70 years of Refugee Convention: who is left behind?

This week marks the 70th anniversary of the UN Refugee Convention. For the past 70 years, thanks to the international human rights law displaced people have been getting access to safety and protection. But who is left behind? 

While LGBTIQ+ people who are subjected to persecution can seek asylum and get a refugee status, the Convention fails them in many ways. 

The Convention defines a refugee as a person 

“[…] owing to well- founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

An interesting fact that in the original text a refugee was defined as a male. Note ‘he’ and ‘his’ in the quote. This means that historically the Convention was interpreted through a male lens and thus there are no mentions of gender-based violence in it, let alone sexual and gender diversity. The Convention has created a distinction between ‘heterosexual’ people as a norm, and the rest, not even worth mentioning. 

More commonly LGBTIQ+ people fall under the definition as being members of a social group or being persecuted based on the political opinion when they are activists. 

In 2018, a historic addition to the UN Refugee Convention was introduced and adopted by UN Member states. It is called a Global Compact on Refugees. Despite much work and advocacy, the Global Compact on Refugees failed to recognise the existence and the protection needs of LGBTIQ+ forcibly displaced people. 

For example, despite much evidence that LGBTIQ+ people have more acute protection needs, this is a definition of such groups in the Global Compact on Refugees: 

“Children, including those who are unaccompanied or separated; women at risk; survivors of torture, trauma, trafficking in persons, sexual and gender-based violence, sexual exploitation and abuse or harmful practices; those with medical needs; persons with disabilities; those who are illiterate; adolescents and youth; and older persons”. 

While one can argue, that LGBTIQ+ people can be survivors of violence or harmful practices or live with disabilities, this active erasure and a lack of mentions of a word ‘LGBTIQ’ constitutes intentional silencing and marginalisation. 

Despite an ability to seek safety if you are an LGBTIQ+ person, there are many issues in practice that impinge on this human right. 

There is still a lack of recognition that LGBTIQ+ people experience sexual and gender-based violence from all types of perpetrators and at all stages of their displacement journey. Often the violence is inflicted not only by state actors such as police but their family members. Queer women are forced into heterosexual marriages. Some of them are subjected to the female genital cutting. Queer men and women are murdered so that families do not have to endure this ‘shame’. LGBTIQ+ are subjected to conversion practices. Trans people, especially trans women of color are murdered at unprecedented rates. Intersex bodies are mutilated and, in some countries, intersex babies are not even getting registered for birth certificates. This violence is inflicted by people smugglers, in refugee camps (and Kakuma refugee camp in Kenia is one of the most concerning examples), in detention centres and even ‘in safety’ of new countries. 

This lack of recognition of more complex experiences of displacement also manifests itself in how LGBTIQ+ asylum cases are assessed. In Australia, there is no compulsory training on LGBTIQ+ issues for immigration decision makers. LGBTIQ+ people should not only prove their persecution but that they are who they are. 

LGBTIQ+ people are routinely not being believed and have to go through rejections and lengthy appeals. Some people who FDPN have supported have been waiting for the resolution of their status for 5-6 years and more. 

In addition, Australian government, same as most of others, does not collect data on LGBTIQ+ related claims. This makes this group further invisible. 

Even with an increased visibility of the issue, the voices of LGBTIQ+ forcibly displaced people and LGBTIQ+ refugee-led organisations are being silenced. Just this week there was a UNHCR co-organised event about LGBTIQ+ refugees that refused a participation of an LGBTIQ+ refugee-led organisation as a panel speaker. Instead, two organisations that work with LGBTIQ+ refugees but are not led by them got to be centred. Times and times again we see that large, well-resourced organisations that are not led by LGBTIQ+ refugees are prioritised for everything from advice to funding. We are given crumbles and impressions that our voices matter when the decisions have already been made about us but without us. We are seeing selectiveness on who is regarded as a legitimate LGBTIQ refugee. If you do not look like one, your skin color is wrong or dare to know what you need, you are out, you are not convenient, you are the other. 

This is gatekeeping. This is a colonising practice of othering and delegitimising. This is intentional erasure of the expertise that LGBTIQ+ refugee-led organisations bring. We go unfunded doing the critical work no one else does. 

70 years since an internationally identified need to afford protection to those who are subjected to violence, yet we, LGBTIQ+ people, are still facing a world that is hostile to us. We, LGBTIQ+ people, are being killed and violated because of who we are, who we love and how our bodies look like. 

Despite these atrocities, we rise, we lift each other up, we build communities and become the accepting families we never had. 

Join us. Stand with us. Use your voice. Show your allyship. 

Donate to support LGBTIQ+ refugee-led work: https://chuffed.org/project/support-lgbtiq-refugees

Show your solidarity by signing to the Canberra Statement.

Learn more about who is left behind in the Refugee Convention.