Considering the almost-daily updates of the “migrant caravan” currently camped out at the Mexico-California border we are shown, and that many parts of the world are seemingly in shambles over immigration policy disputes, asylum has been a popular topic of conversation on the international stage. But what is asylum, and how does it affect the LGBTQ communities of the world differently than other segments of society?
Asylum is the protection afforded to political refugees — those who leave their home country following persecution, abuse or the risk thereof. Though the process differs on a country-by-country basis, it’s typically a lengthy, drawn-out procedure involving registration, forms, multiple interviews and integration programs — and all of this follows what is for many the most daunting task, which is packing up and leaving home, hoping to reach a country where asylum can be granted.
Each year, refugees make their way to the United States and other democratic nations seeking protection from persecution due to their religion, race, sexuality or gender identity. Those last two are included under “membership in a particular social group” under U.S. policy, which currently says a person may seek asylum within a year of arriving stateside, and the process begins with a single application form. There’s currently no fee to apply for asylum.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services claims a “decision should be made on the asylum application within 180 days after the date the application is filed, unless there are exceptional circumstances.” (Again, the process and its timing depends on the country.)
Those applying for asylum at the U.S. border are processed at a port of entry, transferred to a detention facility where they are interviewed, and (assuming they pass that interview) are then referred to immigration court, where their hearing could take months. If they fail the interview, they are most often deported.
The journey preceding asylum can be arduous for LGBTQ people.
Making asylum claims more difficult for members of the LGBTQ community, caravans of refugees — as with those that have traveled up through Central America hoping to reach the United States — are often far from welcoming to queer people.
The most recent caravan that reached the U.S.-Mexico border — full of Hondurans, Guatemalans, Nicaraguans and Salvadorans — actually saw a group of around 80 LGBTQ migrants split from the larger caravan. The group, which claims it suffered weeks of discriminatory treatment by both local residents along the journey and fellow migrants, made headlines when it was the first to reach Tijuana, Mexico, weeks ahead of the caravan’s bulk.
“Whenever we arrived at a stopping point the LGBT community was the last to be taken into account in every way. So our goal was to change that and say, ‘This time we are going to be first,'” says Honduran asylum seeker Cesar Mejia.
Many LGBTQ asylum-seekers were denied food and showers by other caravan members, and by some of the local groups there to provide aid to the caravan. “There was no physical abuse but there was plenty of verbal abuse,” one trans woman told reporters.
Those 80 refugees (part of what’s estimated to be 120 LGBTQ people in the most recent migrant caravan) were able to cull resources thanks to U.S. and Mexico-based LGBTQ organizations, which paid for them to travel by bus instead of by foot. “When we entered Mexican territory, those organizations began to help us. We did not contact them; they learned from our group thanks to the media and decided to help us,” Mejia says.
But let’s say an asylum-seeker has reached their target country. Now what?
It should be said, of course, that an individual who applies for asylum may not receive that protection. No country welcomes each and every individual applying for asylum therein, which always depends on a specific case’s unique facts. In 2016, less than half of all asylum claims were approved by the United States. 2017 saw 650,000 asylum-seekers apply for protection inside the European Union, and just under half, 46%, resulted in positive outcomes.
In some nations, the percentage of applications that actually result in a positive outcome are but one way asylum for LGBTQ people is more difficult than it is for other protected groups. While the Netherlands accepts 63% of asylum applications based on sexuality, the United Kingdom is rejecting more asylum claims by LGBTQ people than ever before.
In the U.K., the grant rate for individuals seeking asylum on the basis of sexuality has fallen from 39% three years ago to 22% last year. Compared to all claims for asylum (a 36% grant rate in the U.K.), claims based on sexuality face a lower grant rate (29%) and lower appeal success rate (34%, compared to 37%).
This is partly due to a lack of education within the U.K.’s Home Office about LGBTQ issues, and plain-and-simple discrimination in worst case scenarios. It’s been reported that thousands of LGBTQ individuals have been turned away from asylum and told to go home and act discreetly, or that religion might be able to cure them of what is bringing them persecution. Shameful, to be sure.
European asylum tests to determine whether someone is LGBTQ are notoriously ridiculous.
If required to, how would you prove to an immigration official that you are indeed an LGBTQ person? It’s something refugees face as part of the asylum process (most often when applying for asylum on that basis), and the process has become notorious for the ludicrous things asked of queer people.
When an 18-year-old gay man from Afghanistan had his Austrian asylum request denied, he claims he was told, “Neither your walk, your behavior, nor your clothing indicate even in the slightest that you could be homosexual.” A gay Iraqi man claims he was rejected by the same country for being too effeminate, as the immigration officers thought surely he was scamming them. And yet another man — this one Iranian, also seeking asylum in Austria — claims he was rejected for not knowing the meaning of the orange stripe in the rainbow Pride flag (something few gay men know), despite his boyfriend, who had been waiting for him outside, not being called as a witness.
It was only 2014 when the European Court of Justice finally barred immigration officials from asking questions about sex acts of LGBTQ asylum-seekers. That same case also did away with “arousal tests,” by which those seeking protection on the basis of their sexuality were forced to watch pornography and have their excitement measured.
Hungary was using Rorschach tests on LGBTQ asylum seekers until this year, when the European Court of Justice told the nation to stop the practice.
Not all European nations have awful track records with LGBTQ asylum claims. Sweden requires an “LGBTQ expert” to be present anytime a queer asylum-seeker is undergoing questioning. But let us consider the stakes of these asylum sexuality tests — if an LGBTQ individual fails their “gay test,” they could face certain death back home, whether by stoning or beheading, or a lengthy prison sentence.
While waiting for asylum cases to wrap up, detention centers can be dangerous for LGBTQ people.
An LGBTQ person seeking asylum doesn’t only face potential death if they’re forced to return to their native land. In the most egregious cases, they face death in their target country as well. We saw this with the case of Roxsana Hernández Rodriguez, 33, who traveled to America as part of a caravan fleeing Honduras, was undergoing the asylum process and then died while in an ICE detention center.
Outrage followed the revelation that an autopsy showed Rodriguez had suffered physical abuse and dehydration before her death.
“Trans people in my neighborhood are killed and chopped into pieces, then dumped inside potato bags,” Rodriguez had told Buzzfeed News a month before her death. “They kill trans people in Honduras. I’m scared of that.”
After officially requesting asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, Rodriguez was detained in a holding cell referred to as an “icebox” for their low temperatures. There it’s alleged she didn’t receive adequate food or medical care, locked in a cell where the lights were never turned off.
A week later she was moved to a unit for trans detainees in New Mexico. The very next day she was admitted to a hospital — dehydrated, showing symptoms of pneumonia and suffering from HIV complications — then transferred to another medical center’s intensive care unit before dying on May 25, 16 days after making the trek to America. According to ICE, her preliminary cause of death was a heart attack.
“She journeyed thousands of miles fleeing persecution and torture at home only to be met with neglect and torture in this country’s for-profit human cages,” says Andrew Free, an attorney representing her family.
The tragic tale of Roxsana Hernández Rodriguez is of course only one in a lexicon of real-life horror stories faced by LGBTQ people seeking asylum. The process is lengthy, arduous and oftentimes downright dangerous, but despite it being a gamble, for many queer people it’s their only chance at survival.
These are only some of the ways asylum is an even more difficult prospect for LGBTQ people.
This story was originally published on December 11, 2018.