the report's authors wrote. They cited a global trend where LGBTQ people are increasingly not accepted. More than 70 countries criminalize same-sex relationships and gender-variant people, according to the report. Only 37 countries formerly grant asylum based on "a well-founded fear of persecution based on sexual orientation and gender identity."

Only a few countries "regularly and systematically collect demographic data that are inclusive of SOGIESC measures," the report's authors wrote.

North American and European dominance was noted around the table of experts at the February meeting. The experts emphasized prioritizing coalition and network building between organizations and researchers in the Global North and Global South out of the seven priorities outlined in the brief.

The Global South is defined by countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania. Global North regions are defined as Western countries in North America, Europe, and Australia that are typically wealthy and powerful.

The experts' goal is to tap the expertise of Global South leaders working in LGBTQ asylum, refugee, and migrant communities and issues, and to build their credibility among local and refugee authorities.

Shaw said that there is an "impression" or "misconception" in the migrant narrative that "the flows of refugees are always from the Global South to the Global North.

"So much of the focus is on how the Global North receives refugees and asylum seekers, and the challenges and the burdens that this places on governments in the Global North," he continued, "but in fact, it's actually many countries in the Global South that are often receiving the largest numbers of refugees and asylum seekers.

"We have such little understanding of those dynamics of the migratory pathways, how this impacts communities and governments in the Global South that are actually dealing with this situation at a much larger scale," Shaw said.

Many issues

The issues raised at the meeting and in the survey of existing research about LGBTQ immigration issues are overwhelming. Despite many studies examining the plight of LGBTQ asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants, advocates and researchers agree more research is needed to answer the questions they've raised. The two groups want to know what drives queer and transgender people to leave their home countries. They want to know as much as possible about the journey to a safe country, detentions and deportations, life in host and transit countries, and the asylum and refugee process.

Once queer and gender-variant asylum seekers and refugees are resettled in a safe country, researchers want to know what their lives are like, including their mental and physical health, employment, housing, and education.

The experts and researchers' focus is not only on LGBTQ asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants. They also want to know about the people who encounter queer asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants on their journeys getting to a safe country and after resettlement.

"Despite how many inroads many researchers have made in terms of generating research and data on this population [that so] much is unexplored and how much there remains precisely because [there is] so little data collected across the migratory process," Shaw said. "We really need the partnership of international organizations, government agencies, and civil society organizations to expand the base of data collected on LGBTQI+ refugees but doing so in a way that absolutely ensures their privacy and safety."

Both groups called for non-threatening data gathering, adding SOGIESC questions on existing forms at agencies, as well as training staff to be culturally sensitive to LGBTQ people and maintain their privacy and security.

The researchers' findings echoed the anecdotal experiences of LGBTQ asylees, refugees, and migrants going through the process told to the experts. A prime example researchers pointed out was how asylum adjudicators — the people responsible for ensuring case documents are complete — determine valid cases. The researchers discovered asylum adjudicators had a profound lack of, or outdated, knowledge about the LGBTQ community, issues, and terminology — especially about bisexuals and transgender people. They also found asylum adjudicators often viewed the family unit through a heteronormative lens and that many countries do not legally recognize same-sex couples and their families.

Instead, the researchers found that LGBTQ asylees and refugees had to not only "come out," but they had to prove they were queer using evidence of past relationships. Transgender applicants had to show proof of seeking out surgery for their application to be considered "credible." One of the problems the report's authors noted was that some asylum adjudicators "may conflate sex with sexuality to the extent that sexual behavior forms a key part of the claimant's narrative about their sexual orientation."

"Our sexual identity can be distinct from how we behave and practice," Shaw said. "We can also be persecuted on the basis of our sexual orientation or gender identity, location, or purely based on how people perceive us."

The researchers believed this lack of sensitivity could potentially lead to applicants' revictimization and retraumatization.

"It's important that adjudicators ... have a clear understanding of how persecution, discrimination, [and] exclusion against sexual and gender minorities in a particular country operate and not just base their decisions and their analyses on preconception," Shaw said.

Researchers also noted in the report that the COVID pandemic complicated LGBTQ asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants' situations by exacerbating pre-existing vulnerabilities and putting "LGBTQI+ asylum seekers at great risk of violence and harassment."

The report and the brief highlighted that researchers and experts want additional research to know about compounding intersectional identities and oppression, discriminatory laws and policies, physical and sexual violence, country conditions, and more.

One silver lining experts and researchers noted in the reports was the resilience of LGBTQ asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants.

The experts wrote in their brief that despite the challenges LGBTQ refugees faced, "many are able to also mount resistance." They cited LGBTQ refugees' work forming "solidarity and networks with migrant activists" and organizations mobilizing for LGBTQ and migrant rights "more broadly."

Researchers noted LGBTQ asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants' resilience and agency advocating for themselves to the point of impacting "immigration law and policy," in the report.

"Studies of such agency and how refugees effectively negotiate migratory systems could provide useful tools for advocates and demonstrate for policymakers effective programs to support refugee communities at scale," the researchers wrote in the report.

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

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