Labour MP Mary Creagh writes for PinkNews about her experiences of meeting LGBT refugees in Syria – and calls for action to help.
Over the last few months we have seen shocking images and stories of the refugee crisis on our TVs. But so far, limited attention has been paid to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) refugees, who are especially vulnerable and face particular challenges.
In September I visited refugee settlements in Lebanon, which has taken in more than 1 million Syrian refugees.
Article 534 of the Lebanese criminal code prohibits sexual relations “contradicting the laws of nature“ and is used to prosecute LGBTI people. The offence is punishable by one year in prison, and LGBTI refugees live in constant fear of being arrested. In detention, LGBTI refugees and Lebanese alike have been subjected to physical violence by both detainees and guards.
On my visit to Lebanon, UN officials raised the issue of LGBTI people with me, particularly those who are transitioning between genders. Without access to medication they are trapped between genders, and officials are concerned about their vulnerability to sexual violence and to have to resort to prostitution as their only way to survive.
Many LGBTI people do not have legal documentation. Transgender refugees face particular problems at checkpoints, as their physical appearance may not match their ID picture. They are then accused of stealing the documents.
In Lebanon LGBTI refugees have experienced problems trying to access the job market, facing a double discrimination because of their nationality/status as refugees and sexuality. Due to their desperate socio-economic situation, some LGBTI refugees have been forced into selling sex. Some work in “hamams” where they are badly treated by the owners and clients, often subjected to insults and beatings.
LGBTI people have also reported facing discrimination in accessing health services. Those living with HIV have been confronted by particular difficulties. This is compounded by the financial problems experienced by many LGBTI refugees, which means that they are unable to cover the costs of healthcare.
LGBTI refugees have experienced stigmatisation by their own family and the Syrian refugee community, as well as discrimination from the Lebanese community, including LGBTI Lebanese.
Many LGBTI people fleeing Syria will already have faced discrimination and persecution at home.
The Government of Bashar al-Assad has persecuted LGBTI people for many years. Police have been targeting gatherings of men, seeking out evidence of their sexuality by looking through pictures on their phones.
If suspected, police will then inform their families, who often show little sympathy, when they were not actually the ones denouncing family members that they considered as ‘deviant’.
Syrian refugees have reported being subjected to emotional, physical and sexual abuse from their families at home, due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Some have experienced violence at the hands of ISIS/Daesh, with reports of people being thrown off buildings and being subjected to public humiliation, including having to take their clothes off in the street.
The UK Government’s response has not matched up to the scale of the refugee crisis. David Cameron’s 5-year timescale for accepting 20,000 migrants is too long for desperate people to wait. We have a moral duty to act, but so far the Government has failed to show leadership.
Countries like the UK should be doing more to assist LGBTI refugees in particular. In this country we pride ourselves on the progress we have made on sexual equality. We should be reaching out to assist those being persecuted for their sexuality or gender orientation abroad.
The UK should accept a number of these particularly vulnerable refugees. I know they would be welcomed and supported by the UK LGBTI community, and by the wider community.