In Iran, there is a three to four day gap between when an individual is reported to the police for being homosexual, and when the police arrive to arrest that individual. Most flee before the police arrive, making such preparations as they can and becoming refugees. Iranians don’t need visas to enter Turkey, so that is a common destination. Most refugees flee over the mountains, a grueling trek.
Once in Turkey, it is extremely difficult for refugees to get work or healthcare, and they are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. The current international refugee system provides for the following. Signatories to the United Nations Convention on Refugees are required not to return people to persecution. Also, a “first country” system attempts to relocate people elsewhere and permanently.
Problems with the current refugee regime are very basic. For example, there are not spaces on UNHRC forms in which lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, intersex, and queer (LGBTIQ) people might express themselves as regards gender identity, marital status, sexual orientation, and so on. This points to a need to educate refugee organizations regarding the reality of LGBTIQ refugees and their particular needs. These are examples of the contexts in which the Organization for Refuge, Asylum, and Migration (ORAM) has begun its work. The organization was founded in the summer of 2008 and currently consists of a staff of two and a half paid positions. It exists to aid LGBTIQ individuals fleeing sexual orientation or gender identity persecution in a variety of countries in the Middle East.
There are three levels to ORAM’s work: direct representation of LGBTIQ refugees seeking asylum; community education, including both of governments and of Non-Government Organizations; and direct advocacy for LGBTIQ refugees. Neil Grungras, ORAM founder and Executive Director, has an extensive background in these issues, including experience working for the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) and for the U. S. Department of State in Tel Aviv, Israel; Vienna, Austria; New York City; Istanbul, Turkey; and in Lebanon. Grungras told the World that he helped found ORAM “because the international refugee system as it currently exists has trouble even seeing LGBTIQ refugees, let alone effectively addressing their needs.” He added that ORAM’s work is focused on addressing gaps in the system as it exists. One program provides representation remotely, from the U.S. to Turkey, at the United Nations Commission on Refugees, with the goal of resettling refugees in third countries such as the U.S. and Canada. Ideally, ORAM would like not to do this kind of work directly, but would prefer instead to build coalitions among people and organizations. ORAM seeks to find willing partners within already existing formations, and educate them.
ORAM believes that such a strategy is also cost-effective. ORAM would eventually like to get both refugee and LGBTIQ organizations to include LGBTIQ refugee issues in their programs and procedures. ORAM has mostly been working with Iranian refugees so far, and also with Palestinian, Afghani, and Iraqi refugees in Turkey. Most LGBTIQ refugees from the Middle East are not going to Europe but to Turkey. ORAM has co-published a report, available on ORAM’s website, along with the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly and the Turkish-based Turkey Refugee Advocacy and Support Program, on the condition of LGBTIQ refugees in Turkey.
ORAM has been hindered in its efforts by the delicate political situation in Israel and Palestine. The group has found it difficult to keep Israel from deporting Palestinian LGBTIQ refugees back to the Palestine, where they are commonly persecuted. These refugees are also extremely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation in Israel. However, according to Grungras, Israeli courts are relatively reasonable once a case is made for a refugee’s asylum claim.
ORAM also seeks to get governments to approve increasing numbers of LGBTIQ refugees. That includes the need to create and nurture receptive host communities here in the United States. Grungras observed that often, Muslim communities are the least receptive and most hostile to LGBTIQ refugees. Ideal host communities should be active both to receive and to advocate for LGBTIQ refugees. Even getting the government to commit to taking a relatively small number of LGBTIQ refugees a year would be a great start, says Grungras. ORAM believes that there is an eight-year window of opportunity to move an LGBTIQ refugee agenda forward. Along those lines, ORAM would like to insert into public consciousness the needs of LGBTIQ refugees, regardless of anyone’s morality regarding LGBTIQ people or lifestyles.
ORAM would also like to see changes in the international climate, to decrease tolerance for or ignoring of persecution and torture of LGBTIQ individuals. ORAM is also interested in publishing academic articles on international LGBTIQ refugee situations, in media work, and in government work towards its goals. For more information, visit ORAM online at http://www.oraminternational.org