Homosexual acts are illegal in 85 countries throughout the world, and at least seven countries permit the death penalty for those found to have violated this law.
LGBT individuals who flee such nations can now seek assistance from the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration, the first non-governmental organization in the world dedicated solely to providing support for LGBT refugees.
The organization was founded last summer and began operations in January. Neil Grungras, ORAM executive director, is the son of former refugees and has spent decades working in the field of refugee law, an area he said has always appealed to him.
“I knew I wanted to do refugee law before I even went to law school,” Grungras said. “I was always passionate about the fact that there are people out of sight who are suffering. We can’t just leave that for the universe to do something about; you have to do it yourself.”
ORAM provides free legal assistance to LGBT refugees in the Middle East and northern Africa and works to raise awareness of the endemic hardships faced by this population.
“After 20 years of practicing refugee law and working with all kinds of clients, it became really clear to me that the mainstream refugee world was not dealing with the issue of LGBT refugees. There’s a sense that countries can do whatever they want when it comes to sexual orientation; they can criminalize homosexuality or execute someone for being gay because it’s seen as that country’s right to do that,” Grungras said. “There are tens of thousands of LGBTs who are running away from various countries and who don’t have the luxury of getting to the United States or Canada and are completely abandoned. Nobody’s really been concerned with that thought.”
The organization recently released its first publication, a report on the state of LGBT refugees living in Turkey, which was based on interviews with nearly 50 such individuals. The majority of the LGBT refugees in Turkey are originally from Iran, although others hail from surrounding countries such as Iraq and Syria.
“These countries all have something in common, and that’s that they have cultures that are not accepting of homosexuality,” Grungras said. “They view it as an abomination and think it’s legitimate to try to eradicate it. Turkey’s in the unfortunate position of bordering these countries and, comparatively, is relatively Western.”
Although Turkey does not consider homosexuality a crime, the country still does not provide a completely “safe” haven from the violence and torture that many LGBT individuals face in their home countries. Between November 2008 and April 2009 alone, 10 LGBT people were killed in the country.
The report found the majority of interviewees had experienced physical and verbal threats, which often escalated into beatings, attacks with knives or other weapons and sexual abuse.
“Some of these cases bring tears to my eyes,” Grungras said. “Some of these people can’t even go out of their houses. And in a lot of instances they’re afraid to go to police to report anything because they’re often hostile toward them.”
Most of those interviewed reported widespread discrim-ination in employment and housing because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, which rendered many of them homeless and without steady income. Many of those who sought assistance from charities or government agencies were taunted and humiliated by the employees and asked intrusive questions about their sexual practices.
Grungras recently moderated the first-ever panel on LGBT issues of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, where he encountered others who work in the field and concur that the issue of LGBT refugees “has been in the closet for far too long,” and that agencies that work with refugees need to be better equipped to assist LGBT individuals.
“There’s agreement within the UNHCR that more needs to be done for these NGOs to be sensitive to how they treat these refugees and what kind of welcoming environment they can provide for them,” he said. “It’s not enough to just not be hostile or not laugh at them. These people are terrified. They come from societies where who they are is taboo, where what they’ve done is criminal, where there’s so much internalized homophobia, these people feel that they’ve brought shame on their families. A lot of these people feel that they don’t even have the right to exist.”
Grungras noted that while there needs to be “realistic expectations” for the extent to which the United States can aid LGBT refugees, the country, as the primary resettler for many such individuals, can be doing more.
“The U.S. takes in about 4,000 Iranians every year, and there’s no reason we can’t set aside 250 of that number for LGBT people. Last year, we took in 17,000 Iraqis. The State Department itself issued a report on the violence that LGBT Iraqis face, so why can’t we take in 250 of them?” he said. “We’re not going to be able to completely change the world or change the minds of families who will allow their sons or daughters to be killed for being gay, but by really looking at these LGBT refugees and working with them we can do our part to save lives.”
ORAM has instituted an Adopt A Refugee program, in which supporters can contribute a certain amount of money, beginning with just $10, that will be used to aid specific LGBT refugees. Grungras said the organization is also always seeking assistance with research, interviews and other behind-the-scenes work integral to affecting change for the LGBT refugee community.
He noted that most Americans, even those in the LGBT community, are not aware of the gravity of the hardships faced by LGBT refugees, and that ORAM is hoping to open people’s eyes to theses struggles.
“For LGBT people in our country, the main priority is marriage, which is an incredibly legitimate battle, but I think a lot of people don’t even have it in their conscience that on the other side of the world, people are being killed for this. And that’s just in the LGBT community; I think that when you expand to mainstream communities, the knowledge is even less. We want to educate people in the U.S. about this, because we can do something about it.”
For more information about ORAM, visit www.oraminternational.org.