Championing dignity for LGBTQIA+ refugees

May 17 is IDAHOBIT – the International Day Against LGBTQIA+ Discrimination. The date marks the anniversary of May 17, 1990, when the World Health Organisation removed homosexuality from the Classification of Diseases.

Sadly, after more than three decades, LGBTQIA+ communities still face discrimination. LGBTQIA+ refugees and people seeking asylum deserve to live a life free from persecution, yet they face additional barriers and hurdles when seeking protection in Australia. Discrimination and lack of understanding from decision-makers puts them at risk of forced return to unimaginable harm.

This prompted the ASRC to create a Gender Clinic, providing specialised legal support to people seeking protection from persecution based on their gender identity or sexuality, and seeking to create systemic change.

The complex and highly sensitive nature of these claims means Gender Clinic clients often receive support over multiple day-long appointments on issues including:

  • Persecution due to sexual orientation, sexual identity or gender identity
  • Underage or forced marriage
  • Honour killing
  • Female genital mutilation
  • Acute gender-based legal discrimination such that is becomes persecutory
  • Sexual exploitation, abuse or trafficking
  • People seeking asylum experiencing family violence in Australia

Having a dedicated specialist clinic allows the ASRC to provide targeted support and advice for hundreds of people every year.

”We aim to create a safe space for people to discuss issues regarding their gender identity and sexual orientation,” says Michaela Rhode, Associate Solicitor – Gender Clinic Coordinator at the ASRC. “We recognise the unique experiences and identities of the people we assist and consider it a privilege to help people from LGBTQIA+ communities navigate the unfair and cruel migration system in Australia.”

One such person is Kamal*, a gay man from Saudi Arabia. When he first presented to the ASRC he was sleeping rough in parks and bus shelters and didn’t have information about his status, rights or options. He was afraid of revealing his sexuality because of his experiences in Saudi Arabia.

At the Gender Clinic, Kamal revealed that he’d had a secret relationship with another man in Saudi Arabia. His family found out and forced him to attend conversion therapy, where he was verbally and physically abused. When he was released and returned to his family, he pretended to have been ‘converted’ and agreed to enter an arranged marriage with a woman, while secretly applying for a visitor visa to come to Australia.

To stay in Saudi Arabia would have put him at risk of severe violence, imprisonment, forced marriage, and stigmatisation. He would have been forced to live an inauthentic life at the cost of his happiness and mental health.

Kamal escaped from Saudi Arabia but, after arriving in Australia, didn’t know who to contact or what to do until he met a man who said he could help Kamal apply for a visa to stay in Australia forever.

“Kamal didn’t know what visa the man had applied for or what information was included in it,” Michaela says. “Once we’d obtained a copy of his application from the Department of Home Affairs, it was clear that the man had, without Kamal’s knowledge, lodged a false claim that had no connection with Kamal’s experience.”

Many, like Kamal, receive similar negligent advice.

For three years, Kamal waited for an outcome from the Department, without being given the opportunity to be interviewed. They refused his application because they didn’t believe he was gay as he hadn’t included this in his initial application, and didn’t have any documentary evidence – often impossible for LGBTIQ+ applicants to provide, since they have spent their lives living in secret.

Over five full-day appointments, the Gender Clinic team explained to Kamal the complicated protection visa application process and the reasons why his visa had been refused.

“We empowered Kamal to tell his story in a safe and supportive environment,” Michaela says. “We helped him prepare a statement and legal submission about what had happened to him and why he was unable to return to Saudi Arabia.”

Kamal has now been waiting two years for a hearing with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to reconsider his application. Meanwhile, the Gender Clinic and other programs at the ASRC have connected him with queer-friendly housing options, queer refugee peer-support programs and queer-specific mental health support services. With our support, we hope he will soon be recognised as a refugee so he can rebuild his life here in safety.

While IDAHOBIT has evolved over the years its purpose remains the same – to celebrate the progress we have made while also raising awareness for the discrimination that LGBTQIA+ people still face today.

“LGBTQIA+ refugees and people seeking asylum are often subjected to inappropriate and discriminatory lines of questioning by Department and Tribunal officers,” Michaela says. “Through these practices, the migration system in Australia perpetuates homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.”

The ASRC continues to fight for systemic change to ensure that LGBTIQA+ communities are not overlooked in policy and law reform and are treated with respect and dignity throughout their engagement with the migration system in Australia.

*names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals

We work alongside other incredible organisations supporting LGBTIQ+ refugees and people seeking asylum including:

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