August 17, 2009

VII. The Situation of Refugees

Pervasive social prejudice, family repression, lack of any effective legal protection, and sudden outbursts of lethal violence all mean that suspect men in Iraq are in steady danger.  

Few Iraqis have altogether escaped the spreading circles of sectarian, retaliatory, or random violence since the occupation began, just as the state's ferocity under Saddam left few citizens wholly unscathed. Men seen as effeminate or suspected of homosexual conduct are not necessarily more intensely targeted than other groups or identities have been in recent years. However, they have certain specific disadvantages.

Their isolated circles, organized round a few networks of friends or anonymous aliases on the Internet, constitute nothing like a cohesive community that could furnish mutual support. Nor, in most cases, are their families willing to offer any help or protection, even if they could. Many men who identify as gay have nowhere to turn, and no recourse but to leave the country.

For most this means going to another, nearby country in the region. There, their best hope is to register with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). They must then endure the time-consuming procedure of refugee status determination, in which the UNHCR evaluates their case and decides whether their claim is valid. After that comes the long and uncertain wait to be resettled elsewhere; the UNHCR must present the refugee's file to sympathetic governments and ask them to accept him. During these processes, which can last years, the applicants must stay where they are.

For Iraqis who have already faced persecution based on sexual orientation or gender identity, no country around Iraq is safe.

Years of violence in Iraq since 2003 have generated a massive crisis of displacement.  UNHCR estimates that nearly 2 million Iraqis have fled the country, most to surrounding states.[116] Of these, 291,000-about 14 percent of the estimated total-are registered with UNHCR; only some 72,400 of these have so far been referred for resettlement, and only 28,200 of them have actually been resettled.[117] The vast majority of the estimated 2 million are in Syria (which UNHCR estimates hosts around 1,200,000 Iraqis now, although only 206,000 have been registered) and Jordan (with an estimated 450,000, of whom 52,000 are registered).[118]

No figures are available-or are likely to become so-for what proportion of any of these numbers have fled persecution based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The UNHCR does not disaggregate data according to the grounds of refugee claims. The relevant numbers are almost certainly quite small as against the overall, overwhelming flood of people on the move. However, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Iraqis in the refugee system face, once again, specific dangers.  

Consensual homosexual conduct is illegal in all the countries surrounding Iraq except Turkey and Jordan. In Iran and Saudi Arabia it is punished, under certain circumstances, by death.   Refugees fleeing persecution in Iraq because of their sexual orientation and gender identity may face renewed persecution in virtually all the countries where they can find interim refuge. Moreover, the absence of an open and substantial LGBT community capable of providing even the barest mutual assistance, and the lack of any family support for most LGBT people forced to flee, continue to restrict their resources and leave them unprotected in the Diaspora.

Turkey has no legal penalties for homosexual conduct, but violence against LGBT people is pervasive.[119] Although (unlike Syria and Jordan) Turkey has signed both the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, it has limited its accession to refugees of European origin, thus precluding all Iraqi refugees from government grants of asylum in Turkey.  In order to keep them out of major cities, the Turkish authorities routinely require asylum seekers and refugees to remain in secondary cities and towns where support services (and civil society organizations) are few and far between-and where a conservative social climate puts LGBT people at risk of discrimination and abuse.[120](Partly due to these restrictions, Turkey now hosts only 8,300 Iraqi refugees.)[121]

Meanwhile, although Jordan also has no criminal penalties for homosexual conduct, the social and political climate is still more repressive than Turkey's. One man described how Jordanian security forces blackmailed and illegally expelled him in 2008 because of his sexual orientation:

My situation in Jordan was completely legal. I had a work visa and a legal job, and I had just registered with the UNHCR, where they gave me a card with a number. Then the Jordanian mukhabarat [security] called me on the phone.  "We want to see you." I thought, maybe they knew I went to some gay parties, or saw me at a particular mosque and thought I was an extremist or something.
They asked me: "Are you gay?" I said, no. They said: "Yes you are." I gave the [UNHCR] card to the mukhabarat and showed them the legality of my visa. They said, "We don't care. You are a mennyak  [fucker], a faggot, and we don't want you in our country."
They twisted my arms hard behind me. They took my passport, and wanted me to inform on Iraqis in Jordan-all kinds of Iraqis, not just gay ones. They said, "Come back tomorrow."
The next day I returned and I refused [to cooperate]. They cuffed my hands behind me and put me in a cell: "Why the fuck do you make this shame with yourself?" they asked. I said: "Never, never!"
They took me to another jail or prison, and I spent seven or eight days there. And then they sent me back to Iraq.[122]

Syria has been generous in receiving displaced Iraqis, but its security and surveillance apparatus makes the strict legal penalties against homosexual conduct a severe threat to LGBT refugees. One man, registered with the UNHCR in Damascus-where he and a few fellow claimants received periodic support from the London-based Iraqi LGBT group in the form of money transfers-told us how security forces there deported him:

I think someone told the mukhabarat about us. They called me to come and questioned me, asking me about Iraqi LGBT and our relationship to this organization and why they are sending us money.
They asked if I am gay and about my relationship with my friend Munir, because we lived in the same apartment and were together a lot. I denied everything. There was a lot of verbal abuse; they were very harsh with me.  They asked me questions about people who had been visiting us-it was obvious we'd been under heavy surveillance. And then, after two days, they deported us.[123]

Their deportation almost cost his friend Munir his life. Munir recounts:

When I was deported from Syria, the Syrians had written [on my file] that it was because I was gay. And on the Iraqi side of the border, they read that took my passport, and told me, "We will give you to the Ministry of the Interior"-and that meant instant death. The border control people said, "You were kicked out of Syria because of prostitution [di'ara] and we are going to kill you."
They did it because they wanted money from me- $2,500 USD to give my passport back. Because my file said I was gay, I was easy pickings. I was at the Iraq border, then, for four days, without a cent. I couldn't go forward; there was a checkpoint right in front of me, and without my passport they would kill me.
So I made a deal with the Iraqi border guards: one of them would take my passport and come with me to Baghdad, and I'd get the money together there and pay him. I called every friend I had in Baghdad and they somehow assembled the cash. He travelled all the way to Baghdad with me, and I paid him and got my passport and my right to live back.[124]

UNHCR has recognized the seriousness of persecution based on sexual orientation in Iraq. Its 2009 Eligibility Guidelines for Assessing the International Protection Needs of Iraqi Asylum-Seekers observe that "While homosexuality is not prohibited by Iraqi law, it is a strict taboo and considered to be against Islam. Since 2003, Iraq's largely marginalized and vulnerable lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community has frequently been targeted for attacks in an environment of impunity."[125]

The threats and difficulties those people face in the surrounding countries of first asylum, however, demand attention. They can only be resolved by a commitment-on the part both of the UNHCR and of Western governments that have made paper promises about refugee protection-to remove lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Iraqi claimants from danger, and resettle them expeditiously in safe countries.  

[116] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, "Iraq: Country Operations Profile, 2009," at http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/page?page=49e486426, accessed May 2, 2009. 

[117]United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, "Iraq Situation Update," May 2009.

[118] Ibid.

[119]"We Need a Law for Liberation": Gender, Sexuality, and Human Rights in a Changing Turkey, a Human Rights Watch report, 2008, http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2008/05/21/we-need-law-liberation-0.

[120] Human Rights Watch conducted extensive research among LGBT Iranian refugees in Turkey in 2007 and 2008. See also Helsinki Citizens' Assembly-Turkey and Organization for Refuge, Asylum, and Migration (ORAM), Unsafe Haven: The Security Challenges Facing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Turkey, a 2009 report, http://oraminternational.org/sites/default/files/pdf/Unsafe%20Haven%20Final.pdf, accessed July 10, 2009.

[121] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, "Iraq Situation Update," May 2009.

[122]Human Rights Watch interview with Hussein (not his real name), Iraq, April 23, 2009.

[123]Human Rights Watch interview with Omar (not his real name), Iraq, April 25, 2009.

[124]Human Rights Watch interview with Munir (not his real name), Iraq, April 20, 2009. Two other gay Iraqis who had lived in Syria, but had not applied for refugee status with the UNHCR, told us how Syrian police arrested them on the street in Damascus in December 2006: their story illustrates the dangers that "effeminate" foreigners may face.  The police stopped them, demanding "Are you boys or girls?"

They pulled down our pants to see what sex we were, then beat us on the street in front of everybody.  Then they took us to the Bab Mousalla police station. In a day or so, they took us to the Bashar Asad hospital, to do tests to see if we were gay.  The doctor asked us to take our pants down and we had to kneel in front of him.  He asked each of us to count to ten and inserted his thumb in the anus.  Then he said, "They're gay."

After that, it was back to the police station, and they put us each in a solitary cell as small as a WC.   Then there were three days of torture. In the morning, they beat us up and electroshocked us from 10 to 12 a.m.   At night, from 10 to midnight, we were showered in cold water and stretched with our hands and feet tied, and they whipped us.  

Then we were taken to court.  We didn't have a lawyer.   They charged us with fujur [debauchery]. The prosecutor said we had had sex with American marines and Iraqi militias back in Iraq.  The judge said: "We don't like you Iraqis; why do you come to this country?"  We were sentenced to prison for six months.   From the prison, we managed to hire a lawyer, and he got us set free, but expelled from the country.  We were expelled in February 2007, and we cannot go back for five years.  They just took us to the Iraqi border and left us there.

Human Rights Watch interview with Yehia and Abbas (not their real names), Beirut, Lebanon, July 10, 2009.  In its reporting on other countries, Human Rights Watch has documented the intrusive and abusive practice of spurious anal examinations to "prove" homosexual conduct; see In a Time of Torture: The Assault on Justice in Egypt's Crackdown on Homosexual Conduct, a Human Rights Watch report, 2004.   As Human Rights Watch shows there, when conducted in carceral conditions without consent, such examinations constitute torture.

[125]UNHCR, Eligibility Guidelines for Assessing the International Protection Needs of Iraqi Asylum-Seekers, April 2009, "Sexual Orientation," pp. 193-195, http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/49f569cf2.html, accessed May 2, 2009.