Uganda’s parliament plans to pass a law before Christmas that imposes harsher penalties on same-sex acts. Over the past two years, dozens of LGBT Ugandans have fled the country and sought asylum out of fear of violence and persecution. Uganda’s law would augment the plight of LGBT refugees and put many in imminent danger. As President Obama prepares to select a new secretary of state within the next few months, I have one request: Nominate someone who will expand the State Department’s response and aid to LGBT refugees.
Refugees live across the globe, in forlorn camps in Kenya, on war-torn roads in Syria, and on the ravaged shores of Myanmar. The United Nation’s 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as a person who is unable to return to their home because of “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, national origin, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” According to the United Nations, there are about 10.5 million refugees in the world, and the United States resettles around 50,000 refugees within its borders every year, though the number varies substantially. Once refugees arrive in the United States, resettlement agencies help refugees find housing, apply for jobs and learn English. However, the extent to which these resettlement agencies are obligated to help refugees is limited to a total commitment of three months. Once resettlement agencies sever contact, refugees are left to fend for themselves. This problem is more severe for LGBT refugees, who must often overcome ostracism within their own resettlement communities. No robust estimates of the numbers of LGBT refugees exist, but the Heartland Alliance estimates that between 5 and 10 percent of all refugees are LGBT.
Last December, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton promised to reform the U.S. refugee admissions process so our country could swiftly and meaningfully respond to the human rights abuses of LGBT persons abroad. LGBT refugees are the victims of state-sponsored persecution—more than 70 countries criminalize homosexual behavior, and seven countries mandate the death sentence. Systemic hate crimes directed at LGBT refugees are omnipresent: Gay Iraqi men are frequently beaten to death with cement blocks, South Africa has seen a rise in “corrective” rape against lesbians and 227 transgender Brazilians were murdered over a span of just two years as a result of their gender identity. Increasing rates of torture and persecution against LGBT refugees hamper emergency relief and durable solutions. Persecution is rampant not only in countries of origin, but also in refugee camps and countries of asylum. LGBT refugees from Uganda have face continued violence in Kenyan refugee camps, and non-government groups have to hide their LGBT work because of recrimination fears. There is no data on the numbers of LGBT refugees who have resettled in our country because the State Department’s Bureau of Populations, Refugees and Migrants (PRM) does not identify or track LGBT refugees. Without LGBT identity on PRM case reports, resettlement organizations are unable to identify adequate services for LGBT refugees, such as STI testing, gender-neutral housing and psychological counseling catered to LGBT issues.
Our country has always been a refuge for the persecuted, and in her seminal human rights speech in Geneva, Secretary Clinton said, “Gay rights are human rights.” Additionally, LGBT rights are implied under the 1951 Refugee Convention—under international law, sexual orientation and gender identity count as membership in a social group. The United States is a party to the 1951 Convention, so we must proactively protect LGBT refugees. If we cannot directly intervene in Uganda, then we must protect refugees who seek asylum.
The U.S. should prioritize resettlement for LGBT refugees because they are in imminent danger and cannot find solace in their country of first asylum. Beyond commitments to duties and rights, the State Department can swiftly aid LGBT refugees in emergency situations and help domestic organizations working with LGBT refugees if it institutes three reforms. First, it should admit 60 percent more LGBT refugees via an expedited admission process. We currently have special categories and legal procedures for Iraqi and Cuban refugees—refugees who claim asylum on the primary basis of their sexual orientation should fall into a new legal category that also prioritizes resettlement. Second, the State Department should identify and track LGBT refugees when possible. An item in the dossier that specifies a refugee’s sexual orientation will help voluntary agencies provide services that meet an individual’s needs. A compilation of robust data on LGBT refugees will also help other bureaus in the State Department address and target countries that sponsor hate crimes. Finally, the State Department should require all resettlement agencies to implement policies that are in accordance with the 2006 Yogyakarta Principles. The Yogyakarta Principles delineate rights and services that should be guaranteed to LGBT refugees, including rights to expression and redress. The State Department should also mandate all American aid workers receive training on effective responses to LGBT issues. These reforms would provide exemplary protections to LGBT refugees, develop methods to discourage LGBT persecution abroad, and resolve the ignorance rampant in domestic resettlement organizations.
The situation for LGBT refugees grows worse by the day. Uganda’s new law might provoke a refugee exodus, a conflict that would not improve once refugees reached Kenya. Our nation takes persecution of religious and expressive freedoms seriously, why not the persecution of sexual minorities? Our commitment does not end with ethnic or political groups—we are obligated to help all individuals who are persecuted for their membership in a social class. LGBT refugees meet this criterion, and it is time the State Department responded.
Patrick Oathout, DSG executive vice president, is a Trinity junior. This is his last column of the semester.