Safe havens for gay refugees

Safe havens for gay refugees are being created after Dutch parliament called upon the government to protect LGBTQ and other minority refugees. This follows a wide range of initiatives by local governments, LGBTQ organizations, Refugee organizations and private individuals to help LGBTQ people who are part of the influx of refugees coming into Europe in the last year.

Position of LGBTQ people among refugees

Depressed-Man As a consequence of the violence in countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq many people started to search for a safe place to flee to. At first they looked for countries next to their own, but the situation for refugees there is often very poor with overcrowded camps and with few opportunities to earn a living or go to school. That’s why in 2015 a stream of refugees started to move to the European Union. Among them are many LGBTQ people, who are often extra vulnerable when big groups of people are on the move.

The refugees are housed in huge temporary camps, often old offices or event halls, with little personal space and privacy. People who didn’t choose to live with each other are suddenly room mates and share showers and kitchens. That leads to tensions and sometimes conflicts. Especially the LGBTQ refugees are often target of discrimination, gossip and even violence. In these big refugee camps security measures are often too light handed to give the LGBTQ refugees enough support.

Local initiatives of support

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Refugees boat at the Canal Parade 2015 (cc Eelco van Loo)

A lifeline for the refugees is their smartphone. Via several social media, but primarily Facebook and Skype, they keep in contact with family and friends. More importantly, they set up pages to give each other information on how best to travel to and around Europe. For LGBTQ refugees it is also a way to look for information about LGBTQ life in several European countries or to tell their story about life as an LGBTQ person in refugee camps.

These stories are picked up by LGBTQ organizations and friends, who try to reach out to help. The LGBT Asylum Support is a specific organization set up to support and give information to LGBTQ refugees. They organize buddies, petition the politicians to organise safe houses for LGBTQ refugees and inform the refugees about the asylum procedures and their rights.

The national LGBTQ organization COC has also a buddy project for LGBTQ asylum seekers, called Cocktail (webpage in Dutch). Understanding that it is important for LGBTQ refugees to build up a new social network in The Netherlands, this project aims to help them create this network by bringing them in contact with Dutch LGBTQ people. COC also puts it’s national lobby organization to work to try to move national politicians to give LGBTQ refugees adequate protection.

Individual Dutch LGBTQ people also give practical support. One individual case got a lot of (inter)national media attention and helped to give the refugees a face. Omar, a Syrian gay refugee, was offered a room by Dutch teacher Lianda. They both told their story in several media outlets and helped in that way to steer the national debate about LGBTQ refugees.

National debate: the good, the bad and the ugly

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Campaign poster for safe houses for LGBTQ refugees

At a national level several political parties picked up the debate before calling upon the government to organize these safe havens. This lead to some curious argumentation, while each party tried to steal the lime light. Basically the leftwing parties in Dutch politics condemned the unsafe situation in the refugee centers, but put the safety of the individual gay refugee at the forefront. So they pleaded for organizing safe havens for LGBTQ refugees. But this coalition of social-democrats, social-liberals and greens were not enough for a majority in parliament.

Bring in the Christian parties, normally not the most fervent supporters for gay rights. But in this case a sensible coalition was made, since among the refugees is also a group of Syrian christians. In the melee of mainly muslim refugees, they are also sometimes confronted with discrimination in refugee camp. By adding this group to the motion for safe havens, the support of most christian party parliamentarians was won.

Even more curious was the argumentation of one of the members of the coalition government: the conservative liberals. Their argument was, that all refugees should know the values in The Netherlands for toleration of LGBTQ people. And refugees who didn’t behave accordingly should be punished and possible be sent back to their country. This argument ignores the situation of many refugees: being isolated from Dutch society, not having the freedom and the means to get to know Dutch society, staying with many, traumatized people in a small space etc. Moral superiority apparently was more important than humane and considerate measures to support gay refugees.

All in all the majority, however curious, won the day and now small scale safe havens have been created for gay refugees around the country.