I came to the Netherlands four and a half years ago and applied for asylum on the basis of LGBT status. I then lived for 6 months in an asylum centre where I was specifically advised by the personnel not to be open about my sexual orientation due to homophobic fellow refugees. Eventually after leaving the asylum centre and getting my own house, I could start my new life without having to keep my sexual orientation a secret…Freedom at last! Once I start learning the Dutch language, I began making contacts in the Dutch (LGBT) community, which was how I met my current colleagues. Together we decided to start an organization to aid, support, and empower LGBT refugees in Holland. The LGBT Asylum Support Foundation was founded on February 29, 2016. This was also a turning point in my own personal life as I’m very happy with the work I do with my colleagues who I consider my new family. This has been a radical transition from total powerlessness in my homeland to empowerment and freedom in the Netherlands.
As of last year I’m participating as an advisory board member in Epsilon project; a European user-led and evidence-based project which uses research-oriented fieldwork in order to equip and train professionals and volunteers for supporting LGBT refugees. Epsilon, which is based on effective communication and involvement with LGBT refugees, it also serves to bridge the gap between professionals and LGBT refugees.
Being a member of the Epsilon Advisory Board and participating in the International Conference in Athens has been a wonderful and empowering opportunity for me to contribute to the well-being of other LGBTI refugees, the most vulnerable group of refugees.
Refugee and homosexual: ‘It’s not safe to talk about your sexual orientation’
The first time I was asked my sexual orientation was at the Dutch Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND). ‘I cried and told them: “It’s hard, I’ve never officially admitted that I’m gay”. In a subsequent hearing they ask Amirpds from Iran what it felt like when he first kissed a man and he responded, ‘What can I say? It was awesome, of course.’
It took three interviews with the IND and a total of fifteen months to prove that I’m a “homosexual”. Luckily Amirpds* has good news to share when he visited Movisie: “I’ve just heard that I will receive a residence permit”.
Amirpds, an Iranian refugee, is one of seven LGBT refugees and asylum seekers that talked to Movisie during an exploratory study with the European Epsilon project into the support and acceptance of this group of migrants. The in-depth interviews, the literature, and the two focus group meetings with professionals and volunteers, show that refugees feel it is not safe to admit their LGBT status to the IND.
An LGBT asylum seeker will not automatically receive a residence permit. The IND looks at each individual case. Usually two meetings take place, and the second one – the cross examination – focuses on the reasons for the asylum request. Sometimes a third or even fourth additional examination will be required if a decision could not be made after the first two meetings. Amirpds felt “the first interview went quite all right. But the last meeting I thought was terrible, the staff and the interpreter reacted very coolly”. In addition to personal questions, they also asked about his preferred style of clothing and his favourite colours. Amirpds raises his eyebrows and laughs when he thinks about it again. In its report, Movisie recommends that IND staff be trained to conduct examinations with LGBT people, so they will understand how to ask questions on sexual orientation and to avoid just checking for credibility and stereotypes.
Bullying and violence
Research shows that in asylum seeking centres where LGBT people live together with non LGBT people are commonly met with negativity and aggression. LGBT refugees run the risk of being excluded, bullied, threatened, and abused. In the refugee shelter, Amirpds and all the other LGBT refugees Movisie interviewed – have not been open about their sexual orientation. Amirpds explained ‘I pretended I was one of them. But when you live with 500 people without any privacy …people will have their suspicions.’ He relates this to his fear of being attacked by other refugees. Amirpds continues, “I told the shelter staff: one day it’s going to happen”. However his warning was ignored and after four and a half months Amirpds fears came true.
The incident initiated a transfer to the village of Echt in Limburg, where he shared a room with a homosexual man, who, according to Amirpds, was obsessed with him. With the assistance of COC Netherlands he was transferred to an asylum seekers centre in Maastricht, where he got a room of his own for the first time. Unfortunately there were a number of people there with whom Amirpds has previously had negative encounters with. Eventually Queer Welfare helped him transfer to the asylum seekers centre in Utrecht where he is still living. This is his sixth address since he arrived in the Netherlands on 27 November 2015.
Keep asking questions
Both Amirpds and the other interviewed LGBT refugees agree that it made a difference when staff of the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (COA) kept asking questions and took time to talk to them. Therefore one of the recommendations is to train COA staff not just to identify LGBT refugees, but to continue with appropriate follow up interviews and questions and to refer to related organizations for support. Amirpds feels that every asylum seekers centre should have a connection with one of the LGBT support organizations. He received significant aid from Queer Welfare and the Prisma Group, where he now volunteers to help support other LGBT refugees.
Central LGBT policy
All refugee and asylum seekers describe the same situation: Residing in the Netherlands, looking for safety, and experiencing unmeasurable tensions in the shelter. The level of friendliness towards LGBT persons in a shelter often depends on the location’s manager. Professionals and volunteers feel that the directives for supporting LGBT asylum seekers should be determined centrally by COA. One may suggest a clear and unequivocal LGBT policy, with centres being provided informational LGBTI materials, and posters that show support for LGBT persons.
Amirpds is not angry about his experiences in the Netherlands. He knows he will have a good life. He says in Iran he never felt like he had a family so he hopes to “one day have a family. . . My dream is to find a good man, to live together and create a family. That is a big thing for me”.
After a short silence he whispered “If I was to be born again and were asked if I wanted to be a heterosexual, I wouldn’t want to. I like who I am”. Amirpds admits that the situation in the asylum seekers centres occasionally drove him to thoughts of suicide, “but I didn’t have the courage to do it. Now I’m working hard at myself. What keeps me going and makes me happy, are my dreams”.
Once Hanaa completed school, her goal was to reside in Norway, however, obtaining a visa for Italy was much easier than in Norway. After traveling to Norway from Italy, Hanaa was immediately sent back to Italy to a reception facility in a Central Italian Region.
Hanaa is one of the few women who lesbian identity is already politically accepted when she arrived in Italy and one of the few women coming from her country of origin who already knew the immigration procedure she wanted to undertake.
In the Italian reception facility Hanaa suffers a lot due to both her isolation and because she couldn’t live her life as a lesbian.
The reception facility is distant from places promoting and organizing LGBTI activities and to far to even allow to reach meeting in other places.
Later Hanaa contacted a national LGBTI association which in turn contacted Epsilon. In result Hanaa got international protection very quickly, but, not knowing the Italian language, she will struggle to integrate.
As soon as Hanaa could, she left Italy for Norway to reach her family and a girl she previously met, who has now become her girlfriend
Today Hanaa wants to work with other LGBTI migrants in Europe.