By Thomas “TJ” Rogers And Micheal Ighodaro
Globally, there are more than 75 countries that criminalize homosexuality and nine that impose the death penalty. Yet in such places, LGBT people – lawyers, doctors, human rights defenders, business owners, students – courageously stand up to advocate for just laws that protect human rights, won’t create or exacerbate public health concerns, and promote inclusion and freedom of expression. And through it all, they experience unimaginable persecution.
The few who are fortunate enough to flee to the United States for safety become asylum seekers. (Note: An asylum seeker is an individual with a well-founded fear of persecution from the government or an entity the government cannot or will not control on account of one’s race/ethnicity, nationality, political opinion, religious affiliation or membership within a particular social group.)
On Oct. 15, LGBT Freedom and Asylum Network (LGBT-FAN) released “Stronger Together: A Guide for Supporting LGBT Asylum Seekers” in Washington, D.C. with the support of the National LGBTQ Taskforce and the Human Rights Campaign. This publication, which is the first guide of its kind in the U.S., not only highlights a service-gap, but also provides a crucial roadmap on how to better provide safe and respectful services to LGBT asylum seekers. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), we know that in 2014 there was a 44 percent increase in asylum applicants in the U.S. What we don’t know is how many of those applicants are seeking safety due to persecution based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Echoing a recommendation made by the Center for American Progress, it is imperative that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Executive Office for Immigration Review begin collecting and publishing such data.
Data aside, a bigger issue remains: access to life-saving services.
There are very few organizations providing services to this courageous, yet vulnerable, population. Here in Detroit, Freedom House offers shelter, legal aid and all comprehensive services free of charge to asylum seekers. In other cities around the U.S., groups/organizations are emerging to meet the needs of LGBT asylum seekers too, including: Center for Integration and Courageous Living, and Chicago LGBT Asylum Support Partners (Chicago); Center Global (Washington, D.C.); and Better Together and Housing Works (NYC).
Recognizing that this is a community need, LGBT-FAN was formed in 2012 as a national coalition dedicated to supporting LGBT asylum seekers. While priority is placed on increasing capacity of providing direct services to and meeting the immediate needs of LGBT asylum seekers, there is also an emphasis on advocacy. And here’s why: imagine … you were born and raised in a country that criminalizes your identity and makes it illegal to not report to the government a person known to be LGBT. You live in a country where religious leaders preach you’re an abomination. You were persecuted and tortured by members of your community (“mob justice”) only to be placed under illegal detention where you’re persecuted and tortured by your own government.
Now, fast-forward to your arrival in another country, where you’ve literally fled to for your life.
You, as many other asylum seekers, may not even know about the legal protection of “asylum.” Therefore, you miss the arbitrary one-year filing deadline, meaning you fail to submit an application for asylum within one-year of arrival at port of entry. On the other hand, even if you know about asylum, if you’ve been brought up in a society that has tortured you, depriving you of your dignity and rights, how likely are you to freely open up to legal counsel or the government? Think about it. So, it goes without saying: the one-year filing deadline for all asylum seekers should be lifted in order to increase access to this life-saving legal protection.
While the U.S. has long been a leading voice for the respect of the rights of all people in the global community, and provides vital direct support to LGBT communities in countries with hostile laws, those of us working with LGBT asylum seekers here at home wonder: “What about when they get to the U.S.?” It’s crucial that our campaign for equality not only extend to our brothers and sisters around the world, but in turn be reflected in our policies towards LGBT asylum seekers here in the U.S. If we in the American L-G-B-and-T (and ally) community truly care about human rights and equality, then our concern mustn’t stop at our borders – and certainly must not be based on one’s nationality or place of residence. Let’s remove the additional level of isolation too often faced by LGBT asylum seekers who may not have the support of their own ethnic community, by welcoming, embracing and supporting them. Let’s be truly inclusive.