Urban Challenges for Sexual and Gender Minority Refugees

Media coverage of conflicts and forced migration has created a stereotypical depiction of a "refugee" – a grief-stricken woman, holding a sickly child next to a tent. While we are all familiar with this image, it does not characterize most refugees.

Only about one-third of refugees live in refugee camps, according to UNHCR [1]. Like most of us, most refugees live in urban environments. The lure of the city - the search for a better future that is the basis of rural to urban migration - is not confined by legal status or citizenship. Because of their size, cities offer a variety of resources which refugees can potentially benefit from, including more informal economic opportunities. Cities also provide refugees with a sense of needed anonymity even as they provide emotional and financial support networks. Importantly, cities often host high concentrations of a given country's sexual and gender minorities.

However, cities can also be dangerous. Refugees often experience hostility from locals who perceive them as competition for scarce work with access to preferential treatment from humanitarian and governmental agencies. Many refugees suffer ongoing exploitation because they lack legal status. Those who do not live on the streets often reside in squalid dwellings.

Like many others, sexually and gender nonconforming (SGN)[2] refugees often prefer urban environments, no matter how dire. Yet SGN refugees are particularly exposed to the hazards of the city as they are twice marginalized - vulnerable to discrimination and violence because they are foreign, yet often shunned by their own communities due to their sexual and/or gender identity. In 2013, ORAM - the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration, published a ground-breaking five-part report entitled Blind Alleys describing some of the challenges SGN refugees face in urban settings.

Following the extensive field research with SGN refugees and protection specialists in Mexican, South African and Ugandan cities, ORAM found a complex web of protection gaps and discriminatory practices. SGN refugees in South Africa experience poor living conditions and, due to high levels of violence and discrimination, their circumstances are often no better than in their countries of origin. In Mexico, SGN refugees are often harassed by non-state actors even as they are allotted progressive rights under Mexican law, particularly in Mexico City. In Uganda, refugees are ostensibly protected under the Uganda Refugees Act, but are not eligible for practical assistance in urban centers. This creates an impossible environment for SGN refugees when compounded with the country’s criminalization of same-sex acts and its general hostility toward SGN people.

In its Blind Alleys report, ORAM issues the following recommendations to narrow the protection gaps afflicting urban SGN refugees:

  • Increase cross-sectional human rights work in legal aid, sexual and gender-based violence and refugee support.
  • Form support groups and information networks for SGN refugees. (These initiatives should ideally come from local authorities and NGOs.)
  • Increase sensitization towards SNG asylum seekers and refugees in adjudication and status determination by UNHCR and governments.
  • Mainstream adjudication of SOGI-based asylum claims by UNHCR and governments.
  • Expedite resettlement of particularly vulnerable SGN refugees.

For more information about ORAM and SGN refugees, please visit: www.oraminternational.org

[1]UNHCR, Urban Refugees - Trying to Get By in the City. [2] This acronym is used in place of "LGBTI" (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex) to emphasize that these refugees face persecution based on their perceived "otherness;" not because they exhibit uniform characteristics. The term is also used to better represent individuals who may not identify as "LGBTI," an acronym constructed and used largely in the West.

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