“At home, it’s all hide and seek”Protecting LGBTI refugees from homophobic attacks in Europe
Europe is supposed to be one of the safest places for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender/transsexual and intersexed (LGBTI) people to live. Nevertheless, LGBTI refugees still often suffer abuse. Could different housing options change their fates? Read More
Imagine you live in a country where you are surrounded by hatred: for whom you are, for how you live, and for what you believe in. Hatred and violence are so strong that you decide to leave for a better life. You set off to Europe. But then – after a tough and dangerous journey, after finally reaching your destination and even succeeding in getting asylum – you find yourself thrown in with the same hateful people as before.
This is the situation many LGBTI refugees face. They have fled sexual persecution in their homelands to find peace and safety in a European country. But they end up living in accommodations with other refugees from different cultures who share the same anti-homosexual and -transsexual stance they have tried to escape. Again they are faced with violence and abuse. It could be so easy to change this situation, and some initiatives have made it their mission.
“Sometimes, it makes me feel like I am back in Uganda all over again,” a 37 year-old Ugandan woman we’ll call Mary says. She fled her homeland where homosexual acts are punishable by law and homophobia is a constant, everywhere and all the time. Homosexuals are threatened, beaten, raped, kicked out of school, disowned by their families, arrested and murdered. Mary hoped a better life awaited her in England. And it did – except where she lives.
Like most refugees, Mary depends on state assistance to keep a roof over her head. She lives with other refugees from a wide range of cultural backgrounds in a housing facility. Many of her fellow residents take issue with sexual orientation just as her neighbours, colleagues and acquaintances in her homeland did. “In the UK, I feel free to express my sexuality. But I face the obstacles around my community and when I live with other people from cultures that do not accept LGBT people.”
It could be so much easier. No one is forcing Mary to interact with homophobic refugees in England. But finding a flat is not an easy task, and she has found it even more difficult to find work. It is a vicious cycle: without a well-paid job, she cannot afford a flat in London. And without a flat in London, she cannot even land an interview.
Mary is not alone, of course, nor is this only an issue for refugees in England. Homophobic attacks in official residential centres for refugees have occurred in other countries. Homosexuality is illegal in 75 countries around the world, and is a social taboo in many more. So it is really no surprise that attacks occur in centres where people from across the globe live together under one roof.
Most European societies are quite liberal and accepting when it comes to sexual lifestyles. While no society is free of prejudice, members of the LGBTI community generally find acceptance in Europe, as evidenced by drag queen and pop artist Conchita Wurst’s victory at the Eurovision Song Contest in 2014. These countries are now struggling with the fact that their integration efforts are coming up against a massive problem, and that refugees are being harmed in the very centres that are supposed to offer them sanctuary.
“It was not a problem as long as there was affordable housing in Berlin,” Stephan Jäkel from the Schwulenberatung Berlin counselling centre reports. But by the time the flow of refugees became a torrent in the summer of 2015, reports of violence had increased dramatically. Sebastian Rocca from Micro Rainbow International (MRI), a UK-based NGO that counsels about 300 LGBTI refugees a year, says that they regularly receive reports of abuse in housing facilities. Many refugees therefore try to hide their sexuality, while others end up on the street: “When refugees abandon the accommodations due to homophobia, this is usually treated as voluntary abandonment and they are denied access to further accommodation services. Many end up in homelessness.”
Experts largely agree that specialised shelters would be the safest option for the LGBTI community, but implementation is slow. Some housing facilities for LGBTI refugees were already set up though in Sweden, Holland and Germany, specifically Berlin just this year.
Germany: “Not the best solution, but the only one”
“This kind of housing is not really ideal for integration,” Stephan Jäkel, head of a housing facility in Berlin Treptow-Köpenick run by the Schwulenberatung Berlin says. “But it is essential right now and the only way to keep LGBTI refugees safe.” Ideally Schwulenberatung Berlin would like to create decentralized shared flats that would help LGBTI refugees integrate into society more easily. But in Germany, newly registered refugees are obligated to live for at least six months in a residential centre before they can look for a flat of their own. And given Berlin’s current housing market, this presents serious challenges as well.
The residential facilities in Treptow-Köpenick needed to integrate into the state refugee housing system to be able to assist refugees from the very beginning. Just getting to that point was a bureaucratic tour de force, and only ultimately possible thanks to a special provision. “While EU guidelines provide additional support for refugees who need special protection, there are no real rules that define who falls into this category,” Stephan explains. So the city of Berlin passed an ordinance that declared LGBTI refugees in need of protection, which then justified setting up a residential facility for them with a higher than average number of social workers.
The facility in Treptow-Köpenick opened its doors in February 2016 and is now an officially recognized “reception facility” with space to house 120 people in double rooms. LGBTI refugees can move in as soon as they have registered as refugees and stay there for the required six months and even longer. Most of the current residents are from Syria, Iran and Iraq, though some hail from the former Soviet republics in Eastern Europe and from Maghreb countries as well.
“The people who come to live here have often experienced violence, or at the very least had problems where they lived before. So we can see how tremendously relieved they are to be able to come to us,” Stephan explains. “Of course having people from such different cultures living together is not without its problems here either. But at least refugees are safe from homophobic and transphobic violence. And we can offer a lot more support than other residential facilities – from mental health counselling to assistance with the asylum process and information about migrant’s rights. We can help our residents achieve independence.” According to Stephan, in the best-case scenario, the residential facility is just a stop along the way to a self-fulfilled life. Some have already managed the transition, as “20 residents have found flats of their own.”
“We can see how tremendously relieved they are to be able to come to us.”
UK: Let’s start trying!
But let’s return to Mary in the UK. Right now, the London metropolis does not offer a single comparable housing facility. But if it works in Germany, why wouldn’t it work just as well in the UK?
That has become Micro Rainbow International’s rallying cry. MRI wants to start by helping those most at risk, the people threatened by homelessness because they are forced to flee state housing. The first hostel for LGBTI refugees is scheduled to open in London in 2017. “We realised that until LGBTI refugees lived in a safe environment, our work in supporting them to find jobs and integrate into society would have been extremely challenging,” explains Sebastian Rocca.
The hostel will offer safe accommodation for about 30 people at a time who are supposed to stay up to 18 weeks – although this period might still be adapted according to the experiences of the first months. The lodging will be free of charge and shall be paid for by local councils, housing associations and the Home Office (HO, the UK’s government department responsible for immigration), which are already supporting MRI in designing their activities.
“The surplus from the hostel will allow MRI to fund social inclusion activities. We believe that by supporting them to find jobs they will be able to move on with their lives more quickly. Based on our experiences so far, we expect that after three to four months most refugees will be in employment and able to rent a place from the private sector, perhaps sharing a flat with other LGBTI refugees they met at the hostel.” For this idea, MRI was selected as a finalist in the European Social Innovation Competition.
For Mary, an LGBTI-friendly accommodation would be perfect. “I wouldn’t have to hide my sexuality from people I live with and not worry about being bullied or ostracized in my own home,” she says. “For instance, I would like to be able to have my girlfriend or other LGBT friends over without getting dirty looks from people who I live with.”
“I would like to be able to have my girlfriend or other LGBT friends over without getting dirty looks from people who I live with.”