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Europe is telling gay asylum seekers they are not gay enough

…The legitimacy of asylum claims is adjudicated with outdated and often inscrutable policies.

gay asylum seekers are not gay enough

HUNGARY SERBIA REFUGEE CAMP

At the end of 2016 in Istanbul, 26-year-old Sercan Özmeral’s parents tried to force him to marry. It was at this moment that Özmeral, who is gay, realized he would have to come out. His parents did not take it well.

“They responded in a very aggressive way, and my father and uncles threatened to kill me,” he said.

Turkey, where Özmeral is from, has become less and less friendly to the LGBTQ community, especially in the last few years. He considers the Kurdish community, of which he is a part, even less tolerant.

“About ten years ago, a friend of mine was killed by his father after coming out,” he said, referencing the case of Ahmet Yildiz, a young Kurdish man whose 2008 murder in Istanbul is sometimes referred to as the country’s first gay honor killing.

Soon after, Özmeral fled to the Netherlands, a country famous for its LGBTQ acceptance, and one he had visited before.

But what he found when he arrived was not what he expected. In fact, his arrival marked the beginning of a drawn-out process in which officials from the Dutch Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND) asked him probing questions about his life as a gay man. After months of waiting, he was denied asylum on the grounds that the IND did not believe he was gay.

Özmeral’s case is but one example of a daunting problem in the Netherlands, where hundreds of people apply for asylum each year on the grounds that they’re persecuted for their LGBTQ status. But immigration attorneys and advocacy groups question the way the IND determines if an applicant’s claim is credible.

At the time Özmeral applied, his case hinged upon his ability to convincingly recount a story of becoming “self-aware” and “accepting” of his sexual orientation, effectively forcing him and other applicants to conform to a Western template of a coming-out narrative. But “coming out,” as it is commonly understood in Europe and North America, is a highly distinct cultural conception that doesn’t map neatly onto a variety of queer experiences.

“Other countries don’t have the same phenomenon to reflect on themselves like this,” said Brian Lit, a Dutch immigration attorney. “It’s not normal for someone, say in Western Africa. I’m missing that realization from the IND.”

Last summer, after a public outcry, the IND updated its guidelines, and said it would stop this line of questioning and replace it with a search for an “authentic story” from applicants that would prove their claim. But immigration attorneys say that little has changed in practice, and the revised guidelines are vague.

“[The IND’s] focus is no longer on these processes by name, but they still want to hear a story about a process of awareness and self-acceptance,” said Eric Hagenaars, an immigration attorney who has represented hundreds of gay asylum seekers in the Netherlands.

Philip, an LGBTQ asylum seeker from Uganda whose name has been changed for his safety, underwent the process this past March of last year. Even though he did the interview after the IND issued the revised guidelines, the questions the officer asked Philip followed the old approach.

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“They exactly ask you about awareness and acceptance of your sexual orientation,” Philip said. These were hard questions for him to answer. “In my culture, you cannot just talk about your love life like that.”

Two appeals later, the IND now recognizes that Özmeral is gay. This past summer, though, the authorities ruled that living in Turkey does not pose a threat serious enough to give him asylum. Özmeral then filed yet another appeal with the help of a new attorney.

In late November of 2019, Özmeral and his lawyer were shocked when the Dutch government informed them that it had thrown out his most recent denial, saying, without explanation, that it would issue a new ruling. On January 2, the IND ruled in Özmeral’s favor, saying that it now believed that living in Turkey would pose a serious threat to Özmeral.

The ruling ended a years-long process filled with misdirection and seeming caprice. Since arriving in the Netherlands, Özmeral has spent most of his time in a refugee camp. He did, however, spend a month in a Rotterdam prison because he passed the IND’s window to apply for asylum—by nine days.

The uncertainty weighed on him. Last fall, before the positive decision from the Dutch government, Özmeral described the hardship of the process: “I feel so bad. I am a helpless person, and unfortunately, the Netherlands is leaving me to die instead of helping me.” Now, with his Dutch residency in hand, his outlook is much more positive.

“I still can’t believe this decision because I’ve been waiting so long, almost three years. I am very happy now, and I feel safe,” Özmeral said just hours after the IND issued its decision.

In a statement, an IND spokesperson did not respond directly to questions about its asylum practices.

Processing asylum applications for people in the LGBTQ community has been a struggle in Europe for many years, even before the refugee crisis.

This challenge has led to many unfortunate cases over the last few years, including one in the Hague in 2017, where an Iraqi refugee was denied asylum and told by the judge he was “not gay enough.” Similar cases have taken place in Austria, where immigration officials once denied an applicant on the grounds that “neither your walk, your behavior, nor your clothing indicate even in the slightest that you could be homosexual.”

European law on the subject has long been complicated. According to Sabine Jansen, a Dutch lawyer from the non-profit COC Nederland who studies LGBTQ asylum policy and practice, prior 2011, many European countries simply advised LGBTQ asylum seekers from countries where homosexuality is criminalized to conceal their sexual identity.

It was that year that Jansen gathered experts from 25 countries and produced a report called Fleeing Homophobia. In the period that followed, the Dutch Council of State referred two sets of questions to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), asking about how to deal with gay asylum seekers—questions meant to highlight the injustice and unfeasibility of requesting gay asylum seekers to simply “tone it down” back home. In response, the CJEU issued two judgments that defined Europe’s modern LGBTQ asylum policy: XYZ versus the Netherlands, on criminalization of same-sex sexual orientation and ‘discretion’ in expressing sexual orientation or gender identity (2013) and one year later ABC versus the Netherlands, on credibility of sexual orientation (2014).

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Still, Europe has a patchwork of unharmonized policies for determining the legitimacy of a person’s claim.

In the intervening years, and as LGBTQ asylum seekers arrived in Europe in larger numbers, at least two European Union countries used arousal tests to determine if an applicant’s case was legitimate. These tests were outlawed in 2014. In January of 2018, the European Court of Justice—which is under the umbrella of the CJEU—banned Rorschach tests for asylum seekers after a Nigerian man sued the Hungarian Immigration Office.

Jansen thinks that in the past 10 years, policy has shifted from “discretion” to “disbelief,” that is, the old policy of telling gay applicants to go home and simply be discreet has been supplanted by a tendency to simply not believe applicants. Jansen doesn’t think IND agents are all homophobic. She says the problem comes from the guidelines, which are full of stereotypes.

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“The most common stereotype is to believe that these people are ashamed about themselves,” she says.

It is difficult to pin down an exact source for the IND’s approach to handling LGBTQ asylum cases. But a 2004 article written by Canadian researcher Nicole LaViolette seems to have inspired current IND practice. Asylum researcher Sabine Jansen’s “Pride or Shame” argues that the IND’s interpretation of LaViolette’s work lacks nuance, and should not be grounds for policy.

When the IND issued revised guidelines on how applicants should be questioned, Dutch lawyers and advocates hoped that this would mean applicants who were denied before would be eligible to reapply. But the IND has rejected this.

“From the legal perspective, this is a change of policy, and so prior denials could be opened to a new review, but they denied this, saying it’s the same policy that they simply fine-tuned,” said Brian Lit, the immigration attorney.

This means that the hundreds of applicants currently appealing their denials are unable to simply reapply under the current guidelines.

Issa, who is from Iraq and whose name has been changed to protect his safety, is one of those applicants. He was denied in 2017 on the grounds that while the IND believed he is gay, they didn’t think life in Iraq posed any serious threats to him. Issa says he fears violence from his family if he returns home.

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Issa did the asylum interview in Arabic through a translator, which posed another problem: He didn’t feel comfortable discussing his homosexuality with a Muslim. “They asked me, are you on top or on bottom or something else? How can I explain this thing to a translator?” According to Issa, the translator struggled with the questions the IND posed and with Issa’s responses. “I felt the shame from the translator. He was looking at me and with his looks he was saying shame on you. Shame. I could feel it. I cried a lot after the interview.”

Issa is in a state of limbo. He has appealed again, but a long-term life in a refugee camp is taking a toll.

“To be honest with you, every day I spend in my room, and I do not know what is my fate. I think of suicide, but I do not have the courage to end this moment,” Issa said.

Sandro Kortekaas, the chairman of LGBT Asylum Support, an NGO that helps LGBTQ refugees in their asylum process in the Netherlands, says the revised guidelines that call for an authentic story do represent an improvement—that is, when IND officials stick to them.

But he wants to see a much bigger reform. “We want the IND to admit that it made a mistake with the old interview questions and give all the people who were rejected by it a second chance.”

For now, major reform seems unlikely. Attorney Brian Lit still prepares his clients to answer the old questions: “I still drill them on their process of awareness. If you convince them on a process of awareness that’s the easiest way, as no one knows what the ‘authentic story’ means.”

According to the COC, the IND rejects four in 10 applications for asylum on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity, 85 percent of which because the IND does not believe that the person is actually gay.

Eric Hagenaars, the asylum lawyer, said that the IND is rejecting more and more asylum claims, especially for gay people. He attributes this to the current center-right government. He says that he now loses most of his cases but continues to represent LBGTQ asylum seekers.

(Culled from thenation.com)

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Netherlands, IOM launch Global Migration Initiative to protect people on the move

COMPASS will provide vulnerable migrants including victims of trafficking and unaccompanied or separated children access to a broad range of protection and assistance services.

 The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands launched the Cooperation on Migration and Partnerships for Sustainable Solutions initiative (COMPASS) at the beginning of 2021. COMPASS is a global initiative, in partnership with 12 countries, designed to protect people on the move, combat human trafficking and smuggling, and support dignified return while promoting sustainable reintegration.

The initiative is centred on a whole-of-society approach which, in addition to assisting individuals, will work across all levels – households, communities, and the wider communities – and encompasses the following partner countries: Afghanistan, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, and Tunisia.

“We want to mobilize families, peers and communities to encourage informed and safe migration decisions, protect migrants, and help those returning home reintegrate successfully,” said Monica Goracci, Director of the Department of Migration Management at IOM.

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“One key component is also undermining the trafficking and smuggling business models through the promotion of safe alternatives and information sharing to reduce the risks of exploitation and abuse by these criminal networks.” Vulnerable migrants, including victims of trafficking and unaccompanied or separated children, will have access to a broad range of protection and assistance services such as mental health and psychosocial support, while migrants in transit who wish to return home will be supported with dignified return and reintegration.

Community level interventions will focus on improving community-led efforts to address trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants, and support sustainable reintegration of returning migrants. COMPASS will work with national and local governments to enable a conducive environment for migrant protection, migration management and international cooperation on these issues.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is pleased to launch the COMPASS programme in cooperation with IOM, an important and longstanding partner on migration cooperation,” said Marriët Schuurman, Director for Stability and Humanitarian Aid of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.

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“The programme is a part of the Dutch comprehensive approach to migration with activities that contribute to protection and decreasing irregular migration. Research and data gathering are also important components, and we hope that the insights that will be gained under COMPASS will contribute to broader knowledge sharing on migration and better-informed migration policies.”, added Schuurman. The initiative has a strong learning component, designed to increase knowledge and the uptake of lessons learned, both within the programme and beyond its parameters. COMPASS will actively contribute to global knowledge that supports countries in managing migration flows and protecting vulnerable migrants such as victims of trafficking. The implementation of COMPASS is set to start soon.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, as the donor to the COMPASS initiative, pledges its active support to partner countries to improve migration cooperation mechanisms within its long-term vision. 

IOM, the leading inter-governmental organization in the field of migration, contributes its expertise as the technical implementation partner to the initiative. IOM works closely with governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental partners in its dedication to promoting humane and orderly migration for the benefit of all. 

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A child, 40 others drown in shipwreck off Tunisia

Photo: Mediterranean Sea

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are deeply saddened by reports of a shipwreck off the coast of Sidi Mansour, in southeast Tunisia, yesterday evening. The bodies of 41 people, including at least one child, have so far been retrieved.

According to reports from local UNHCR and IOM teams, three survivors were rescued by the Tunisian National Coast Guard. The search effort was still underway on Friday. Based on initial information, all those who perished were from Sub-Saharan Africa.

This tragic loss of life underscores once again the need to enhance and expand State-led search and rescue operations across the Central Mediterranean, where some 290 people have lost their lives so far this year. Solidarity across the region and support to national authorities in their efforts to prevent loss of life and prosecute smugglers and traffickers should be a priority.

Prior to yesterday’s incident, 39 refugees and migrants had perished off the coast near the Tunisian city of Sfax in early March. So far this year, sea departures from Tunisia to Europe have more than tripled compared to the same period in 2020.

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UNHCR and IOM continue to monitor developments closely. They continue to stand ready to work with the national authorities to assist and support the survivors, and the family members of those lost.

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Ethiopian migrants return home from Yemen with IOM support in wake of tragic boat sinking

Yemen: Stranded Ethiopian migrants prepare to board an IOM-facilitated flight from Aden, Yemen, to fly home to Addis Ababa. Photo: IOM/Majed Mohammed 2021

One hundred and sixty Ethiopian migrants have returned home safely from Yemen today with the assistance of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), just one day after a perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden claimed the lives of dozens of people, including at least 16 children.

More than 32,000 migrants, predominantly from Ethiopia, remain stranded across Yemen in dire, often deadly, circumstances.

“The conditions of migrants stranded in Yemen has become so tragic that many feel they have no option but to rely on smugglers to return home,” said Jeffrey Labovitz, IOM’s Director for Operations and Emergencies.

At least 42 people returning from Yemen are believed to have died on Monday when their vessel sank off the coast of Djibouti. Last month, at least 20 people had also drowned on the same route according to survivors. IOM believes that, since May 2020, over 11,000 migrants have returned to the Horn of Africa on dangerous boat journeys, aided by unscrupulous smugglers.

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“Our Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) programme provides a lifeline for those stranded in a country now experiencing its seventh year of conflict and crisis. We call on all governments along the route to come together and support our efforts to allow migrants safe and dignified opportunities to travel home,” added Labovitz.

COVID-19 has had a major impact on global migration. The route from the Horn of Africa to Gulf countries has been particularly affected. Tens of thousands of migrants, hoping to work in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), now find themselves unable to complete their journeys, stranded across Djibouti, Somalia and Yemen.

While the pandemic has also caused the number of migrants arriving to Yemen to decrease from 138,000 in 2019 to just over 37,500 in 2020, the risks they face continue to rise. Many of these migrants are stranded in precarious situations, sleeping rough without shelter or access to services. Many others are in detention or being held by smugglers.

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“We cannot find jobs or food here; Yemen is a problem for us,” said Gamal, a 22-year-old migrant returning on the VHR flight. “I used to sleep in the street on cardboard. I could only eat because of the charity people would give me and sometimes we were given leftovers from restaurants. I never had much to eat.”

Since October 2020, in Aden alone, IOM has registered over 6,000 migrants who need support to safely return home. Today’s flight to Addis Ababa was the second transporting an initial group of 1,100 Ethiopians who have been approved for VHR to Ethiopia. Thousands of other undocumented migrants are waiting for their nationality to be verified and travel documents to be provided.

Prior to departure on the VHR flight, IOM carried out medical and protection screenings to ensure that returnees are fit to travel and are voluntarily consenting to return. Those with special needs are identified and receive specialized counselling and support.

In Ethiopia, IOM supports government-run COVID-19 quarantine facilities to accommodate the returnees on arrival and provides cash assistance, essential items and onward transportation to their homes. The Organization also supports family tracing for unaccompanied migrant children.

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Across the Horn of Africa and Yemen, IOM provides life-saving support to migrants through health care, food, water and other vital assistance.

Today’s flight was funded by the US State Department’s Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM). Post-arrival assistance in Addis Ababa is supported by EU Humanitarian Aid and PRM.

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