UNHCR Officials Highlight Protection Needs of LGBTI Refugees

In recent weeks, two officials from the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) have taken steps to address the unique challenges facing LGBTI refugees by raising awareness and advocating for further protection. On October 3, in front of various government representatives at UNHCR’s Executive Committee meeting in Geneva, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Erika Feller spoke of growing awareness that those fleeing persecution due to their sexual orientation or gender identity should qualify as refugees and encouraged more countries to grant refugee status on this basis. She also noted that the “discrimination [LGBTI refugees] encounter can be virulent, their isolation from family and community profound, and the harm inflicted on them severe.” Two weeks prior, the Director of UNHCR’s Division of International Protection, Volker Türk, speaking in Geneva at a Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) symposium, recognized the “myriad of threats, risks and vulnerabilities” LGBTI refugees face at all stages of displacement. He stressed that the persecution LGBTI refugees flee from is at times repeated in the country of asylum and within refugee communities, and that this limits their access to community support networks and humanitarian services. To improve protection for LGBTI refugees, he announced that UNHCR is updating its Guidance Note on Refugee Claims Relating to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, rolling out training for staff and developing a tool and guidance for resettlement staff. In May of this year, we released our report The Road to Safety that examined the plight of LGBTI refugees in Uganda and Kenya, including threats to their physical safety and difficulties in accessing services from government service providers, the UNHCR and NGOs. These statements represent important recognition by UNHCR headquarters of the challenges that LGBTI refugees face as well as some of the steps needed to improve protection and assistance. They follow other recent steps UNHCR has taken to strengthen protection for LGBTI refugees:

  • A message sent to all UNHCR staff by High Commissioner António Guterres on IDAHO in May 2012 that noted discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, will not be tolerated and encouraging staff to reflect on how UNHCR can contribute to increased protection space for LGBTI persons of concern.
  • The inclusion of the specific concerns of LGBTI asylum seekers in UNHCR’s new Detention Guidelines.
  • The compilation of Age, Gender and Diversity best practice by the Bureau for the Americas that include a focus on LGBTI refugees. LGBTI refugees are an explicit focus of UNHCR’s Age, Gender and Diversity Policy issued in 2011.

These are welcome measures and Human Rights First has outlined further steps that UNHCR, host governments, donors and resettlement countries can take to address the specific protection and assistance challenges that LGBTI refugees face. These include:

  • Measures to protect LGBTI refugees from bias-motivated violence, including through improving access to justice in the country of asylum, supporting new or increased capacity for safe shelter mechanisms and providing access to expedited resettlement.
  • Measures to ensure that LGBTI refugees are effectively included in protection and assistance programs through targeted outreach and identification strategies, advocacy to address specific barriers that LGBTI refugees may face in accessing government services, training of UNHCR staff and partners, and strategies to ensure that LGBTI refugees are aware of and can access international protection due to persecution on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

To read Human Rights First’s detailed recommendations, please click here.

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Published on October 17, 2012

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