Protecting Persons with Diverse Sexual Orientations and Gender Identities: A Global Report on UNHCR's Efforts to Protect Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex Asylum-Seekers and Refugees

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The document at hand presents key findings from a project undertaken globally between July 2014 and May 2015 to assess progress made by UNHCR country and regional operations to effectively protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) asylum-seekers and refugees. Globally, 106 offices, or roughly 90% of eligible country and regional operations, participated in the assessment. The key findings are presented along the following axes: legal, cultural and social context; outreach activities; displacement conditions; asylum and durable solutions; training on issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI); operational guidelines and advocacy efforts.

Offices reported that legislative, social, and cultural discrimination against LGBTI persons is pervasive globally, and that such discrimination significantly impedes UNHCR’s LGBTI-focused protection efforts. While laws criminalising LGBTI identity, expression, and association were most frequently noted in Africa, Asia-Pacific, and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), social exclusion and other forms of violence were reported by offices in all five regions. In countries where discriminatory laws exist but are not enforced, offices discussed instances where such laws nonetheless offer social sanction for harassment and violence against LGBTI persons, including blackmail, extortion, and intimidation by authorities. Offices also reported that laws of general application, including laws pertaining to public decency, marriage, and sex work, may be disproportionately applied to target LGBTI persons. Even where legal protections exist for LGBTI persons, some offices noted these protections may not be guaranteed in practice.

Almost two thirds of participating offices indicated having implemented reception or registration measures specifically targeting LGBTI persons of concern to UNHCR. Among these offices, the most common measures in place include (a) ensuring that registration forms are gender neutral and do not assume a particular sexual orientation and (b) creating ‘safe spaces,’ such as secure waiting areas and special times for LGBTI persons to register. Although only one third of participating offices reported formal partnerships to assist with outreach to LGBTI persons of concern, two thirds indicated having established referral pathways to and from external organisations for SOGI-related issues. In countries with widespread hostility toward LGBTI persons, offices called for further support in developing culturally sensitive training materials and standard outreach materials that take into account challenging operational contexts.

Offices expressed that LGBTI asylum-seekers and refugees are subject to severe social exclusion and violence in countries of asylum by both the host community and the broader asylum-seeker and refugee community. While the degree of acceptance of LGBTI persons was reported as very low in all accommodation settings, the lowest degrees of acceptance, across all respondents, were noted in camp settings. Similarly, of the 39 offices that indicated efforts to specifically track the situation of LGBTI persons of concern in immigration detention facilities, most indicated that LGBTI persons are frequently subject to abuse and/or exploitation by both detention authorities and other inmates. Almost one third of participating offices indicated having supported LGBTI persons to access justice mechanisms in countries of asylum. Many offices, however, noted the limitations of providing such assistance due to widespread prejudice among law enforcement and judicial bodies against LGBTI persons.

Over 60% of participating offices involved in healthcare arrangements for persons of concern reported having assisted LGBTI persons of concern to access health services. In addition, of the offices that reported having conducted participatory assessments or focus groups with persons of concern, 60% indicated that they have included LGBTI persons. Over half of these offices further noted that they have directly engaged SOGI issues in participatory assessments. Three offices also reported having undertaken protection activities developed specifically for LGBTI youth in forced displacement.
Roughly 60% of participating offices reported having either a formal or an informal focal point to provide support for the determination of asylum claims related to SOGI. Offices often reported difficulties in tracking SOGI-based asylum claims, partly due to limitations in the current version of UNHCR’s electronic registration system, proGres. Similarly, many offices in countries where the national government exclusively administers RSD procedures reported challenges in accessing data on asylum claims related to SOGI.

On the other hand, over 70% of participating offices involved in the identification or facilitation of durable solutions for refugees reported having worked with LGBTI refugees. While a few of these offices indicated having successfully facilitated local integration for LGBTI refugees, no office reported having facilitated voluntary repatriation due to the continued risk of persecution in countries of origin. Almost 80% of participating offices indicated that they prioritise LGBTI refugees for resettlement. Of these offices, roughly 70% reported having actually facilitated resettlement for LGBTI refugees. The limited number of resettlement countries viable for LGBTI refugees was frequently cited as a significant impediment to facilitating resettlement for LGBTI refugees.

While many primary respondents indicated that some refugee status determination (RSD) and durable solutions staff in their respective offices have received training on SOGI-related issues, less than one fifth of respondents indicated that most or all of such staff have been adequately trained to handle SOGI-related cases. Still, primary respondents perceived UNCHR’s government partners as having had the least training on SOGI-related issues when compared to UNHCR staff, operational partners, and implementing partners. Offices in which primary respondents indicated that RSD and durable staff are highly familiar with UNHCR’s key SOGI-related documents were generally found to have implemented a greater number of concrete, LGBTI-focused protection measures.

Over one fifth of participating offices indicated having either formal or informal operational guidelines in place pertaining to SOGI issues or to LGBTI persons of concern.

Over one third of participating offices indicated having reported the general human rights situation of LGBTI persons in the country of operation to national, regional, or international human rights monitoring mechanisms. Among these offices, the most common reporting channels mentioned include: the Universal Periodic Review, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, and national human rights institutions (NHRIs). Some offices similarly indicated having provided human rights information to human rights monitoring bodies through UNHCR headquarters and the United Nations Resident Coordinator. Several offices requested sample standard operating procedures (SOPs) and sample submissions to human rights monitoring bodies on SOGI-related issues to strengthen their operational guidelines and advocacy efforts.

Almost all participating offices repeatedly called for more extensive training led by UNHCR on SOGI issues. Many emphasised that such trainings should explicitly take into account the difficult cultural, religious, and legal contexts in which the offices operate. Some offices called for a ‘training of trainers’ model to allow SOGI-related information to be more widely disseminated among offices, with others calling for the creation of a platform for offices working in similar cultural and legal contexts to share best practices on SOGI-related issues.

The report concludes, inter alia, that a large majority of the challenges surrounding protection work focused on LGBTI persons of concern stem from the criminalisation of LGBTI identity, expression, and association in many countries of operation. It also notes that although UNHCR has published several policy, procedural, and operational guidelines relating to LGBTI persons of concern and asylum claims related to SOGI, offices need to be better supported and trained to translate these macro-level guidelines into concrete, implementable protection measures.

The report further calls for an expansion of participatory engagement with LGBTI persons of concern to more fully map protection challenges, as well as targeted trainings addressing reception and registration staff. It also calls for stronger technical support to assist offices with the development of partnerships, referral pathways, and SOPs for LGBTI persons of concern at all stages of the process, as well as training on confidential advocacy through human rights bodies. The report offers a series of concrete suggestions for a way forward, including training recommendations, to strengthen UNHCR’s efforts to protect LGBTI asylum-seekers and refugees.