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Panel examines plight of LGBT and HIV-positive North African and Middle Eastern asylum-seekers

by Roger Brigham
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Mar 16, 2010

Panelists at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco discussed on Thursday, March 11, the myriad of hurdles LGBTs and people with HIV/AIDS from North Africa and the Middle East continue to face when they seek asylum in the United States.

Neil Grungras, founder of the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration, an advocacy agency for refugees fleeing sexual or gender-based violence, talked about LGBT Iranians who fled their homes with no visas and few resources. They took a $15 bus ride to Turkey, where they are unable to obtain work visas or medical care and may have to wait up to six years before they can receive asylum status in Europe, Canada or the United States. These hardships are an addition to a $500 annual fee these refugees must pay the Turkish government for housing them in rural camps.

"Most turn to survival sex," Grungras said. "The biggest wonder I have is how in the world does someone have the strength to live through that?"

The United States and most of the world observe the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. A provision of that convention, revised in 1967, defines a refugee as a "person who owing to a 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."

Shawn Matloob, an attorney who specializes in immigration and nationality law, said LGBT people and foreigners with HIV who are in the United States are able to qualify as members of a "particular social group" and seek asylum if they can document patterns and practice of persecution in their countries of origin.

"For Middle Eastern and North African countries that is almost a given," Matloob said.

Asylum petitioners must prove the persecution they have suffered is by the government or a private citizen, but officials are unable or unwilling to protect them. Matloob said the Israeli government is the only one that has shown it can protect those who seek sanctuary.

Petitioners must make their applications within one year of arriving unless there are extraordinary or changed circumstances. One example of a changed circumstance, Matloob said, would be Uganda's move to make homosexuality punishable by death.

Ana Montana, immigration staff attorney at the AIDS Legal Referral Panel, said until the federal government dropped HIV/AIDS this year from the list of dangerous diseases which could bar foreigners from traveling to the United States, many people with the virus would not report their status and leave their medications at home, putting their health at greater risk. Many countries boycotted the first World AIDS Conference in San Francisco in 1990 because of the travel ban, but it will return to the United States in 2012 now that it has been lifted.

Dusty Araujo, asylum documentation coordinator with the National Immigrant Justice Center, said conditions for those fleeing persecution are often worse in the countries in which they were being processed than in their homeland. In Turkey, for example, he said "honor killings" are more common than in Iran.

Grungras said a disproportionate number of the people who are able to flee and seek refuge are men rather than women.

"Few women in these countries are given the tools to survive outside their countries," he said.

The panelists noted the majority of LGBT asylum seekers have been sexually abused as children, are in need of psychiatric help, and are those who work in the sex trade in order to survive; thus exposing them to HIV/AIDS and other infections. If they do arrive in the United States., they may not know how to apply for and receive deadline-driven benefits.

Grungras noted with the global population closing in on 7 billion people, there are nearly a billion LGBT individuals, most of whom are facing persecution. The number of such refugees, however, numbers in the thousands rather than the millions. And Grungras said most of them remain in the closet, live with self-hatred or in denial or are killed at home.

He also noted although there is a "growing consensus" LGBT people qualify as a persecuted group, "There's no assumption worldwide that sexual identity or orientation is immutable."

"I still have a lot of colleagues worldwide who are very liberal who refer to 'sexual preference,'" Grungras said.

Common routes LGBTs and people with HIV/AIDS take to seek help from agencies to relocate them Canada, the United States and Western Europe are from Iran to Turkey, Egypt from Sudan, Israel from Palestine and Iraq to Syria or Jordan.

"The countries are so hostile in the Middle East," Grungras said, "You have to choose your hostilities."

Roger Brigham, a freelance writer and communications consultant, is the San Francisco Editor of EDGE. He lives in Oakland with his husband, Eduardo.


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