Traumatic experiences faced by LGBTQ+ refugees in their home countries—from death threats to imprisonment and even torture—make it likely they will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, says Kelly Ernst, president of the End of the Rainbow Foundation in Alberta. And making them relive this trauma during the immigration process can result in re-traumatization.
Anna Charbonneau, educator at the LGBTQ+ Compass in Montreal says, “As they have to answer thorny questions related to the persecution they went through, they reopen these wounds.”
Each year, refugees persecuted for their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression (SOGIE) leave everything behind for Canada, where they hope to find safety. Same-sex relations are still illegal in 71 jurisdictions, while 15 states criminalize transgender people’s identities and expression. Although LGBTQ+ refugees’ journeys are full of pitfalls, their troubles are far from being over when they arrive in Canada.
The burden of proof
Whether it is during the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) hearings or the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) interviews, asylum seekers are pressured to bring proof of both being LGBTQ+ and being persecuted for it.
Mohamad Altasseh, who has been through the UNHCR refugee status determination, says it’s deeply intimidating.
“It’s almost like a police system,” they told New Canadian Media. “They are making sure you’re not lying.”
But proving one’s sexual and gender identity and expression can be very challenging.
“There is no paper that says you are lesbian, gay or bisexual”, says Charbonneau, adding that it can also be difficult to explain one’s sexual orientation, gender identity and expression to a Canadian audience.
“In their country, they may use different terms or they might not even have words for it,” she explains.
A 2017 study conducted by McGill University shows that forcing LGBTQ+ claimants to constantly come out in front of complete strangers during the immigration process is mentally difficult, especially as they had to hide their SOGIE for years in order to survive.
“Telling my story over and over was hard,” says Altasseh. “I felt very vulnerable and very naked.”
Additionally, says Ernst, some questions asked during the IRB hearings can be inappropriate, as they force claimants “to answer very pointed questions about sexual behavior.”
Left to fend for themselves
Another issue, according to Ernst, is that LGBTQ+ claimants in Canada often have to wait for two years or more before the hearing. In the meantime, they can’t access settlement and basic language services.
He adds that there are frequent delays in the processing time of the refugees claimants’ work permits, which means that they have to find other ways to eat and have a roof over their head.
“Often they’re living in homeless shelters,” he said. “It just adds to their trauma.”
Ernst says LGBTQ+ refugees experience a double discrimination being LGBTQ+ and from a racialized community, which often result in housing and other services being denied.
According to Horst Backé from ROAR Refugee on Vancouver Island, they might face homophobia and transphobia in Canada.
“A transgender person told me they had never felt as unsafe as they felt walking down some of Vancouver’s main streets,” he said.
Adding to these obstacles, Backé says LGBTQ+ refugees generally face intense social isolation, which has been even more amplified by the pandemic.
“LGBTQ+ folks don’t have a family. Very often they’re running away from it,” notes Backé. They also experience major challenges connecting with their ethnocultural and/or religious community in Canada.
“They’re worried the people in the organizations will have similar worldviews of the places they’re escaping,” he explains.
“I felt I was in prison”
Abeer, who provided only her first name due to security reasons, is a 23-year-old lesbian refugee from Saudi Arabia, who arrived in Canada in 2020 as part of the Government-Assisted Refugees Program (GAR). After the mandatory quarantine, she was sent to a reception house in Ottawa, where refugees wait for longer-term housing.
“My caseworker told me it wouldn’t be long; maybe one week or two. But I think he forgot me,” she shares. “I stayed in the shelter for two months without money, without anything. I had only four pieces of clothes.”
Being in limbo at the reception house was mentally challenging for Abeer, who was already suffering from depression as a consequence of traumatic experiences.
“I was just staying there and doing nothing,” she says. “I felt I was in prison.”
As a LGBTQ+ person, Abeer also felt very isolated in the reception house. She says the other asylum seekers were homophobic and transphobic, refusing to answer or acknowledge her.
After several weeks of waiting without even knowing why, Abeer finally saw her caseworker again. He told her that they were looking to find her a room in a shared facility.
Abeer asked for a place of her own instead, as living with others was part of her trauma and would contribute to worsening her depression. But even after she showed a medical note from her psychiatrist, he turned a deaf ear.
Without any support, Abeer’s mental health continued to deteriorate until she attempted suicide.
Eventually, she found a bachelor apartment for herself. But starting a new life was still difficult as the reception house hadn’t provided her with any resources.
“At the time I needed information, such as what is a social insurance number? Where can I find a family doctor? Where can I attend English classes?” says the young woman, who had to figure it all out by herself. She also wishes she had been redirected to LGBTQ+ organizations to be able to connect with the queer community.
Welcoming queer refugees
In response to this lack of support, several non-profit organizations from all over Canada have developed a range of resources for LGBTQ+ refugees. For example, an initiative of Max Ottawa called “Queerspora,” offers sexual and mental health resources for male newcomers that are into men, explains Altasseh, who works for the organization.
As for the project LGBTQ+ Compass, they propose psychological preparation meetings for the hearing in addition to several activities that aim to break social isolation, says Charbonneau. The program also offers training to sensitize lawyers and service providers to the realities faced by LGBTQ+ refugees.
Abeer says hiring queer people within the reception house, or at least educating caseworkers about LGBTQ+ people’s particular challenges, will make a big difference.
Other organizations, such as ROAR Refugee, privately sponsor refugees by raising funds to cover their needs for a year.
“We also make them feel welcome. We give them orientation and help them connect with a broader community,” says Backé.
His hope is to see more private sponsorships, which he says offer higher quality support than government sponsorship.