The Difficulties of Being an LGBT Refugee in Germany
By Bina Emanvel
If the social mood in Germany over the past year could be captured in a single phrase, it would be “refugees welcome.” In spite of a growing anti-immigration sentiment and the strengthening of right-wing movements, such as PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) and the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD – Alternative for Germany), Germans opened their country and, often, their homes to the more than one million refugees fleeing war and poverty in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Yet the integration of such a large number of diverse migrants and refugees naturally presents serious challenges. The needs of one community within the refugee community, in particular, demonstrates the inadequacy of a cookie-cutter approach to the asylum process and the need for customized screening processes and well-designed integration programs – the thousands of refugees who identify as LGBT. While official figures are not available, Schwulenberatung Berlin estimates that there are around 3,500 LGBT asylum seekers in the German capital alone. In September 2015, according to a report in Slate magazine, Berlin classified queer refugees as a social group in need of special treatment and protection with regards to housing, therapy, and so forth, akin to pregnant women, unaccompanied children, and the disabled.
German Asylum Law and LGBT Refugees
German asylum law stipulates that LGBT refugees are entitled to asylum if they can demonstrate that they have been persecuted in their home country due to their sexual orientation and if they are in danger of being physically hurt, killed, imprisoned, prosecuted or being exposed to humiliating or inhumane treatment or punishment. A severe violation of basic human rights, for example discrimination in access to education or health care or existential job-related or economic restrictions, also constitutes an act of persecution, according to German law.
German law further clarifies that the criminalisation of homosexuality in itself does not represent an act of persecution. The conditions must translate to a direct threat and/or the imposition of imprisonment. The LGBT support groups in Berlin and in the rest of Germany thus counsel refugees to register themselves as refugees, persons entitled to subsidiary protection because of current conflict, as well as LGBT-identifying asylum seekers who fear persecution back home. This has magnified pressure on the country’s institutions responsible for asylum processes such as Berlin’s State Office for Health and Social Affairs (Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales, or LaGeSo).
Homophobia’s Long Shadow
Homosexuality is illegal under Syrian law, with a maximum sentence of three years in prison, and punishable by death under Afghan law. Therefore, many LGBT refugees carry the burden of stigma, persecution, abuse, discrimination and fear with them into the overcrowded refugee camps in Germany. Ahmed Awadalla and Iris Rajanayagam write, “Due to the lack of privacy and space as well as no separate and safe areas for LGBTIQ in most lagers (shared bathrooms, one kitchen for several people and families), harassment and especially sexual harassment, are very common in this type of ‘accommodation’. There are also reports of sexual harassment on the part of the staff and the security personnel working in the lagers.
According to the Lesben- and Schwulenverband in Deutschland (LSVD – Lesbian and Gay Federation in Germany), there were 95 cases of violence against LGBT people between August and December 2015, mainly in accommodations for refugees and asylum seekers.
In an interview with Slate, Schwulenberatung Berlin’s Stephen Jäkel argues that the problems faced by LGBT refugees in official accommodations go much beyond violence and discrimination from fellow asylum seekers. “Sometimes, interpreters don’t know the right words for LGBT, or they don’t like gay or trans people. They will say: ‘You don’t have to tell him you are gay. I won’t translate it. It’s not important,’ ” when evidently it is absolutely vital that queer refugees identify themselves to government authorities, Jäkel said. “We also had reports of interpreters quitting their jobs the moment they found out the person they’re translating for is gay.”
The Need for Better Protection
The services available to LGBT refugees are often unknown and seldom communicated to those who need them. The German Medien Dienst Integration (Media Service Integration) lists the MILES centre for migrants, lesbians and gays run by the LSVD, which has offered over 500 personal consultations to LGBT refugees and their families in the past year.
Additionally, a newly-opened LGBT refugees day care shelter managed by the Schwulenberatung Berlin offers a safe space for queer refugees to meet, seek media, legal and counselling help and share experiences.
Culturally aware integration programs, language classes, or lessons in German laws and on “cultural basics” can also help address part of these challenges. For example, some advocacy groups have started putting up posters in refugee camps showing hetero- and homosexual couples kissing, to reinforce the message of openness and respect for all.
However, there is a clear need for more holistic and less haphazard responses.
Facing the Asylum Interviews
LGBT refugees face the challenge of breaking through years of social repression, exacerbated by the trauma of conflict, the difficult journey in Germany, the conditions and lack of support in the refugee centres. This translates into uncomfortable and often unconvincing asylum interviews.
Speaking to Vice, Claus Jetz from Cologne’s Gay and Lesbian Association says that “those who are persecuted for their sexuality are not only afraid but also often ashamed. That means that they are likely to appear hesitant during the asylum interviews and then get entangled in contradictions. That is partly because most of them have had bad experiences with administrators, police, and interpreters back home. They will hem and haw around and think up other reasons to apply for asylum. Sadly, the result is that often they don’t come across as believable and are therefore threatened with deportation.”
The Long Road to Equal Protection
The road to acceptance, equal treatment and respect of LGBT refugees by their communities as well as in their new home country, Germany, is a long one. There is, however, increasing hope as the presence of a vibrant German LGBT community, active advocacy and support groups as well as culturally aware educational materials become more widely known and available.
“Of course, this is a long term project, patience and a long breath are needed,” says the LSVD official website.