Commemorating June 20, World Refugee Day
Just two years ago, Arash and Javad (not their real names), two young Iranian men were building their future together. Arash was pursuing a successful career in Iran's financial sector and Javad was a university student in Tehran. Now the men live in abject poverty in a remote area of Turkey. They have no income and are frequently forced to scavenge for food in their neighbors' trashcans. Javad, a diabetic, needs regular monitoring and medication, which he cannot afford. His health has deteriorated to the point where he regularly suffers diabetic comas.
How did two young, upwardly mobile Iranians end up in such dire circumstances? The answer to this question is simple. Arash and Javad are gay men forced to flee their country as refugees. According to the Iranian penal code, homosexual conduct is a crime that is punishable by death.
Arash and Javad met in 2005 and conducted their relationship in secrecy for over a year. But late in 2006, Javad's father caught them in an intimate act. Incensed at being dishonored, the ultra-religious man locked his son and his partner in the bedroom and rushed to the kitchen to get a knife, intending to kill them on the spot. Arash and Javad managed to escape through a window but knew that if they stayed in Iran either the mob or the morality police would soon catch up with them. Left with no choice, they fled to neighboring Turkey and applied for refugee status.
According to UN statistics, there are currently over 21,000 refugees in Turkey, 2,500 of whom are from Iran. Turkey is the preferred destination for many Iranian refugees because they do not have to get entry visas. However, once gay refugees arrive in Turkey, the situation is bleak. Due to the volume of applications, it normally takes up to two years for them to be reassigned to a country willing to accept them. During the transitional period, gay refugees are only allowed to live in small towns, without the right to work or pursue education. While the UN Refugee Agency may provide some financial aid, the amount is nominal and before they are eligible they must be recognized as "genuine" refugees. This is a process with results that are not guaranteed.
Arash and Javad have been interviewed twice by the UN Refugee Agency since their arrival in Turkey in December 2006. So far they have not been recognized as refugees, and therefore they are not eligible for any financial or medical aid.
This can lead to destitution for gay refugees, like Arash and Javad, who are forced to leave their country to escape persecution and death. Unlike other refugees, who travel in groups and enjoy various degrees of support from their family, church, or party members, gay and lesbian refugees are often disowned by their family members, have no support network, and in most cases do not have enough resources to survive the resettlement process.
The situation of gay refugees is complicated because the Turkish public and law enforcement agents are very hostile to sexual minorities, despite the fact that homosexuality is not a crime in Turkey. In recent years, many gay and lesbian refugees have been subject to verbal and physical attacks. As a consequence, they are often forced to remain indoors during the day for their own safety, and venture outside only at night, under cover of dark, when they are less likely to be recognized as foreign and can more readily hide their sexual orientation.
Tragically, there is no organization that attends to the needs of gay and lesbian refugees worldwide. The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, along with a few human rights and resettlement agencies, tries to respond to the refugee crisis but the overwhelming volume of cases makes it impossible to do without large-scale intervention. The US government currently spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to resettle religious and ethnic minorities who are persecuted in their home countries. Isn't it time for our government to show some interest in protecting this vulnerable population, too?
Hossein Alizadeh, a gay Iranian who won asylum in the United States, is Communications Coordinator at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
Published on June 20, 2008 | OutRight Action International an LGBT human rights organization