LGBTI individuals throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have long been persecuted by militias, religious extremists, and, sadly, their own families and communities. They are particularly vulnerable to trafficking due to displacement, exclusion from laws that might afford protection, and a lack of recognized international human rights safeguards.
IRAP’s work with LGBTI refugees has increased dramatically since we took our f irst LGBTI case in 2009; we are now one of the only organizations providing direct legal assistance to LGBTI refugee populations in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. Our LGBTI program began when we were able to resettle three gay Iraqi refugees living in Jordan and Syria to a safe country in record time. Those cases demonstrated that IRAP’s approach to resettlement could be effective in aiding populations persecuted for their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Since that time, we have provided legal representation to dozens of LGBTI refugees around the world.
IRAP’s advocacy has led to positive outcomes for individual refugees and to systemic policy advances, including: the creation of a special expedite category for LGBTI refugees seeking admission to the United States; documentation that led the Netherlands to change its asylum policy to recognize LGBTI Iraqis as a uniquely vulnerable population; and the establishment of the first precedent for an in-country referral by the U.S. Embassy in Iraq of a transgender man who would not otherwise have qualified for processing. This advance created an in-country processing system for LGBTI refugees in Iraq that was later codified in the Foreign Affairs Manual, the Department of State’s comprehensive guidance document, as a life-saving mechanism available to any U.S. Embassy in the world.
We are currently working with our diverse network of allied organizations to advocate for a lift of the ban on access to counsel for LGBTI refugees seeking resettlement to the United States, and for broader use of in-country processing authority for internally displaced LGBTI individuals.
Yasir was in hiding when he first met with IRAP. Months earlier, he had chosen to go underground to avoid Iraqi militias who were hunting, beating and sometimes killing gay Iraqi men like him. For months, Yasir had survived their attacks. But then, Yasir’s friend — Muhammed — came to him with urgent news: a militia known as Ahl-Al Haq, People of the Truth, had briefly kidnapped Muhammed. Group members had beaten and interrogated him about his sexual orientation. They had also asked for the names of Muhammed’s gay friends and inquired specifically about Yasir.
Then, the Ahl-Al Haq members announced that they wanted to know Yasir’s location so that they could kidnap him too. They forced Muhammed to call Yasir. To protect his friend, Muhammed dialed Yasir’s expired cell phone number and diverted the militia’s ambush. Immediately after Muhammed was released, he sought Yasir and warned him that the militia group knew he was gay and that they were attempting to locate him. Yasir needed to flee Iraq immediately.
By chance, in this desperate hour, IRAP made contact with Yasir. We helped him file paperwork that would allow him to leave Iraq and resettle in the United States. We also used our State Department contacts to expedite his application and to arrange for him to be resettled to San Francisco, where there is a special program for gay and lesbian refugees. Yasir arrived in California in March 2013, just a year after we met him, and is now bravely living a more open life.