LGBTQI Asylum Seekers Face Many Obstacles


By Michael K. Lavers, The Washington Blade

Imran Khan is a gay man from Afghanistan.

An American soldier who texted him on Aug. 26, 2021, 11 days after the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan, told him to go to Kabul International Airport. Khan, along with a group of other LGBTQ and intersex Afghans and members of the country’s special forces, were able to pass through Taliban checkpoints after a mullah with whom they were traveling said they were going to their cousin’s house for a child’s funeral. The group of LGBTQ and intersex Afghans were able to enter the airport, but Khan and several soldiers who were members of the country’s special forces were outside the perimeter when a suicide bomber killed more than 180 people at a gate the U.S. Marines controlled. They returned after the attack, but were then forced to leave.

Khan was still in Kabul on Aug. 30, 2021, when the last American forces withdrew from the country.

Kabul Luftbrücke, a German group, on March 18, 2022, evacuated Khan from Kabul to Pakistan. Khan arrived in Germany less than a month later and now lives in Korbach, a city in the country’s Hesse state.

Khan’s partner and many other LGBTQ and intersex Afghans he knows remain in Afghanistan.

“I’m still hoping that an angel will come and will save their lives before the Taliban finds them,” Khan told the Washington Blade on Monday.

Khan is among the LGBTQ and intersex Afghans who have been able to leave Afghanistan since the Taliban regained control of the country.

Dane Bland, the director of development and communications for Rainbow Railroad, on Monday told the Blade the Toronto-based organization has been able to evacuate 247 LGBTQ and intersex Afghans to the U.S., the U.K., Canada and Ireland.

A group of 29 LGBTQ and intersex Afghans who Rainbow Railroad helped evacuate from Afghanistan with the help of the British government and two LGBTQ and intersex rights groups in the country — Stonewall and Micro Rainbow — arrived in the U.K. on Oct. 29, 2021.

A second group of LGBTQ and intersex Afghans reached the country a few days later.

Taylor Hirschberg, a researcher at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health who is also the Hearst Foundation scholar, said he has helped upwards of 70 LGBTQ and intersex Afghans and their families leave the country.

“I know that there are some people who are still fighting to get people out, but now it has come down to a trickle,” Hirschberg told the Blade on Monday.

A Taliban judge in July 2021 said the group would once again execute gay people if it were to return to power in the country.

A report that OutRight Action International and Human Rights Watch released earlier this year notes a Taliban official said his group “will not respect the rights of LGBT people” in Afghanistan. The report also documents human rights abuses against LGBTQ and intersex Afghans, including an incident in which the Taliban beat a transgender woman and “shaved her eyebrows with a razor” before they “dumped her on the street in men’s clothes and without a cellphone.”

OutRight Action International on Monday told the Blade that it has had “at least one confirmed report of the killing of an LGBTQ activist, police searching for another and several more reports of extrajudicial killing and other forms of persecution that are difficult to confirm given the danger to political witnesses.”

“The U.S. and other governments that profess support for human rights need to do more to ensure the Afghan regime respects fundamental rights of all Afghans and help those in danger to reach safety,” said OutRight Action International.

Bland said Rainbow Railroad “absolutely” feels “governments, including the governments of the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States, should be doing more to help LGBTQI+ Afghans fleeing the current crisis.”

Immigration Equality Legal Director Bridget Crawford on Monday noted her organization’s LGBTQ and intersex Afghan clients who “survived unspeakable trauma, both as a consequence of sharia law and existing brutal homophobic practices” are “now safely resettled in Canada.” Crawford nevertheless added that Immigration Equality recognizes that “many more queer people are still at grave risk in Afghanistan.”

“The Biden administration must prioritize these LGBTQ Afghans as refugees in the United States,” said Crawford. “President Biden himself has expressed that the U.S. has the good will and capacity to take in vulnerable refugees, but he must back up those words with action.”

State Department spokesperson Ned Price on Monday told reporters during a briefing that nearly 90,000 Afghans have been “evacuated or otherwise transported to the” U.S. since Aug. 15, 2021. Price also noted the U.S. has “facilitated the departure of some” 13,000 Afghans from Afghanistan since the last American troops withdrew from the country.

“There are a number of priorities, a number of enduring commitments we have to the people of Afghanistan,” said Price. “At the top of that list is to use every tool that we have appropriate to see to it that the Taliban lives up to the commitments that it has made publicly, that it has made privately, but most importantly, the commitments that the Taliban has made to its own people, to all of the Afghan people. And when we say all of the Afghan people, we mean all. We mean Afghanistan’s women, its girls, its religious minorities, its ethnic minorities. The Taliban has made these commitments; the Taliban, of course, has not lived up to these commitments.”

Price, who is openly gay, did not specifically refer to LGBTQ and intersex Afghans during Monday’s briefing.

Hirschberg said Canada, France, Germany and the U.K. have “come to bat” and “are really supporting getting LGBTQI Afghans out, along with others.” He told the Blade the U.S. has not done enough.

“We’re not seeing quite the eagerness from the United States, unfortunately,” said Hirschberg.

The Blade has reached out to the White House for comment on the first anniversary of the Taliban regaining control of Afghanistan and efforts to help LGBTQ and intersex Afghans leave the country.

Ukraine overshadows plight of LGBTQ and intersex Afghans

Russia on Feb. 24 invaded Ukraine.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees notes more than 6 million Ukrainians have registered as refugees in Europe.

The European Union allows Ukrainians to travel to member states without a visa.

Germany currently provides those who have registered for residency a “basic income” that helps them pay for housing and other basic needs. Ukrainian refugees can also receive access to German language classes, job training programs and childcare.

Dr. Ahmad Qais Munhazim, an assistant professor of global studies at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia who is originally from Afghanistan, has helped three groups of Afghans leave the country since the Taliban regained control of it.

Munhazim on Monday noted to the Blade his family has lived in a Toronto hotel room for three months. Munhazim also pointed out the treatment that Ukrainian refugees once they reach the EU, the U.K., Canada or the U.S.

“Countries of course would claim they were not prepared, but we can see that it was a very racialized response,” said Munhazim. “The way they responded to Ukraine, they weren’t prepared for that either, but we know that these borders immediately started opening up, assistance was offered in a very, very humanitarian way to Ukrainians just because they had blond hair and blue eyes, which was not offered to Afghans or Syrians earlier when they were fleeing Syria.”

Maydaa told the Blade that countries had “this huge concern about LGBT people coming from Afghanistan.”

“It was related to, I believe, terrorism and all this prejudgment of Afghan people,” said Maydaa. “I also think this is playing a huge role when it comes to resettlement and international action.”

Maydaa, like Munhazim, also noted the different reception that Ukrainian refugees have received once they reached the EU or the U.K.

“They, especially in Europe and the U.K., feel they have more responsibility towards Ukraine,” said Maydaa. “[There was] all this racism on the news. ‘They look like us. They are blonde, green eyes, white skin, Christians.'”

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By Michael K. Lavers, The Washington Blade

Dmitry Shapoval is a 24-year-old gay man from Ukraine who lives with HIV.

He was working at an IT company’s call center and studying web and UX design in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, in February when Russia launched its war against his country. Shapoval swam across a river and entered Poland less than a month later.

Shapoval now lives in Berlin with his cat Peach and has begun the process of resettling in Germany.

“I feel very secure here,” Shapoval told the Washington Blade on July 22 during an interview at Berlin’s Palais Populaire by Deutsche Bank on the city’s Unter den Linden boulevard.

Shapoval is one of the more than 900,000 Ukrainians who have arrived in Germany since the war began.

Ukrainians are able to enter Germany without a visa, and the German government provides those who have registered for residency a “basic income” that helps them pay for housing and other basic needs that include food. Ukrainian refugees can also receive access to German language classes, job training programs and childcare.

Anastasiia Baraniuk and her partner, Yulia Mulyukina, were living together Dnipro, a city on the Dnieper River in central Ukraine, when the war began.

Mulyukina, who is from Russia, was living in Moscow when she and Baraniuk began to talk online. Mulyukina traveled to Lviv in western Ukraine via Istanbul to meet Baraniuk, who is a Ukrainian citizen.

Mulyukina on July 22 told the Blade at Palais Populaire that she asked the Russian Embassy in Kyiv for help when the war began. Mulyukina said officials suggested that she “ask Ukraine what to do.”

“I was really shocked that my own country, with this idea of bringing peace, bringing quiet to Ukraine, just rejected me entirely,” she said in Russian as Shapoval translated.

Baraniuk, who also spoke with the Blade in Russian, said the Ukrainian government and a local NGO provided them with food and money.

The couple had planned to stay in Ukraine, but they decided to leave after Mulyukina “heard five explosions” while she was walking to a store. The two women’s friends gave them money to buy train tickets to Poland.

Insight, a Ukrainian LGBTQ and intersex rights organization, helped Baraniuk and Mulyukina and their cat enter Poland. They spent a week there before they arrived in Berlin on April 28.

Shapoval met them when they arrived at the train station.

Shapoval, Baraniuk and Mulyukina are among those who attended a reception that took place at the end of a two-day meeting the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration organized that took place in Berlin from July 21-22.

Activists from Ukraine, Germany, Poland, Romania, Moldova, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Italy and the U.S. attended the gathering that had a stated goal of starting “the conversation about long-term/mid-term needs and solutions for LGBTIQ Ukrainians and incite collaboration among stakeholders working with LGBTIQ Ukrainians and third-country nationals.”

“We were thrilled to bring together activists and human rights defenders from 10 countries and 20 organizations to develop medium and long-term strategies to support displaced LGBTIQ Ukrainians and third country nationals,” ORAM Executive Director Steve Roth told the Blade after the meeting. “All these organizations, including ORAM, have done an amazing job getting emergency support and services to LGBTIQ Ukrainians in need. As the war in Ukraine drags on, it’s more important than ever for organizations to coordinate efforts and plan for supporting longer term needs. This two-day roundtable in Berlin was a great step in that direction.”

ORAM has partnered with and Alight (formerly known as the American Refugee Committee) to provide more than 1,000 nights of short-term housing to LGBTQ and intersex Ukrainians and other displaced people in Germany and other countries in Europe. Shapoval, Baraniuk and Mulyukina are among those who live in such apartments.

Roth noted ORAM has begun to develop “a housing collective” for LGBTQ and intersex Ukrainians in Berlin. He said ORAM rents the apartments in which the refugees can live for up to six months, “allowing them to register in Berlin, access social welfare and other services.”

“Safe and secure housing is one of the most urgent needs facing displaced LGBTIQ Ukrainians,” Roth told the Blade. “It’s an essential element in getting settled and rebuilding lives.”

Berlin Pride shows solidarity with Ukraine

The meeting ended a day before the annual Christopher Street Day parade took place in Berlin.

Baraniuk helped carry ORAM’s banner during the parade, while Mulyukina took pictures for the organization.

‘Stop Russian aggression’

Kyiv Pride Executive Director Lenny Emson is one of LGBTQ and intersex activists from Ukraine who participated in the ORAM meeting and in the parade.

He told the Blade before the parade began that he took several trains from Kyiv to Poland before he flew to Berlin. Emson said the trip took two days.

“I understand that it is a safe ground, but I still have those flashbacks,” Emson told the Blade as he smoked a cigarette in front of a hotel near the parade staging area. “When you were sitting in the conference room and I saw something that reminds me of an air raid siren I was getting a panic attack. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a safe place.”

Emson also took issue with parade organizers’ opposition to war.

“Unfortunately, we as the Ukrainian community here (are) very disappointed with the motto that Berlin Pride put on the main stage: No war,” said Emson. “This doesn’t reflect the feelings that we have right now.”

“We would like to actually say it loud: Stop Russian aggression,” he added. “We need action right now. We need to stop it. We need to stop Russian aggression. We need to stop it right now.”

A group of marchers held a blue and yellow — the colors of Ukraine’s flag — banner that read “Arm Ukraine: Make Pride in Mariupol possible” while others simply carried the Ukrainian flag.

A man carried a homemade sign that read “Arm Ukraine: Make Pride in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, Zaporizha, Kryvyi Rih possible again.” Viktoriya, a woman from northern Ukraine who is now pursuing her PhD in Berlin, held a cardboard poster that noted her homeland’s “queer soldiers are fighting for all of us.”

“I’m marching for both rights of queer people and rights of Ukrainians: The right to live and the right for love,” she said as she marched towards Potsdamer Platz in the center of Berlin.

Ukrainian LGBTQ and intersex activists march in the Christopher Street Day parade in Berlin on July 23, 2022. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity was commonplace in Ukraine before the war.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last year pledged his country would continue to fight anti-LGBTQ and anti-intersex discrimination after he met with President Joe Biden at the White House.

Shapoval, who is dating a man he met last October when he traveled to Berlin, told the Blade that he received “looks” in Kyiv if he wore a pink shirt.

He was wearing a pair of purple sneakers during the interview. Shapoval said he would not have been comfortable wearing them if he were still in Kyiv.

“For me it was even harder because I had misery in Ukraine because of homophobes,” he said. “Even the gay community is so toxic in Ukraine because it’s all about toxic masculinity and all of that … I also had some experiences where gays were like, ‘Oh my gosh just cut your hair and then we will get in touch with you.'”

Shapoval has begun the process of applying for German residency.

“I fell in love with the city right from the beginning,” he said. “I found friends here.”

Jessica Stern, the special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ and intersex rights, and others have noted transgender and gender non-conforming Ukrainians have not been able to leave the country because they cannot exempt themselves from military conscription. Another issue that LGBTQ and intersex Ukrainians have faced as they attempt to resettle in another country is the lack of legal recognition of their relationships.

A marriage equality petition that Kyiv Pride submitted to Zelenskky on July 12 received more than 28,000 signatures, which is higher than the threshold that requires him to consider it. Ukrainian law requires Zelenskky to respond to it within 10 days of receiving it.

Baraniuk and Mulyukina hope to resettle in the U.S. and Canada, but are unable to legally prove they are in a relationship. The U.S. has a marriage-based immigration system for bi-national couples, while the Canadian system requires them to be married or “common-law partners.”

The U.S. has approved Baraniuk’s resettlement request, but denied Mulyukina.

They said the process to legally prove they are together is prohibitively expensive.”Right now we are looking for a way to get the proof that we are a couple,” said Baraniuk. “We don’t want to stay in Berlin.”

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By Human Rights Watch

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and other asylum seekers fleeing persecution in their home countries experience abusive and dangerous conditions in Mexicowhen not allowed to cross the border to seek asylum, Human Rights Watch said today.

Two policies implemented by the administration of former President Donald J. Trump – the Migrant Protection Protocols, commonly known as “Remain in Mexico,” and the Title 42 summary expulsion policy – continue to be used under the Biden administration to block access to the asylum system for most people who try to cross into the US to seek safety. This includes people at a greater risk of harm in Mexico because of their particular conditions or identities, including gender identity or expression, disability, and age who should be entitled to an exception from expulsion. US authorities should stop sending asylum seekers to Mexico or expelling them to their countries of origin and should quickly process people waiting at the border to seek asylum who are at particular risk of abuse.

“The United States should restore access to asylum for all, but so long as Biden is blocked from doing so, he should at the very least immediately use existing exceptions for at-risk asylum seekers, including LGBT people,” said Ari Sawyer, US border researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Continuing to summarily expel LGBT and HIV-positive asylum seekers to Mexico or their country of origin places their lives at serious risk.”

US government protocols include exceptions for asylum seekers at a greater risk, and President Joe Biden has promised US agents will apply them. But border agents have broad discretion to grant or deny exceptions, and there are no clear consequences for agents who fail to do so or checks to ensure that exceptions are being handled properly, Human Rights Watch found.

Despite a recognition by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that LGBT people may face “increased risk of harm in Mexico due to their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Human Rights Watch documented cases in which border officials returned LGBT asylum seekers, including those with HIV, to Mexico under both abusive anti-asylum policies.

Human Rights Watch conducted 29 interviews with asylum seekers, migrants’ rights groups, and United Nations agency officials in April and May 2022, in person and by phone, in Ciudad Juárez and Mexico City, and in El Paso, Texas. Human Rights Watch undertook research in coordination with Casa de Colores, a US-Mexican organization working to provide shelter and legal services to LGBT asylum seekers.

LGBT asylum seekers told Human Rights Watch they had been expelled even after expressing their fear of returning and telling border agents they identified as LGBT, had HIV, or had experienced abuse related to their gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation. They also described serious abuse during their journeys to the border, including by Mexican officials.

One woman interviewed fled to the United States from Honduras, where she previously faced targeted violence for living openly as a lesbian woman, including one incident when someone cut her face, leaving a large scar. Near the US border, people she believed to be members of a Mexican cartel kidnapped her and forcibly took nude photos of her.

She said that when she explained to US border officials that she was a lesbian seeking asylum from Honduras and that she had also experienced abuse in Mexico, agents laughed at her. She said one agent told her, “I don’t care what’s happening to you.” She was expelled to Honduras, and immediately fled again to the US border, this time afraid to seek asylum for fear of being returned to Honduras again.

Previous Human Rights Watch research has highlighted the risk of illegal and arbitrary arrest, torture, extrajudicial execution, sexual assault, and enforced disappearance for LGBT people in Central America.

Although the Biden administration has moved to terminate both Title 42 and Remain in Mexico, several US state officials have filed suits in federal court, resulting in orders to keep the programs in place during the litigation.

A federal district court judge has temporarily blocked the Biden administration from ending the expulsion policy, which was first issued at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic against the recommendation of top public health experts. There is no evidence that people seeking asylum pose a public health threat to the United States, and the expulsion policy cannot be justified on public health grounds.

Though the initial Title 42 was issued without “notice and comment” procedures, allowing a period for the public to comment, the judge found that the Biden administration should have gone through these administrative consultation processes to end Title 42. Some US lawmakers have proposed legislationthat would keep summary expulsions in place until pandemic public health measures are terminated.

Asylum seekers and other migrants sent to Mexico are often unable to support themselves or access basic services such as shelter, food, water, safe transportation, or health care, and have no meaningful recourse for abuses from criminal cartels or Mexican authorities. In the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, Human Rights Watch found that asylum seekers and other migrants are systematically targeted for kidnapping, extortion, rape, and other violence, by both government officials and criminals.

LGBT people constitute one particularly at-risk group of asylum seekers, among others, including people with disabilities and chronic health conditions, Black and Indigenous asylum seekers, asylum seekers who do not speak Spanish as a first language, and families traveling with children.

LGBT asylum seekers and asylum seekers with HIV described additional discrimination and abuse as well as barriers to accessing essential services, including life-saving antiretroviral therapy and gender-affirming health care, services that include medical and mental health services, continuation of hormonal treatment, and other services for transgender and nonbinary people that are crucial to their health and well-being.

Human Rights Watch asked Mexico’s National Migration Institute for more information on allegations made against immigration agents. The agency responded on May 31 and said they were unaware of any reports of such abuses, were not able to investigate them, and that the Mexican constitution prohibits such behavior.

The United States has an obligation to protect refugees from returning to a threat of persecution, ill-treatment, and threats to life and safety, Human Rights Watch said. President Biden should ensure that the United States complies with its domestic and international legal obligations to respect the right to seek asylum.

“LGBTQ+ and HIV-positive asylum seekers face grave risks to their health and safety from the time they flee their countries, often after years of targeted abuse, to when they arrive at the US border,” said Susana Coreas, director of Casa de Colores. “Biden has rightly committed to protecting LGBTQ+ refugees. He should follow through on that promise and ensure all asylum seekers are welcomed with dignity at the border.”

Abuse at the US Border

Human Rights Watch spoke with 20 LGBT asylum seekers in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, who hoped to cross into the United States and be allowed to seek protection. Nearly all reported they were not approaching the border or trying to ask US officials for asylum because they feared they would be expelled to Mexico or their country of origin. They said they preferred to wait for the Biden administration to restore access to asylum or for legal aid to make a request for exemption from the expulsion policy. Four asylum seekers reported that they had previously been expelled to Mexico or their country of origin without an asylum screening.

When Adolfo H. and Gerardo C., a gay couple fleeing Cuba and El Salvador, respectively, who like others interviewed are not identified by their real names for their protection, tried to seek asylum at the US border in February 2022, they were expelled by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents to Mexico. They had previously experienced extortion several times by Mexican immigration agents, who stopped them at various points along their journey and demanded payment to continue. At the time, they were not yet married. US officials told the couple that Adolfo could stay and seek asylum in the United States because he is from Cuba but that his partner would be expelled, even though border officials had the authority to allow both men in. Instead, they gave them the option of being separated or of being expelled together. They said that while they were in custody, US officials told them to stop holding hands or touching one another. Faced with the prospect of being separated again, they got married in Mexico, hoping that given another chance, they would be allowed to seek asylum together.

  • José M., a gay man who fled death threats in Honduras based on his sexual orientation, said he had tried to cross the border in March 2021. He was afraid to stay in Mexico, where he said he has experienced extortion and violence at the hands of Mexican police and discrimination at shelters. On his way to the border, Mexican immigration agents stopped the bus he was on and made everyone get off, he said, forcing each migrant to pay a bribe of about US$25 each or be expelled from the country. He also said that because of his gender expression and sexual orientation, some shelters did not allow him to stay there, leaving him to sleep on the streets. In Ciudad Juarez, the shelter operators told him it was a sin to be gay and said that if he and other LGBT asylum seekers didn't go to religious service, they would be forced to leave. He said he had told US border officials that he is gay and that he was afraid to be sent to Mexico, but hours later CBP agents sent him to Mexico. Before expelling him, US officials made him throw away everything he had, including the few clothes he had. US border agents typically throw away migrants’ possessions, including items such as medicine, baby blankets, important identity documents, documents needed to prove an asylum claim, and memorabilia that hold sentimental value, claiming the practice is for health and safety reasons.

The Biden administration has also recently placed some LGBT people in the Remain in Mexico program, officials with the International Organization of Migration (IOM) told Human Rights Watch, sending them to Ciudad Juárez despite the exemption for LGBT people and others at particular risk of abuse. IOM operates a shelter for newly expelled or returned asylum seekers to test them for Covid-19 and provide quarantine before they move on to other shelters. IOM officials said LGBT asylum seekers had been sent to Mexico even after they explicitly told US border agents about their gender identity or sexual orientation.

Abuses in Country of Origin

LGBT asylum seekers interviewed reported serious abuses in their countries of origin, including rape, assault, death threats, extortion, and forced disappearances or killings of romantic partners and friends.

  • Juan C., a transgender man, fled Honduras after he received death threats related to his gender identity and activism in an LGBT rights organization. He said that several LGBT people he has known have been killed or disappeared there. He said that the police detained him without charges on several occasions. In 2021, two men raped him and his girlfriend after saying, “Who is the man and who is the woman in the relationship?” and saying that the couple were transgender and lesbian only because they had not had sex with a man. “They said, ‘We are going to make you women,’” Juan said.

  • Eduardo O., a gay man from Honduras, said he fled the country shortly after gang members beat his romantic partner to death. Gang members had previously threatened to kill Eduardo. Then in June 2021, the same gang members attacked him and his partner while they were together. While Eduardo was able to escape, he said, his partner could not. He said he reported his partner’s murder to the police, who did not investigate.

  • Kayla R., a transgender woman from Guatemala, said she had to flee and seek asylum after the gangs who were extorting the business where she worked beat her when she and the store owner couldn’t pay, leaving prominent scars on her face. On another occasion, gang members beat her in the street while using anti-LGBT slurs. They left a large gash and scar on her head.

Discrimination and Abuse in Mexico

Human Rights Watch also documented serious abuse and discrimination against LGBT asylum seekers in Mexico. Several LGBT asylum seekers said that Mexican immigration agents, police, and National Guard soldiers targeted them for extortion. Other asylum seekers experienced kidnapping, sexual assault, robbery, and other physical violence by both Mexican government officials and criminals.

  • Brenda F., a transgender woman, fled El Salvador in 2017 after gang members who wanted her to sell drugs beat and threatened to kill her. After applying for protection and living for a few years in Mexico, she said she was riding a bus from Monterrey to Matamoros in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas in May 2020 when, at a checkpoint, immigration agents pulled her off the bus and took her into an office about 25 meters away. While another immigration agent stood watch outside the office, the agent questioned her about her destination and reason for traveling, she showed him an order from a doctor for laboratory tests. He accused her of lying and of wanting to cross into the United States and grabbed his genitalia, saying if she wouldn’t “give me what I want,” he could have two police officers expel her to Guatemala. Afterward, he told her that if she reported him, he had already taken a photo of her identification and would come after her. She said she knows other trans women who have experienced sexual assault at the hands of Mexican immigration agents.

  • Mariana L., a lesbian woman who fled Honduras in 2021, said she was kidnapped for ransom in January 2021 and held for over a week near the US-Mexico border by people she believed to be cartel members. They took her to a house in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, where she saw several other kidnapped migrants. She said they stole her passport and forcibly photographed her naked until her sister managed to pay a ransom of US$3,000. Her kidnappers would hit her to make her cry when they called her sister for the ransom money.

  • When Erika L., a lesbian woman, and Samuel B. and Martin G., gay brothers from El Salvador, arrived at the Mexico-Guatemala border in January 2022, a group of men kidnapped them. On the Mexican side of the border, the men raped Erika while beating her friends and forcing them to watch. They went to the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR), Mexico’s refugee authority, in Tapachula, Chiapas, where they applied for asylum in Mexico. COMAR gave them a document confirming that they were in the process of seeking asylum in Mexico, giving them legal status in Mexico. An immigration agent apprehended them outside the COMAR office as they left. When he saw their application documents, he tore them up, saying they were meaningless and sent them to a detention center. They were released and then took a bus to the US-Mexico border. They said Mexican immigration agents periodically stopped the bus and boarded it to extort them and other migrants, saying they had to pay if they wanted to continue their journey to the US border.

  • Kayla R., the transgender woman who fled Guatemala, said that in July 2021 Mexican state police in Piedras Negras robbed her and beat her with batons so badly that she was ultimately hospitalized and vomited blood. The police detained her and another transgender woman she was traveling with for two days without food and water and then turned them over to immigration agents, who sent them to an immigration detention facility. There, she said, a Mexican immigration agent told her she should report the crime, which would make her eligible for a one-year humanitarian visa, giving her legal status in Mexico. She said she would like to do so, and that the agent took down her information but never gave her any paperwork or began any immigration process. Instead, after she reported the crime, Mexican immigration agents returned her to Guatemala, where she had experienced brutal violence. She immediately fled again. While she was making her way back to the US border in March 2022, criminals threatened her with a machete and robbed her.

Six asylum seekers and migrant rights workers reported that some of the shelters in Ciudad Juárez that accepted LGBT asylum seekers subjected them to discriminatory treatment, including the shelter where LGBT asylum seekers were forced to go to Christian religious services. Shelters in Ciudad Juárez are at capacity, meaning they would be homeless if they did not agree to go to the service. Some migrant shelters in Ciudad Juárez would not accept LGBT asylum seekers at all, migrant rights workers there said.

Accessing lifesaving health care for asylum seekers with HIV or other chronic illnesses was also difficult, asylum seekers said. All five HIV-positive asylum seekers interviewed, and one asylum seeker with diabetes and hypertension, said they had gone periods ranging from a few weeks to four months, without their necessary medication because they did not have any money or support.

  • Mari R., a transgender woman who is HIV positive and who fled Honduras after she refused to sell drugs for a gang whose members had raped and threatened to kill her, went without her antiretroviral medication in Mexico for four months. In April, with the support of Derechos Humanos Integrales en Acción (DHIA), a local migrant rights organization, she was finally able to see a doctor, who told her that her condition had significantly worsened. The day after Human Rights Watch spoke to her, she was hospitalized.

Four transgender asylum seekers, as well as IOM officials and a local trans rights organization called Red Solidaria Trans, said that transgender asylum seekers have not had access to gender-affirming health care in Ciudad Juárez.

  • Brenda F., a transgender woman who fled after facing an attempted gang recruitment and death threats in El Salvador, said she had previously been taking hormones but that in Ciudad Juárez, she has not been able to access to gender-affirming hormone care, though she has repeatedly tried. “They always say they don’t offer that care, they can’t, or they don’t know how,” she said. Transgender people who take hormones to develop secondary sex characteristics consistent with their gender identity and expression experience a reversal of these physical traits when hormone therapy is stopped, which can cause distress among other symptoms. Brenda said she hasn’t had access to hormone care since October 2021 and that she is suffering from depression as a result. “I have asked for help getting my hormones and they have said they don’t offer that kind of support here [in Ciudad Juárez],” she said. “We are suffering marginalization in that way – hormone treatment is necessary, and they are denying us.”


To the Biden Administration

  • Continue and redouble efforts to end the Remain in Mexico program and Title 42 summary expulsions, including by initiating a “notice and comment” rulemaking process to end Title 42.

  • While these abusive policies remain in place, ensure that border agents do not to return at-risk asylum seekers under the Remain in Mexico program or expel them under the Title 42 summary expulsion policy. People at particular risk of harm include LGBT asylum seekers; those with HIV, disabilities, and chronic health conditions; Black and Indigenous asylum seekers; those who do not speak Spanish as a first language; and families traveling with children.

  • Take immediate steps to parole into the United States all LGBT asylum seekers and other asylum seekers at particular risk of harm who have previously been subjected to the Remain in Mexico program or the Title 42 summary expulsion policy.

  • Review regulations, Board of Immigration Appeals and Attorney General decisions, and policies and other guidance, rescinding or amending as appropriate to ensure consistency with the right to seek asylum and the right to protection from return to harm or threat of harm as defined in the Refugee Convention, the Convention against Torture, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

  • Continue to increase the number of appropriately trained personnel – asylum officers, doctors, child-care specialists, mental health services professionals and other first responders – at the border using funds currently allocated toward immigration enforcement and detention.

  • Beyond initial screening of migrants, transfer humanitarian reception, including migrant processing and asylum functions, from CBP to a separate government agency, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), or groups with trauma-informed training and whose mission is to perform humanitarian services.

  • Take steps to ensure that LGBT asylum seekers and asylum seekers with HIV feel safe enough to self-identify while in the custody of CBP, including by ensuring that US officials affirmatively explain a policy of nondiscrimination and ask each migrant if they would like to share their gender identity and sexual orientation.

  • Investigate and discipline US border agents who wrongfully send LGBT asylum seekers and other particularly at-risk asylum seekers to Mexico or their countries of origin.

  • Work with Mexico and other governments to implement a holistic regional plan for access to protection and safe and dignified migration.

To the US Congress

  • Reject proposed legislation introduced by Sens. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) to keep Title 42 in place until after the government’s Covid-19 emergency declaration is terminated.

  • Enact legislation to end the Title 42 summary expulsion and Remain in Mexico policies.

To the Mexican Government

  • End the practice of accepting non-Mexican nationals sent to Mexico by US authorities under the Remain in Mexico and Title 42 summary expulsion policies.

  • Investigate abuses by Mexican immigration agents, including reports of extortion at immigration checkpoints, and take disciplinary action against any found to have been involved in such conduct.

  • Ensure that Mexican immigration agents do not expel people who may need international protection without due process and screening for fear of return to potential harm.

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