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LGBTQI Asylum Seekers Face Many Obstacles

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By Michael K. :Lavers, Washington Blade


Officials with the U.N. Refugee Agency in Central America and Mexico say they remain committed to helping LGBTQ asylum seekers and migrants in the region.


UNHCR Guatemala Representative Besem Obenson told the Washington Blade during an interview at her Guatemala City office last September that she and her colleagues work with Asociación Lambda and other Guatemalan NGOs to provide LGBTQ asylum seekers with access to LGBTQ-friendly shelters, psychosocial care and other programs once they identify themselves as LGBTQ. Obenson said UNHCR also works with the Guatemalan government to improve the way it responds to an asylum seeker with an ID document that does not correspond to their gender presentation.


“Our role … is to strengthen the government’s response to refugees and asylum seekers,” said Obenson.


UNHCR Guatemala Representative Besem Obenson. (Photo courtesy of UNHCR)

Rafael Zavala, a senior UNHCR official in El Salvador, echoed Obenson when he spoke with the Blade at UNHCR’s office in San Salvador, the Salvadoran capital, last July.


Zavala noted UNHCR has a formal partnership with COMCAVIS Trans, a Salvadoran transgender rights group. Zavala said UNHCR also works with two other LGBTQ groups — Aspidh Arcoíris Trans and Diké LGBTI+ — in a less official capacity.


“What we do is work at the community level to strengthen their role in communities,” Zavala told the Blade. “We also build for them safe spaces (to accept internally displaced people, migrants and deportees who are LGBTQ) and also find spaces where they can receive services, attention and legal assistance.”


Anti-LGBTQ violence among migration ‘root causes’


Vice President Kamala Harris and others have acknowledged anti-LGBTQ violence is one of the “root causes” of migration from Central America’s Northern Triangle that includes El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.


The Mexican Commission on Refugee Aid (COMAR) on Monday reported 27.7 percent of the 131,448 people who asked for asylum in Mexico in 2021 were Honduran.


The Justice Department notes 85,391 people asked for asylum in the U.S. in the 2021 fiscal year from Oct. 1, 2020, and Sept. 30, 2021. More than twice as many people asked for asylum in the U.S. during the 2020 fiscal year, which began before the pandemic.


The Justice Department statistics indicate 10 percent of the 8,679 Guatemalans, 11 percent of the 5,464 Hondurans and 14 percent of the 8,030 Salvadorans who applied for asylum in the U.S. during the 2021 fiscal year won their cases. Neither the Justice Department nor COMAR specify the asylum seekers’ sexual orientation or gender identity.


The Biden administration last February began to allow into the U.S. asylum seekers who the previous White House forced to pursue their cases in Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols program. The Biden administration has sought to end MPP, but a federal appeals court last month blocked this effort.


Title 42, a Center for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the pandemic, remains in place.


UNHCR non-discrimination policy includes sexual orientation, gender identity


UNHCR Senior Protection Officer Sofia Cardona last summer during an interview at UNHCR’s Mexico City office acknowledged that identifying asylum seekers who are LGBTQ is a challenge. Cardona and other UNHCR representatives with whom the Blade spoke for this story referred to the agency’s 2018 non-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation and gender identity and specifically recognizes LGBTQ asylum seekers.


“Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons face complex challenges, threats and barriers and are often exposed to discrimination, abuse, prejudice and violence due to their sex, sexual orientation and/or gender identity,” notes the policy. “This is often severely compounded in situations of displacement, where the nature of the discrimination they encounter can be particularly virulent, their isolation from family and community profound and the harm inflicted on them severe.”


The policy states “diversity refers to different values, attitudes, cultural perspectives, beliefs, ethnicities, nationalities, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, health, social and economic status, skills and other specific personal characteristics.”


“Diversity characteristics vary from person to person and intersect, making each person unique,” it reads. “These differences must be recognized, understood, respected and valued by UNHCR in each context and operation in order to address effectively the needs of all persons of concern. Respecting diversity means recognizing and valuing those differences and creating a protective, inclusive and non-discriminatory environment where everyone’s rights are upheld.”


Cardona noted UNHCR staff and representatives of NGOs and governments with which it works regularly attend LGBTQ sensitivity trainings. Topics include ways to determine whether an asylum seeker is LGBTQ without forcing them to out themselves.


“You can’t force a disclosure,” said Cardona. “You can neve directly ask somebody, so, are you gay? Are you transgender? It’s incorrect because you may put people at risk, so it’s a very thin line of you can never force a disclosure of someone’s gender identity or sexual orientation, but you must signify to somebody that you are a safe space to receive that disclosure.”


Cardona said UNHCR representatives can ask an asylum seeker what their name is or disclose to them that they are “de la diversidad” or “from a diverse background.”


“You never begin an interview assuming anything by the way a person looks because in forced displacement gender expression is unlikely to match up to gender identity,” Cardona told the Blade. “So you need to understand that you may very well have conversations with a trans man who is wearing makeup and a dress, and you may very well be having a conversation with a trans woman who has a beard because that is how they are protecting themselves in a sphere of forced displacement.”


Cardona also noted UNHCR staff wear buttons with slogans that include “en seguridad” or “espacio libre de discriminación,” which translates into “in safety” or “discrimination-free space” respectively. Both Cardona and Zavala were wearing such buttons when they spoke with the Blade.


“We try very, very, very hard to work with our staff and also our partners … so they have their capacity strengthened in LGBTI rights,” Dagmara Mejia, the director of UNHCR’s field office in the Mexican border city of Tijuana, told the Blade last summer during an interview at her office.


Mejia noted the trainings she and her colleagues conduct focuses on topics that include the use pronouns that correspond to an asylum seeker’s gender identity and shelter standards for LGBTQ asylum seekers.


UNHCR works with Jardín de las Mariposas, a shelter for LGBTQ asylum seekers in Tijuana that is less than two miles from El Chaparral, the main port of entry between the city and San Diego. UNHCR also maintains contact with Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration Executive Director Steve Roth and the California-based Transgender Law Center.


“If there is no disclosure, no trust, then we cannot meet their needs and respond,” said Mejia.

Jardín de las Mariposas is a shelter for LGBTQ asylum seekers in Tijuana, Mexico. (Photo by Jon Atwell/Alight)


“We also create these environments that allow the community to feel safe and to know that it is a place where they can come without the risk of discrimination,” said Zavala.


Obenson told the Blade that UNHCR has worked with the Foundation for Ecodevelopment and Conservation (FUNDAECO), a Guatemalan NGO, to hire asylum seekers who have chosen to stay in Guatemala as park rangers. Trans women are among those who FUNDAECO has hired.


“People need to feel safe,” said Obenson. “People need to be able to live their authentic selves without fear of violence or fear of retribution.”



“That for me, as a rep, is what I strive for,” added Obenson. “Everything that we do here at UNHCR is to encourage that.”



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By Maggie Baska


Sareh, 28, was arrested by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for "supporting homosexuality”, according to the Iranian Lesbian and Transgender Network (6Rang). (YouTube/6rangIran)


An Iranian lesbian potentially faces the death penalty after she was arrested by Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) for “supporting homosexuality”.

Sareh, a 28-year-old woman who lived and worked in the Iraqi Kurdistan region, was arrested by the IRGC on 27 October while she was attempting to flee across the border into Turkey, according to a report by the Iranian Lesbian and Transgender Network (6Rang).


The IRGC is a branch of Iran’s armed forces – independent of the country’s regular army – that was set up after the 1979 Iranian revolution to defend the country’s Islamic system, the BBC reported.


According to 6Rang, Sareh was detained for 21 days by the Iraqi Kurdistan police after she gave an interview to BBC Persian about the treatment of people within the LGBT+ community in the region.


After she was released by police, Sareh crossed the border into Iran to escape from Iraqi Kurdistan, with the intent to eventually seek asylum in Turkey. But before she could make it into Turkey, she was arrested by the IRGC in October while she was in the West Azerbaijan province of Iran.


The Tasnim News Agency, which 6Rang says is affiliated with the security forces, reported on 8 November that the IRGC had arrested individuals in West Azerbaijan on charges of “forming a gang for trafficking girls and supporting homosexuality”.


6Rang said that it suspected this may be related to Sareh’s arrest.


According to an IRGC statement, one of the charges against the alleged “smuggling network” was “communicating with and supporting homosexual groups” who “operated under the support of multi-regional intelligence services”.


LGBT+ people in Iran often face violence and discrimination, and sex between people of the same gender is illegal and can be punishable by death or imprisonment. Iran currently criminalises sex between men with the death penalty and sex between women with 100 lashes.


The report by 6Rang said there has been no further information about Sareh since her arrest in October.


Before she was arrested, Sareh sent three short videos to a person that she trusted, and these videos were eventually passed to 6Rang for publication.


In the videos, Sareh tragically shared her fears that she will soon be arrested by the IRGC, saying she has to “get out immediately”. But she said she didn’t know if “I can do it or not” as the security forces “have all the information about me”.


She added that she wanted to send the videos to make others understand how much “suffering” the LGBT+ community is going through in the region.


“And we resist to the end for our feelings,” Sareh said. “Whether with death or freedom, we will remain true to ourselves.”


She continued: “I hope that the day will come when we can all live freely in our own country.


According to 6Rang, the group released the videos in the hopes that the international LGBT+ community and human rights organisations might “put the Islamic Republic of Iran under pressure to release Sareh immediately”.


The Iranian branch of Amnesty International shared on Twitter that it was concerned by the reports from 6Rang that an “Iranian lesbian woman” named Sareh was arrested in the West Azerbaijan province near the border with Turkey.


“The criminalization of LGBTI people perpetuates violence & discrimination against them,” the group wrote.



It added: “We renew our calls on Iran’s authorities to decriminalize same-sex sexual conduct; immediately release all those detained on the basis of their identity or for defending LGBTI rights; and adopt legislation to respect and protect the human rights of LGBTI people.”



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By Ernesto Valle


SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — LGBTQ youth in El Salvador frequently face violence in their families and communities, and this abuse often happens with impunity. Many of these community members have either fled their homes or have been kicked out of them because they are not accepted for who they are.


A shelter that supports this vulnerable population has opened.


The Anglican Episcopal Church of El Salvador in 2009 created its Sexual Diversity Ministry, a pastoral mission that brings together LGBTQ people and their communities. The ministry has become a space in which everyone can live their faith free of discrimination.


Hogar Santa Marta opened in August, and is one of the ministry’s initiatives.


Bishop Juan David Alvarado of the Anglican Episcopal Church of El Salvador told the Washington Blade this project responds to human needs, especially when there is so much injustice. He said the shelter is a temporary home for young people as they work to solve their problems or find a way to better themselves.


“We as a church wanted to give an answer to LGBTQ people who have suffered human rights violations,” said Alvarado.


Hogar Santa Marta has already helped a number of LGBTQ young people. Three of them moved into the shelter and others have been able to receive assistance at their time of need.


“Our first option is that people do not necessarily have to experience family abandonment, so it is about achieving a conciliation with families,” explained Cruz Torres, coordinator of the Anglican Episcopal Church of El Salvador’s Sexual Diversity Ministry. He added the goal is to allow these young people to remain with their families.


Young people as of now primarily contact the shelter through its social media networks. A technical team evaluates the cases and then determines the way to proceed with each of them based on whether they are victims of violence or forced displacement or have been kicked out of their homes.


“This method of using networks has been deliberate in order to control our growth and not to have an immediate saturation,” said Hogar Santa Marta Director Eduardo Madrid, who explained the shelter’s opening was delayed because it was not ready to support young people who need support.


Helen Jacobo, the shelter’s psychologist, and Madrid created a protocol to determine the process to use with a person who is seeking help.


The technical team creates a profile of the person when it establishes contact with them and notes the situation in which they are living. It then passes this information along to the psychologist who will then schedule an interview.


“We can find out about their support networks, if they have a shelter or a safe place (to live) through a small interview,” said Jacobo.


‘I feel more complete and more secure’


Carlos, 25, sought the shelter’s support because of a series of the problems the pandemic made worse.


“I had to leave my house because of mistreatment, insults and beatings,” he recalled.

Carlos said he was relieved to arrive at a safe place, and even more so when he knew that he would have a lot of support.


“They have provided me with a lot of services, such as psychosocial support and I will get a job very soon,” he said with joy.


The shelter first offers its residents a place to live with access to regular meals and psychological therapy to address the traumas they have experienced. The shelter also accepts donations to provide residents with their basic needs.


“For my part I am very grateful, we have worked on ourselves as a person,” said Carlos with an assured look that conveys happiness from behind a face mask with a smile drawn onto it. He also expressed that he is grateful the shelter allowed him to live there with his pet that he took with him when he left his house.


Religion is not imposed upon the shelter’s residents, even though a church group created it.


“If you want to believe, you believe,” said Carlos. “They don’t impose religion on you.”


“I feel more complete and more secure,” he added, while saying that he has learned to put himself first. “That has been the most noticeable change that I have been able to have.”


With this self-empowerment in mind, the second stage for the shelter’s residents is to learn how to fight for their rights and know how to maintain them. Sustainable relocation, family awareness and creating a life plan are also part of this effort.


Alejandro, 23, has already been able to leave the shelter with the technical team’s support.

He was able to get a job and find a new place to live.


He learned about the shelter from a friend who is a member of the Anglican Episcopal Church of El Salvador. The friend helped him present his case and he became the first young person to live in the shelter.


“Even though I was only there for a month, I felt the necessary support from the whole team,” says Alejandro.


He said he feels very involved with the shelter because he is its first successful case.

Alejandro said he had the opportunity during his first meetings to propose ideas about how the shelter can approach future cases. Alejandro added it was very rewarding to him that both the director and the psychologist took his thoughts into account.


Now that he has been able to find a job, Alejandro said he will do everything he can to remain stable. He will particularly rely on the psychological support the shelter still provides him, which is the third stage of its work. This support lasts for up to a year after admission and is supported through an alliance with NGO’s, the government and private companies.


Strategic alliances


Hogar Santa Marta has made a variety of strategic alliances that allow it to carry out its work. One of them is with the U.N.’s International Organization for Migrants and specifically with its Integrated Responses on Migration from Central America project.


The shelter hopes to use this partnership to further develop a psychosocial program that will be able to help more vulnerable LGBTQ youth. Hogar Santa Maria hopes it can use some of these same strategies that IOM uses.


“Some of the instruments that they have specifically respond to psychological issues,” Jacobo explained.


Hogar Santa Marta’s programs have been made available to IOM in order to improve the way it views sexual diversity-related issues. They also hope to receive support for when they implement a group management program once more LGBTQ youth live in the shelter.


Rosalinda Solano, the national coordinator of the IOM project, said she is very interested in following up on the in-home work and hopes to enter into a collaboration with the shelter, such as the one that provides psychosocial support to LGBTQ people who have been returned to the country.


“We have also managed to identify other possible links, through profiles that can be linked to job opportunities,” she said.


Solano said the project seemed to be something very innovative and needed in the country, which does not have anything else. She hopes it will do something that has not been done before in El Salvador.


“It takes a fairly comprehensive approach, not it is just providing shelter,” she said.


There are two other shelters in El Salvador that specifically serve the LGBTQ community—ASPIDH ARCOIRIS TRANS’ Casa Trans and COMCAVIS TRANS’ Casa Refugio Karla Avelar—but they primarily serve displaced transgender women. Hogar Santa Marta is the first LGBTQ shelter in El Salvador that a church created.


“Young people see home with great hope for a new life,” said Alvarado.


The shelter can be found at Facebook as Santa Marta LGBT and on Instagram as @santamartalgbt. There is a link to a GoFundMe account there where donations can be made.




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