The war isn’t over for gay refugees as they face abuse in shelters in the EU

Published February 22nd, 2016 - 02:30 GMT
Omar, a 20-year-old Syrian gay refugee, speaks about his journey and about abuses against gay migrants by fellow travellers, during an interview with AFP in Aalsmeer, the Netherlands. (AFP/Emmanuel Dunand)
Omar, a 20-year-old Syrian gay refugee, speaks about his journey and about abuses against gay migrants by fellow travellers, during an interview with AFP in Aalsmeer, the Netherlands. (AFP/Emmanuel Dunand)

When Alaa Ammar fled Syria, he was not only escaping civil war, but also the threat of persecution he faced as a gay man. However, he did not find the safe haven he hoped for when he finally arrived in The Netherlands.

Ammar and four other homosexual travelers were quickly confronted with the challenge of living with other newly arrived asylum seekers at a refugee shelter in the northern Dutch town of Ter Apel.

"After five minutes, they started looking. After 10 minutes, they started to talk. After one hour, they came to us," said Ammar, 28 years old. "After three hours, they started fighting with us."

Across Europe, LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered and Queer) refugees report suffering from verbal, physical and sexual abuse in centres for asylum seekers, and some have been forced to move out. Numerous documented cases have been reported in The Netherlands, Spain, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland. Frequently, the abuse comes from fellow refugees, other times from security staff and translators.

The trend of abuse could be linked to a potential cultural clash: Many refugees have fled from conservative Muslim countries where homosexuality is considered an unacceptable taboo, to more arguably hypersexualized and liberal European societies.

In Syria, where most of the latest refugees come from, homosexuality is illegal, and the militant Daesh group has killed more than 30 gays in Syria and Iraq over the past two years, according to activists. The death sentence for homosexuality is to throw the "culprits" off of building and this practice has been commonly publicized through videos and images released by the extremist group.

A similar debate erupted over cultural attitudes toward women, after young men sexually assaulted and mugged hundreds of women in Cologne and several other German cities on New Year's Eve. Reports initially blamed refugees, however updated accounts from the police described the culprits as being primarily non-refugee men from North African and Arabic origin.

The number of refugees accused of abusing homosexuals are just a tiny portion of the flow of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers streaming into Europe. However, it is likely that most cases of abuse go unreported because of the social stigma felt by gay refugees, and there is no official tally across the continent due to European privacy laws.

The Lesbian and Gay Federation based in Germany, reported 106 cases of violence against homosexual and transgender refugees in the Berlin region, dating from August through the end of January. Most of the cases took place in refugee shelters, and 13 included sexual abuse.

According to Joerg Steinert, head of the federation in Berlin-Brandenburg, refugees are reluctant to approach police for fear of jeopardizing their asylum applications, opting instead for pleading gay rights groups for assistance all over the country. In 2015, the federation relocated 50 individuals to private homes because the refugee centers were considered too dangerous.

Private shelters and charities claim they are overwhelmed by the endless flow of migrants to give enough attention to some refugees' special needs. Hundreds of people are often housed in one big hall, without lockable rooms or gender-segragated bathrooms.

Critics say it is the responsibility of the German government to protect asylum seekers. However last month, a proposal to increase the security of asylum shelters was removed from the government bill, despite official reprimands from the European Commission that Germany is not implementing EU safety guidelines.

Without adequate support from the government, the protection of LGBTQ refugees has largely fallen to rights groups and local communities. A specialized shelter with capacity to house up to 122 LGBTQ refugees is due to open in Berlin on Tuesday, and an additional shelter with ten beds is planned in Nuremberg. Berlin has also appointed a counselor as contact person for the registration of gay and transgender migrants.

The situation is not much better in other parts of Europe. In Spain, two asylum seekers from Cameroon and a third from Morocco were physically assaulted after their sexual orientation was discovered by others staying at the shelters, according to the Pueblos Unidos nonprofit. The men now have asylum petitions pending before the Spanish government citing their homosexuality as a reason why they are eligible for refugee status, the nonprofit said.

Last summer, a court in Sweden sentenced an asylum seeker to five months in prison for making death threats, spitting in the face and strangling a fellow refugee in a center in Jonkoping. When the victim collapsed onto the floor, the attacker kicked him unconscious. Witnesses and a surveillance video backed the claims. The attacker was "outraged that Sweden protects homosexuality and all should be killed by slaughtering," according to court documents.

In Finland, SETA, a nationwide lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights group, reported cases of harassment and abuse of LGBTQ refugees. As a consequence, a number of centers have cordoned off a separation and safe section for those afraid of sexual harassment.

Other refugees contacted SETA after fleeing their designated shelter citing abuse as the reason for their escape. In February 2016, a Finnish court sentenced an asylum seeker to three-and-half-years in prison for raping another migrant man at a southern Finnish center.

In Denmark, at least 10 cases of harassment have been reported, according to Mads Ted Drud-Jensen from the LGBT Asylum group. Drud-Jensen emphasized that those figures only represent victims who have been in contact with the group.

"Stepping out of the closet may be hard to do, and not everyone is talking to us," he said.

The College for Human Rights, a Dutch human rights group, reported regular abuse of gays and lesbians inside a large camp with a capacity of up to 3,000 asylum seekers near the city of Nijmegen. According to the group, one refugee "has repeatedly found excrement and food in his bed. He is threatened and abused by fellow residents."

The victim said he feared for his safety. According to the report, he often found notes in his bed with the words "kill gay" and "we don't want gay in the camp" written.

After Ammar reported abuse in Ter Apel, he and the other gay refugees slept on the floor of a restaurant for a night before being  transferred to another shelter in Apeldoorn.

Once Ammar arrived in the new shelter, three fellow refugees attacked him and another man in the communal washroom and slashed them with a knife.

"You could see from their eyes that they wanted to hurt me," Ammar said.

Following this, Ammar was transferred again, this time back to a caravan in Ter Apel. He was advised to keep the windows closed by the employees with the COA asylum organization. But other asylum seekers "opened the windows and said bad things to us" Ammar said. 

It was only after Ammar received asylum and moved in with a private host in Amsterdam a few weeks ago that he finally began to feel safe.

"Who wouldn't like Amsterdam?' Ammar said. "People don't care if I'm gay or not. I can scream 'I'm gay!' and they will say, 'Welcome.'"

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