Last month, Uganda signed one of the world’s toughest anti-LGBTQI+ laws, calling for the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality”. It also includes prison sentences of up to 14 years for “attempted aggravated homosexuality” and 20 years for the “recruitment, promotion, and funding” of homosexuality. And Uganda is not the only country to introduce such harsh laws. 

Worldwide, countries have adopted laws that discriminate against LGBTQI+ people. Over 70 countries criminalize same-sex relations, at least seven of which punish same-sex relations with the death penalty. In those societies, LGBTQI+ people face discrimination, threats, persecution, and violence by family, community, and authorities, often leaving them with no choice but to flee and seek asylum elsewhere. 

In recent decades, the number of displaced LGBTQI+ people around the world has risen. Among the 108.4 million refugees, internally-displaced people and asylum-seekers, LGBTQI+ people are particularly vulnerable to violence, abuse and exploitation. 

June 20th marks World Refugee Day, a day for all of us to celebrate the strength and courage of people who have been forced to flee their home country to escape conflict or persecution. This year’s theme focuses on the power of inclusion – something many LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum-seekers struggle to find. 

Reflecting on the unique challenges they face is even more relevant today as the Canadian government has recently stepped up to support LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum-seekers. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the historic announcement that Canada will be partnering with the organization Rainbow Railroad to identify and refer at-risk LGBTQI+ refugees through the Government-Assisted Refugees Program. This partnership is the first LGBTQI+-specific refugee program involving direct referrals with any government worldwide. 

To learn more about the particular challenges of LGBTQI+ refugees, we spoke with Adebayo Chris from RARICANow – an organization and member of our Equal Futures Network stepping up to support 2SLGBTQI+ refugees and newcomers in Canada. 

Legal Limbo

Claiming asylum on the basis of LGBTQI+ status can be a disheartening process. LGBTQI+ asylum-seekers have to wait years for decisions from officials, with many also facing insensitive and inappropriate questioning to prove their sexual orientation and gender identity. 

Adebayo shared his own story as a refugee claimant from Uganda in Canada. “I had to prove to the judge that I was Trans enough for them to give me safety. The process is retraumatizing.”  For those who had to hide their sexual orientation or gender identity in their home countries to survive, this process is especially difficult. 

Additionally, LGBTQI+ asylum-seekers may need to provide witness statements corroborating their sexual orientation or gender identity, potentially endangering family members, previous partners and themselves. The paperwork involved is a challenge on its own and organizations like RARICANow assist with the refugee claim and support applicants in preparing for their court hearing, including by helping them obtain important documents. 

Language barriers pose additional challenges. In one instance, Adebayo described the case of a Black trans woman from Uganda applying for refugee status in Canada. Because they could not speak English, they brought an interpreter. “That interpreter was homophobic and transphobic so, in court, instead of interpreting what the client was saying, the interpreter was saying different things,” Adebayo explained.“They ended up not giving refugee status to the client because of this. They had to appeal again. We’re talking about individuals who are desperate, traumatized and need safety. Even more so for Black trans individuals. It was hard because they gave them a deportation order and we had to campaign for them to stop their deportation back to Uganda.” 

Even after going through this entire process, the number of successful claims on the basis of LGBTQI+ status is very limited, which can have dramatic consequences including asylum-seekers being forced to return to their home countries. 

Abuse and Exploitation

LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum-seekers continue to face significant threats to their personal safety while in transit as well as in their host countries. In refugee camps, shelters, immigration centers and other facilities provided by governments and aid agencies, they are exposed to increased risks of abuse, sexual harassment and gender-based violence committed by fellow asylum-seekers, host community members and even aid workers. This is why it is essential to provide access to safe, adequate housing at all stages of the resettlement process. 

In our discussion, Abedayo used the example of the dilemma faced by LGBTQI+ community members in Uganda. Some try to escape the brutality in Uganda but end up in the Kakuma camp where they are still not safe and lack protection. “We have so many cases of our friends, because we work with them, who have been attacked constantly. These are violations of human rights. When they run away from Uganda to go to a refugee camp where they face the same issues, it becomes a barrier.”  

Even after being granted asylum, LGBTQI+ refugees are not always safe. They might continue to face discrimination in their host countries as well. For some, concealing their sexual orientation or gender identity is necessary for fear of continued marginalization. 

They are also not immune to other forms of discrimination, such as based on nationality, religion, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, disability and age. “Racism and racial injustices also play a huge part.,” said Adebayo.“They come to Canada, see Canada as a safe haven, and they’re not prepared for the racial injustices, for the discrimination. They’re not prepared for the homophobia and the hate they’re going to face. When they come here and face these challenges, some of them lose hope. Even within the 2SLBGTQI+ community, there are those who oppress QTBIPOC [queer, trans, Black, Indigenous, People of Colour] folks.” 

A Barrage of Barriers

LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum-seekers face serious barriers, including a lack of access to employment, education, safe housing, and inclusive and affirming healthcare. 

While they may require specific medical care, including mental health and psychosocial support, access to LGBTQI+-sensitive health care is particularly challenging for refugees. Because of the abuse, social isolation, homophobia and transphobia they have experienced, they might struggle to find trusted healthcare providers. 

Transgender asylum-seekers in particular are increasingly vulnerable as they may require hormone or other gender-affirming care. When asked about access to sexual and reproductive health services, Adebayo said that while there is a need to have conversations on topics such as sexually transmitted infections and safe sex, “someone who is struggling to have food on their table is not going to think about having these conversations about sexual health. It is hard to have these conversations when you’re just trying to survive.” 

The Power of Community

When we asked Adebayo about RARICANow’s approach to supporting LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum-seekers, he emphasized the power of community-building: “We are a community, we all come together. They share, contribute, and talk about their needs as a community. It can be very helpful to refugees to remind them that they are not alone and that they have a chosen family and place.”

For Adebayo, the hard work ahead is deeply interwoven with hope and joy. “Joy is me, it’s my entire existence, and I see it in my community. Despite all these challenges of being attacked and bullied, my refugee community shows up, they stand up, take up space, they know who they are, and live their life authentically. That’s what gives me hope. And it is so contagious. As LGBTQI+ refugees, we have lost so much, we have been discriminated against but we are joyous. Nothing threatens how happy we are.”

Check out the Equal Futures Network Map for other organizations who are working to support refugees and asylum-seekers as well as those who are working directly with the 2SLGBTQI+ community both here in Canada and around the world.  

On the Map: Organizations engaged in efforts that advance the expression, wellbeing and safety of the 2SLGBTQ+ community
One year later: Reflections following the overturn of Roe v. Wade

The Equal Futures Network acknowledges that Indigenous people are the traditional guardians of Turtle Island, on the land also known as Canada

Read our full Territory Acknowledgment here.