New study on LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers highlights the need for data and research

A new report from the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law examines the experiences of LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers, including root causes of migration, barriers to claiming asylum, and arrival and resettlement challenges.

Researchers conclude that LGBTQI+ migrants are particularly vulnerable to discrimination, persecution, and violence throughout the migratory process. However, numerous unanswered or unexplored issues remain, including demographic characteristics of LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers, migration dynamics, and the outcomes of asylum adjudication and refugee status determination processes.

“Research shows that LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers face unique challenges that require targeted resources to ensure their safety and access to necessary medical care, especially for transgender and gender non-conforming individuals,” said lead author Ari Shaw, Senior Fellow and Director of International Programs at the Williams Institute. “But more data are needed to understand where the system is falling short for LGBTQI+ refugees and what interventions can best protect and promote their fundamental rights.”

In a previous study, the Williams Institute found an estimated 30,900 LGBT people applied for asylum in the United States between 2012 and 2017, with nearly 4,000 seeking asylum due to fear of persecution on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The majority of LGBTQI+ people seeking asylum in the U.S. came from the Northern Triangle region of Central America (Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador).

The current report synthesizes the literature on LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers worldwide, discusses knowledge gaps, and establishes a research agenda. Key findings from the literature include:

Root Causes of LGBTQI+ Migration

  • LGBTQI+ people are disproportionately subject to violence by private citizens, family members, and government agents in their country of origin.
  • Transgender refugees and asylum seekers are often visible in their gender nonconformity and therefore particularly vulnerable to violence and persecution.
  • Internalized shame and forced concealment of one’s sexual orientation or gender identity often arise because LGBTQI+ persons are pressured by families or communities to adopt socially acceptable roles.

Challenges in Transit and Awaiting Asylum

  • LGBTQI+ asylum seekers face difficulties navigating transit zones, where they risk daily exposure to harassment, violence, and discrimination.
  • Even where support services may exist, migrants report difficulty accessing them or facing discrimination in attempting to seek various forms of care.

Barriers to Claiming Asylum or Refugee Status

  • One of the main obstacles to seeking asylum appears to be a lack of awareness that sexual orientation and gender identity constitute viable grounds for an asylum claim.
  • The requirements for a successful asylum claim require that LGBTQI+ migrants “come out” to present themselves as a sexual or gender minority in a way that is “credible” and “legible” to asylum adjudicators.
  • Adjudicators may rely on outdated notions of what it means to be transgender. For instance, this may include seeking or having received medical intervention.

Experiences of Arrival and Resettlement

  • Conditions in detention centers can be challenging for LGBTQI+ migrants, who may be placed in jails or jail-like facilities and experience abuse.
  • Transgender refugees and asylum seekers may be particularly affected by punitive or harmful practices in detention, such as being denied medical treatment including access to hormone therapy and other gender-affirming medical care.
  • LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers may be vulnerable to sustained mental health outcomes given multiple and compounded traumas experienced throughout the migratory process.

In February 2022, the Williams Institute convened 25 experts for a one-day conference to discuss what is known and not known about LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers. A summary report from the convening, Knowledge Gaps and Research Priorities on LGBTQI+ Refugees and Asylum Seekers, is available online.

Read the full report

July 7, 2022

Media Contact: Rachel Dowd
Office: 310-206-8982

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