How can humanitarian actors protect LGBT refugees?

By Morgan Meaker 09 August 2016

LGBTI rights activist Javid Nabiyev fled Azerbaijan to escape the threat of prison, but he found little relief from discrimination in Germany. Photo by: Morgan Meaker

Javid Nabiyev sits down outside the empty cafe before announcing he doesn’t want anything to eat or drink. Instead, he smokes. It gives him something to do with his hands. Between finishing one cigarette and lighting another, his palms are reflected in his glasses as he acts out the frustrations he’s faced as a gay asylum-seeker in Germany.

The 26-year-old LGBTI rights activist fled Azerbaijan to escape discrimination and the threat of prison, which he felt was creeping ever closer.

“When I came to Germany, I thought everything would be OK,” he said. Instead, he found the discrimination he faced at home echoed in an accommodation center in Oerlinghausen, a city west of Berlin.

It was the little details that made him stand out — his earring; the way he talked. Every day, he suffered verbal abuse by other asylum-seekers. He stayed for a month before moving to another center. Yet Nabiyev feels lucky his treatment wasn’t worse. He reeled off stories — friends humiliated, attacked, forced to flee to other EU countries, with many more afraid to speak out. He started the LGBTI rights organization Queer Refugees for Pride “to show society the problems we have,” he told Devex.

Germany’s humanitarian actors are facing yet another question: How can they protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex asylum-seekers from the abuse endemic in accommodation centers across the country?

Most new arrivals rely on accommodation centers while they wait for their asylum claims to be processed. But the number of first time asylum applicants from outside the EU more than doubled in Germany between 2014 and 2015, stretching resources and creating a gulf between centers’ standards on paper and in practice.

Johanniter, the charity that runs the Oerlinghausen center where Nabiyev stayed, is a good example. Coordinator for refugee assistance Anne Ernst says staff are “sensitized on the rights and needs of vulnerable people including LGBT people.”

But from personal experience, Nabiyev said staff attitudes are one of the system’s major failings.

“Social workers [in the centers] are not well educated to work with LGBT refugees,” he says. When he suffered bullying in Oerlinghausen, he approached Johanniter staff for help. Several told him to keep his sexuality secret, so he started lying and pretending he was straight.

“It was really … terrible,” he said of the experience.

While LGBTI discrimination in accommodation centers continues, the country’s humanitarian community are still searching for effective solutions.

Much of Salma Arzouni’s work as project coordinator at Gladt — an organization that supports LGBTQI migrants and people of color — focuses on the difficult situation for transgender asylum-seekers in Germany’s accommodation centers.

“The camps violate numerous human rights,” Arzouni said. “There is no privacy, rooms cannot be locked, there is no protection from violence and there are no trans friendly shower rooms. We had a case where a transwoman refugee was forced to shower with the men, since she was not accepted as a woman by staff.”

In response, Gladt is planning workshops to advise asylum-seekers on how to navigate the German housing market, enabling their clients to find their own room or apartment and escape accommodation centers all together. The courses will start in September.

Gladt’s solution is similar to the approach of larger charities. Diakonie, for example, also advises refugees on how to find an affordable apartment.

“Diakonie promotes above all the idea that refugees should not have to live in communal facilities,” said Sebastian Ludwig, who works on the protestant charities refugee and asylum policy.

“At the end of the day, a camp is not a safe place to live in dignity for anyone, whether they are LGBT or not,” Gladt’s Arzouni told Devex. “Our suggestion is to work on a bigger plan to empty camps, and to start having infrastructure of normal apartments and flats. Being a refugee shouldn't take away your right to live in a normal house.”

Syrian refugee Mahmoud Hassino echoes the sentiment that the whole setup is flawed.

“I think the best thing would be to revise laws, putting people in tiny spaces is going to create conflicts,” he said. He remembers the three months he spent living in a camp in Berlin in 2014; the three-hour queues for the toilet and the way people would wake up at 5 a.m. just to take a shower.

Hassino left Syria because he’s gay, not because of conflict. He believes the system is catered almost exclusively to those fleeing war, leaving gaps in care for people escaping oppression.

“The system is outdated,” he says. “There needs to be greater sensitivity towards the LGBT community.”

Like Nabiyev, Hassino also faced threats and discrimination from other asylum seekers while he was staying in a center, and he was repeatedly asked to work with translators who were homophobic, he said.

He is now a social worker at Schwulenberatung Berlin, one of the two organizations in Germany that have set up separate accommodation centers for LGBTI asylum-seekers. SB Berlin’s center is the largest of the two, home to 107 people. The other — run by Fliederlich and based in Nuremberg — houses just 10.

In July 2015, SB Berlin opened a day center for LGBTI asylum-seekers. But with so many of its guests looking for emergency shelter, in February the project evolved into accommodation. “[LGBTI-only accommodation] is a real necessity in the current situation,” said Stephan Jäckel, center manager. “The best way, of course, would be to have enough cheap and private flats in Berlin. But there aren´t. So it really is a necessity.”

LGBTI-only accommodation centers, though, divide opinion.

“LGBT camps are important for urgent situations,” Nabiyev said. “But in a way, I am against them. Instead of telling other refugees you must respect LGBTI people, you take the LGBTI people away.”

Nabiyev, who is still waiting for his asylum claim to be processed, wants LGBTI refugees to be integrated, not separated. Instead, he is calling for more work to be done within the existing centers: better staff training and education programs for homophobic asylum-seekers.

“Local NGOs should work with all refugees, not just LGBTI refugees,” he said. “They should go to the camps with information materials in different languages.”

With a lack of alternative housing and only limited space in LGBTI-only centers, asylum-seekers suffering abuse have few options.

While many humanitarian actors agree that accommodation centers don’t have a place in long-term solutions, reinventing the system — so that sexual minorities are protected as standard — remains a daunting task.

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About the author

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Morgan Meaker

Morgan Meaker is a London-based freelance journalist. She writes for Reuters, the Guardian and the BBC among others. She covers human rights, development and sustainable business at home and abroad.


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