What happens when you are a bisexual refugee

This is Aisha’s story: she ran away from Syria and took refuge in Turkey first, then in Greece. Here she explains the issues LGBT people face when they apply for political asylum.

I meet Aisha in a café in the Exarchia neighbourhood of Athens. As she orders a glass of wine, it becomes clear that she definitely doesn’t fit the Syrian woman stereotype: she wears no veil, chain-smokes her cigarettes and could not care less about gender differences. She is 25 and has been living away from home for a year now.

“About a year ago, I escaped to Turkey; my parents still think I’m there” says Aisha. She comes from a peculiar family environment.

“I come from Latakia, where Bashar al-Assad was born. I’m in a very dangerous situation; therefore I won’t reveal my surname for safety reasons. My family is part of the same sect as Bashar, the Alawites religious minority. They don’t know I’m an opponent; they support the regime because they think Assad is the only man who can defend them against Sunnite fundamentalists. They are scared.”

Once in Turkey, she thought she could find a job without necessarily moving to Europe. However, integration was a difficult process right from the start: she experienced linguistic issues and the Turks weren’t exactly welcoming.

“I tried working for the Arabs, but to no avail: I was too open minded and liberal for them, since I didn’t wear the veil” explains the young Syrian lady. “And even when I was offered a job, I got paid less and this was unacceptable for me.”

So she found a passage to the Greek island of Chios (at a very high price) and left Anatolia. She lived in a refugee camp for four months, but after that period, cohabitation with thousands of Arabs became impossible for her.

The reason is her sexual orientation: Aisha is bisexual. For her, living in a refugee camp where the majority of people didn’t accept her orientation had become a burden so heavy she decided to run away again: she took a ferry boat to Athens, without carrying any papers.

“You see how fair-skinned I am?”, says Aisha. “The police didn’t even stop me. I just bought a ticket and off I was.”

Aisha included her sexual orientation in the reasons for her political asylum application. The whole LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and intersexual) issue is complicated and people who belong to this community are not always granted international protection.

How does the international protection system work for LGBTI refugees?

The 1951 UN Refugee Convention does not explicitly state sexual orientation amongst the reasons for applying for political asylum. People are normally granted international protection if they are persecuted because of their race, religion, citizenship, for belonging to a certain social group or for their political views.

Sexual orientation is considered either as “belonging to a certain social group” or as a “political view”. However, LGBTI people asking for protection do not have a solid reference framework, legally speaking. Thousands of people flee their country of origin for fear of being persecuted by the authorities or the community they belong to.

According to a study carried out by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (Ilga), the level of application of discriminatory laws to LGBTI people is radically different from one nation to the other, sometimes even from one region to another of the same state. Sexual acts between same sex people are considered illegal in 75 nations in the world.

In one report published at the end of 2015, the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) underlines that the protection of LGBTI people is even harder due to legal, cultural and social discrimination. On top of that, while only some geographical regions have laws that openly punish LGBTI identity, expression and associations (mostly located in Africa, Pacific Asia and the Middle East), social exclusion and other forms of violence are present in all five continents.

In order to implement an effective protection system it is not enough to create an international legal framework. We need safe spaces where LGBTI people can feel free to declare their sexual orientation without fear of retaliation. It is also essential to train staff on how to tackle these situations.

In another report from 2010, the UNHCR states that LGBTI people often lack access to information on how and where to apply for political asylum. Asylum applicants who belong to the LGBTI community often find it impossible to explain their situation to authorities, since the latter are not adequately informed on LGBTI issues.

On top of this, LGBTI refugees are often abused by other asylum seekers and state officers during the application process, as reported by the UNHCR and other NGOs.

A homosexual person can of course omit to declare their sexual orientation. However, if they don’t, they also risk being refused the international protection they are asking for.

Due to this vicious circle, the application process becomes intimidating and less accessible for LGBTI people, exposing them to yet another risk: that of invisibility.

Bisexual people applying for asylum

The LGBTI umbrella encompasses several sexual orientations that are not treated equally by the law. According to the UNHCR, asylum applications by bisexual people have an extremely low acceptance rate and are largely invisible in international law.

When a bisexual person identifies as such, judicial authorities tend to treat their application from either a straight or a gay perspective. In some instances, judges who didn’t consider bisexuality as a valid sexual orientation have decided that bisexuals could go back to their country of origin without risking any kind of persecution.

A study by the York University of Toronto that analyzes the success rate of asylum applications of bisexuals for three hosting countries (Canada, Unites States and Australia) has highlighted that this rate is dramatically lower compared to that of other minorities.

There are two reasons for this: the first is invisibility, that is, the lack of acknowledgement of this sexual orientation or the negative idea some judges have of it; the second is related to the lack of willingness to grant the refugee status to sexual minorities that differ from the traditional perception of homosexuality.

Squats in Athens and a support group for bisexual people

“I did say I was bisexual, but received no support whatsoever”, says Aisha, with a certain annoyance in her voice. “I don’t feel protected by the authorities, not at all.”

Once in Athens, she didn’t want to live in buildings occupied by migrants. There are 10 such buildings in the city that host more than 2.500 people. However, only one of them has areas dedicated to LGBTI asylum seekers. It’s called Notara26, an anarchical centre in the Exarchia neighbourhood.

But Aisha didn’t want to repeat the experience she had had in Chios, so she took shelter at some friends’ place.

“I do go to social centres, but only as a volunteer”, says the young Syrian lady. “I offer help with translations and in managing the infirmary, since I have a university degree in pharmacy.”

“I go to their meetings on Thursdays; it helps me not to feel alone and I get encouraged to fight for our cause”, says Aisha, who has found a Greek support group for bisexuals.

“I’m fighting for the freedom to be who I am, so I’ll fight for LGBTI rights. To me, it’s important not only because I belong to the community, but also because in some countries these groups have no rights at all. This is unacceptable. That’s why I’ll tell everybody that I’m bisexual and that I deserve respect, from Arabs and non Arabs alike.”

We leave the café and parta at the bus stop. Aisha walks alone with her head high, an Arab bisexual woman who is not afraid of oppression and fights to put an end to it.

Original article (in Italian) “Che cosa succede se sei una rifugiata bisessuale” by Federico Annibale

English translation by Francesca Bellan