There are more people today who have been displaced by war, poverty and climate change than at any point in recorded history. The current number of refugees has exceeded those displaced by World War I and World War II combined.
About 60 million people became refugees in 2015 alone. Many refugees fleeing war and poverty are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or intersex (LGBTQI). Immigration policies, including Australia's regional resettlement arrangement, known as the “PNG Solution”, create the conditions for increased harassment, humiliation, exclusion and violence against LGBTQI refugees.
The media focuses on the mass forced migration of people from war-torn countries, such as Syria, and less frequently reports that large numbers of LGBTQI people have been forced to flee their countries due to state-sanctioned homophobic and transphobic persecution.
There are about 2.7 billon people living in 76 countries that criminalise homosexuality. The death penalty for homosexuality is applied across countries including Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen.
Many countries use imprisonment, corporal punishment and “treatments” that aim to eliminate same sex desire. For example, undercover journalists in China recently captured on film the use of “anti-gay treatments”, such as electric shock therapy, in several hospitals and health centres in major cities.
Similarly, hundreds of lesbian, gender non-conforming and transgender women across Uganda, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa have been, and continue to be, raped by male family members and forced into marriages.
The perpetrators of this form of homophobic violence, known as “corrective rape”, are enabled by explicitly homophobic legislation and by government silence and complicity in these hate crimes.
The prevailing ideology of Australia's “deterrence” and “border protection” policies is inherently punitive and racist. The PNG Solution ensures that all refugees who attempt to travel to Australia by boat are incarcerated in detention centres in Papua New Guinea, Manus Island and Nauru.
These countries are known for their human rights abuses, police violence and extreme poverty. Mandatory detention prisons are dangerous for all refugees. Women and children have reported sexual assaults by detention centre security guards.
The Human Rights Commission's National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention said that in 2013-2014 there were 233 assaults involving children, 33 of which were sexual assaults perpetrated by social workers and guards working in detention on Nauru.
Since Australia's offshore processing program restarted in 2012, a number of refugees including Reza Berati, Fazel Chegeni, Mohammad Nasim Najafi and Hamid Kehazaei have been killed as a result of violent assaults and because they were denied basic medical treatment in detention.
Despite this, immigration minister Peter Dutton asserted in 2015 that refugees who arrive by boat will “never to be settled in Australia”. Recently it was revealed that the Australian government and former immigration minister Scott Morrison refused offers from the New Zealand government, over the last two years, to re-settle up to 300 refugees from Manus Island and Nauru.
Institutionalised culture of suspicion
Detention in offshore immigration prisons is especially dangerous for LGBTQI asylum seekers who have been forced to declare their sexuality to immigration officials in their applications for refugee status. The government claims this is to help “fast track” LGBTQI asylum seekers claims.
When LGBTQI asylum seekers have been asked by immigration officials to “prove” their sexuality, they have been asked to identify Western LGTBQI icons and to demonstrate an ongoing connection with LGTBQI groups and venues.
For LGTBQI refugees who have fled homophobic and transphobic persecution, disclosing diverse sexual or gender identity is very difficult, given the likelihood of being deported.
Disclosing sexual or gender diversity in detention has also meant that some refugees have experienced homophobic and transphobic violence, harassment and abuse perpetrated by detention centre staff and other refugees.
The institutional culture of suspicion towards LGBTQI refugee claims is endemic. Amnesty International and other refugee and LGBTQI advocacy groups have condemned the practice of immigration officials telling LGBTIQ asylum seekers whose claims have been rejected to “closet” their sexuality or their gender identity when they are returned to the countries from which they fled.
If LGBTQI asylum seekers are deemed to be refugees they can be resettled in PNG — but not in Australia. This policy has significant implications for LGBTQI people who are resettled in PNG. Homosexuality is a criminal act under section 210 of the Papua New Guinea Criminal Code.
In PNG, the penalty for male gay sex is 14 years' imprisonment. Gay male asylum seekers could then, theoretically, exit immigration detention only to be incarcerated once again.
Although these laws are not stringently applied, Evan Ritl and David Sandbach from Liberty Victoria's Young Liberty for Law Reform argued: “The mere existence of such laws means that asylum seekers and resettled refugees may face intimidation, threats, fear and violence, with no real recourse to authorities due to the possibility of facing prison time”.
Threats and shaming
Amnesty International reported that staff on Manus Island have threatened asylum seekers to disclose consensual same-sex sexual activity to PNG police, claiming that they are mandated to do so.
The Salvation Army has also been criticised for distributing printed material with pictures of gay and lesbian couples kissing with large red crosses superimposed over the images. It claims that this material is used to inform asylum seekers that homosexuality is illegal and not culturally tolerated in PNG.
Due to these threats and systematic shaming, LGBTQI asylum seekers have changed their claims for asylum. Resettlement in other offshore countries is no better: in Cambodia LGBTQI people are targeted and some have reported gang rape assaults.
By contrast, Canada's new government has recently expanded its refugee intake to 25,000 to support Syrian refugees. It has said that along with women, children and families, gay, bisexual and transgender Syrian men will be prioritised given the additional persecution faced by these groups.
However, single or unaccompanied heterosexual Syrian men will be excluded as they are perceived by the government as a potential terrorist threat.
LGTBQI and refugee activists have argued that while the intake of gay, bisexual and transgender men is a positive step, the exclusion of single heterosexual Syrian men will replicate the dynamics LGBTQI refugees are experiencing under Australia's PNG Solution — having to “come out” to “prove” their sexual orientation to immigration officials in refugee camps and detention centres is very dangerous.
Clearly, even when the law appears to positively discriminate for LGBTQI refugees, these measures only increase the risk of violent victimisation. The only way to ensure the safety of LGBTQI asylum seekers is to end discriminatory, punitive, racist and homophobic policies and practices such as Australia's PNG Solution and the mandatory detention of asylum seekers.
LGBTQI refugees will not be free, or safe from harm, until all refugees are free and given the opportunity to permanently re-settle and rebuild their lives in Australia and other prosperous countries.