According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, there are 26.6 million refugees and 4.4 million asylum seekers worldwide (UNHCR 2021a). However, the precise number who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or intersex (LGBTQI+) is unknown. Likewise, we do not have rigorous data on the number of persons seeking asylum due to persecution on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity (SOGI). Only 37 countries formally grant asylum to individuals due to a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity (UNHCR 2019), and few countries to our knowledge regularly and systematically collect demographic data that are inclusive of SOGI measures. As a result, there is limited generalizable research on the characteristics and experiences of LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers.
As LGBTQI+ people face less acceptance and more discrimination in many parts of the world, the U.S. and other host countries are likely to see more LGBTQI+ people seeking refuge. Nearly 70 countries maintain laws that criminalize consensual same-sex activity (Mendos et al. 2020). Despite legal advances in many parts of the world, LGBTQI+ people continue to face social and economic exclusion, discrimination, and stigma that can have significant effects on their health and well-being (Flores 2021). 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) (Shaw et al. 2021), which have all seen declines in acceptance of LGBTQI+ people (Flores 2021). President Biden has explicitly identified the rights of LBGTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers as priority for U.S. foreign policy and development assistance (The White House 2021). Yet, without research and data specific to this population, we cannot fully know how and to what extent policies are in place that protect and promote the human rights of all refugees and asylum seekers.
This report collects and synthesizes literature on LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers worldwide in order to provide a baseline understanding, identify knowledge gaps, and strengthen the call for expanded and improved data collection and research. We review more than 130 empirical studies, from 2000 to the present, on issues impacting LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers. Key findings from this review include the following:
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 (Bennett and Thomas 2013; Grungras et al. 2009; Hopkinson et al. 2017).
- Transgender refugees and asylum seekers are often visible in their gender nonconformity and therefore particularly vulnerable to violence and persecution (Cerezo 2014).
- LGBTQI+ refugees experience multiple forms of victimization in their country of origin, including rape, torture, sexual orientation and gender identity change practices (i.e., so-called “conversion therapy”), physical and sexual assault, and imprisonment (Alessi 2017; Alessi 2016; Cheney et al. 2017).
- 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 (Grungras et al. 2009) or forcibly enter heterosexual marriages (Piwowarczyk et al. 2017).
Challenges Facing LGBTQI+ Migrants in Transit and Awaiting Asylum
- LGBTQI+ asylum seekers often face particularized difficulties navigating transit zones, where they face daily exposure to harassment, violence, and discrimination (Yarwood et al. 2022). In many cases, LGBTQI+ migrants attempt to conceal their identity to avoid abuse or violence (Grungras et al. 2009).
- One study found that asylum-seekers lacking financial resources faced severe financial strain (Alessi 2016). Likewise, asylum seekers often face difficulties obtaining residence permits necessary to begin employment (Grungras et al. 2009).
- Even where support services may exist, migrants report difficulty accessing them or facing discrimination in attempting to seek various forms of care (Yarwood et al. 2022; Chynoweth 2021).
- Restrictions and border closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated pre-existing vulnerabilities and put LGBTQI+ asylum seekers at great risk of violence and harassment (Kizuka et al. 2021).
Barriers to Claiming Asylum or Refugee Status
- Studies show that a main obstacle to seeking asylum appears to be lack of awareness that sexual orientation and gender identity constitute viable grounds for an asylum claim (LaViolette 2004; Berg and Millbank 2009; O’Leary 2008; Andrade et al. 2020).
- Research shows that the process of applying for asylum can itself have deleterious effects on LGBTQI+ persons. One recent study found that asylum applicants experience negative mental and physical health outcomes and economic insecurity as they wait in a precarious state of uncertainty (Llewelyn 2021).
- A number of studies show how the requirements for a successful asylum claim require that LGBTQI+ migrants “come out” to present themselves as a sexual or gender minority, but do so in a way that is “credible” and “legible” to asylum adjudicators (Kahn and Alessi 2018). One study attributed the cause of most denied SOGI claims to “disbelief of sexual orientation” or “lack of credibility,” which are typically predicated on heteronormative and Western conceptions of sexuality and expectations of queer lifestyles often rooted in stereotypes or prejudice (Rehaag 2017).
- A number of studies point to the challenge posed by adjudicators who may conflate sex with sexuality to the extent that sexual behavior forms a key part of the claimant’s narrative about their sexual orientation (Gaucher and DeGagne 2016). Applicants without sexual or romantic histories are therefore routinely discredited (Akin 2015).
- “Proving” one’s identity is particularly challenging for transgender asylum seekers. Adjudicators often rely on outdated medicalized notions of what it means to be transgender in which, to be deemed “valid” and “real,” transgender people must desire and seek out medical intervention (Vogler 2019).
- Bisexual claimants are often denied asylum due to understandings of bisexuality based on stereotype, that is, the notion that bisexual migrants can simply choose partners of the opposite sex (Sin 2015; Dustin and Held 2018).
Experiences of Arrival and Resettlement
- Many LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers are forced to spend time in detention centers in both transit and host countries. Research shows that the conditions in detention centers can be particularly difficult for LGBTQI+ migrants, who are often placed in jails or jail-like facilities and experience negative health consequences (Lewis 2019; Gerena 2022), including sexual and physical abuse (Anderson 2010).
- Transgender refugees and asylum seekers may be particularly affected by punitive or harmful practices in detention, such as being denied access to hormone treatment and other gender-affirming medical care (Singer 2021; Gruberg 2013).
- Unlike many migrants, LGBTQI+ asylum seekers and refugees may not have the support of their diasporic or ethnic communities because of homophobia or transphobia that reflects persecutory conditions in the country of origin (Shidlo and Ahola 2013, Piwowarczyk et al. 2017).
- Research suggests that LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers may continue to experience negative mental health outcomes given the multiple and compounded traumas they experience in their countries of origin and throughout the asylum and resettlement processes (Alessi 2017; Logie et al. 2016). Common diagnoses from this “lifetime of cumulative trauma” include depression, PTSD, dissociative disorders, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, traumatic brain injury and substance abuse (Shidlo and Ahola 2013).
- While LGBTQI+ refugees face challenges throughout the migratory process, including violence, harassment, and discrimination, many are able to also mount resistance, forming solidarity and networks with migrant activists and community-based organizations to mobilize on behalf of migrant rights and LGBTQI+ rights more broadly.
Research and Data Needs Regarding LGBTIQ+ Refugees and Asylum Seekers
Findings in this review suggest a number of gaps in our knowledge that would be strengthened by research on the following:
- Rigorous analyses of conditions in countries of origin that demonstrate persecution on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. This includes examination of how country-specific laws and policies may differentially impact LGBTQI+ subpopulations and their decision to flee or seek refugee status;
- Demographic characteristics of LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers;
The unique challenges and vulnerabilities of transgender migrants, particularly those facing intersecting forms of discrimination on basis of race;
• The unique challenges and vulnerabilities of intersex migrants;
• Experiences of LGBTQI+ migrant youth and children of LGBTQI+ migrants;
• Experiences of LGBTQI+ refugees along the migratory route, including in transit countries;
• The impact of country-specific policies (such as “metering” or Title 42 in the United States) on the health and well-being of LGBTQI+ migrants;
• Experiences of LGBTQI+ migrants in refugee camps and other sites of temporary accommodation;
• Migration dynamics and resettlement within the Global South (rather than assuming transit from the Global South to North);
• Patterns of outcomes of asylum adjudication and refugee status determination processes;
• Large, mixed-method studies on resettlement and social integration, including impact on health, well-being, economic livelihood, and experiences with violence and discrimination. Studies should include examination of intersecting forms of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, race, religion, and immigration status, among others;
• Resilience and resistance among LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers in transit and in host countries;
• Evaluations of programs and interventions to support LGBTQI+ refugee resettlement and social integration.
This review suggests that concrete measures should be taken to enhance data collection related to LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers:
- Demographic questions about sexual orientation, gender identity, and sex assigned at birth should be integrated through the application process, explicitly subject to change without negative repercussions for the asylum seeker. In the US, this should include intake forms I-870 (Record of Determination/ Credible Fear Worksheet), I-899 (Record of Determination/Reasonable Fear Worksheet), and I-589 (Application for Asylum and for Withholding of Removal);
- Agencies responsible for asylum adjudication should record the grounds for asylum claims in a case file electronic database and release these data to the public;
- UNHCR staff, national authorities such as asylum officers and border agents, immigration judges, and other frontline workers who engage with migrants should be adequately trained in competent interview methods for LGBTQI+ people and in registering sensitive data;
- Sexual orientation, gender identity, and sex assigned at birth data should be integrated into registration and data management systems operated by UNHCR, as well as national government agencies that process refugee status determinations.