Originally published by the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, July 20, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic, isolation, quarantine and a general change in the way we live our lives have impacted everyone in Australia, but some more than others. The pandemic has magnified existing inequalities and structural barriers to services and support. This has been particularly true for LGBTIQ+ people seeking asylum.
Today, LGBTIQ+ people around the world remain persecuted, subjected to physical and sexual violence, torture, harassment and exploitation. In 2019, 70 countries had laws that criminalised consensual same-sex sexual acts, with the death penalty a possibility in 11. Sexual violence and forced marriages are often used as a coercive tool to ‘normalise’ LGBTIQ+ women’s sexuality and avoid familial shame if their sexuality becomes known publicly. In countries where there are no laws prohibiting same-sex relationships or gender transition, state-sanctioned violence and discrimination persists. By applying for protection in Australia, LGBTIQ+ people seek to live their lives with dignity and freedom.
However, even in Australia after being recognised as refugees, LGBTIQ+ people face persistent homophobia and transphobia. They cannot rely on their families or ethnic communities for support, with these groups often being the first to persecute them for their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Not many services are able to meet the specific needs of this cohort.
Like other asylum seekers, LGBTIQ+ people who are seeking asylum in Australia are in a precarious situation on account of visa uncertainty and ineligibility for income support. Eligibility has been restricted for the Status Resolution Support Services program for asylum seekers, which is already set at below the much-criticised Newstart payment, and many do not have access to Medicare.
The absence of public recognition of this group, and the lack of services available to them, leaves many LGBTIQ+ asylum seekers invisible and marginalised. This marginalisation has become particularly acute with the outbreak of the pandemic and requirements to quarantine or isolate.
Since the start of the pandemic, the Forcibly Displaced People Network (FDPN), the first registered LGBTIQ+ refugee-led organisation in Australia to focus on LGBTIQ+ displacement, has been collecting evidence on the impact for this community. It has also been supporting them directly with emergency relief (with thanks to the many donors who make this possible).
In this article, we have collated the impacts of the pandemic on the LGBTIQ+ asylum-seeking community in Australia. This list is not exhaustive and must be read alongside the impacts of on people seeking asylum more broadly. However, it does highlight the systemic and structural issues that persist when neither policy nor practice takes an intersectional and gender lens as its starting point.
The pandemic has made it harder for asylum seekers to find employment, in part due to employers’ lack of understanding and prejudices regarding bridging visas.
For LGBTIQ+ people seeking asylum, these experiences have been intensified on account of homophobia or transphobia in the employment sphere. For instance, for trans people, there is a long-standing issue with ID documents where a person holds an ID with a name and gender marker that do not reflect who they identify and present as. This often poses a major entry barrier to the job market for gender non-conforming people, as most workplaces are not adequately equipped to deal with these issues.
Many LGBTIQ+ people seeking asylum working in informal or casual employment were among the first to lose it. Having lost their income, they were unable to reach out to their ethnic or diaspora communities without a fear of being discriminated against if they disclosed their identity or were being perceived as being LGBTIQ+.
Before the pandemic, the fear of discrimination and outing themselves as LGBTIQ+ persons to other refugees prevented many from accessing support services. As the pandemic hit, access became even more restricted. NGOs were operating at a maximum capacity and thus some LGBTIQ+ people were turned away. Many did not have any data credit to access online services or simply reach out to the community.
We have seen so many LGBTIQ+ people seeking asylum not being to pay rent, afford medication or food.
Health and well-being
Despite significant progress in Australia in terms of the advancement of LGBTIQ+ rights, for those who have experienced displacement the road is still rocky. It has been well documented that LGBTIQ+ people who have experienced displacement have to cope with complex trauma. Lockdown and uncertainty about the future have triggered trauma. FDPN members reported to us that their anxiety and depression worsened. Several members said that their interviews with the Immigration Department were postponed indefinitely, heightening the fear of deportation at such an uncertain time. Yet, for some, financial constraints limited access to counselling; for others, their ineligibility for Medicare prevented them from accessing medical help.
We have seen a lot of media coverage from countries that do not uphold the rights of LGBTIQ+ people, blaming them for spreading the virus. Despite such claims being completely false, they triggered trauma. Once again, for LGBTIQ+ people it was a flashback to state-sanctioned violence and a fear that they still could be discriminated simply for being who they are.
The pandemic has also impacted on people’s ability to manage existing health conditions. Some were unable to see doctors through telehealth because they had no access to Medicare; others had interrupted access to medication, including hormones, because of lack of income.
Finally, while many online events sought to forge social connections within the LGBTIQ+ community, people without the necessary technology and/or phone credit were limited in their ability to stay connected.
While it is important to document the impacts of pandemic to inform government and service responses, it is also vital to talk about less visible outcomes, such as heightened feelings of being unsafe and invisible.
LGBTIQ+ people seeking asylum in Australia are often faced with a choice: remain closeted but supported by one’s ethnic community, or be out and lose that support. Many choose the former in order to survive. Such invisibility has its price. It heightens isolation, worsens mental health and does not result in changes to available support.
During the pandemic, neither refugee nor LGBTIQ+ organisations has taken into account particular situations or differing needs of this community. Resources that were produced by various refugee or migrant organisations did not address sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics, and resources on COVID-19 produced by LGBTIQ+ organisations did not take into account people’s migration status and (in)eligibility for services as a result of it. LGBTIQ+ people seeking asylum might also have been locked in households that were homophobic, transphobic or biphobic, increasing risks of violence.
It would be an understatement to say that this time has been very challenging for LGBTIQ+ people seeking asylum. And it is only through the ongoing connection with others from similar backgrounds, that we, LGBTIQ+ people who have experienced displacement, remained connected and supported. We need others to step in.