Norway as an example
This year, Norway marks the 50th anniversary of the legalisation of homosexuality and 2022 has been named the “Queer Cultural Year in Norway”. Currently, the LGBTQIA+ community in Norway enjoys a vast range of freedom and rights compared to many other countries. However, in many countries worldwide, people who belong to the LGBTQIA+ community experience discrimination and persecution. In 11 countries, it is punishable with the death penalty to have sexual relations with a person of the same gender; in 57 countries, people risk being sent to jail for consensual same-sex sexual acts. They risk being humiliated, socially excluded, and might face much more social difficulties, making their lives harder. They, therefore, end up fleeing their home countries, seeking safety somewhere else.
Some risk their lives crossing the ocean in a rubber boat, where hunger, physical abuse or sometimes sexual abuse and gruelling travels are some of the risks included. As I write this article, many refugees are subject to various kinds of harm to get a better life without prejudice or persecution.
“Usually queer people are the most vulnerable ones.” Lucas Casanova
People, who face violence, imprisonment or other types of discrimination in their home country because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, have the right to seek asylum in Norway. However, the asylum process is complex and full of setbacks for refugees, from the long waiting period before they get an answer on their application to the fact that the system has complicated the asylum process. Also, the criteria adopted by the immigration authorities for how to prove that the applicant is LGBTQIA+ are not clear. Fortunately, specialised organisations like Skeiv Verden provide essential services to people from the LGBTQIA+ community. Their services vary from sessions with therapists, giving information about asylum, providing support and information within refugee centres, Queer seminars and Skeiv café, just to mention a few of the free of charge offers they provide.
Photo of Lucas Casanova. psychotherapist and health advisor at Skeiv Verden
Lucas Casanova is a psychotherapist at Skeiv Verdens. He has specialised in trauma and has worked as a Health Advisor since 2017. He has more than 18 years of experience working with queer migrants and trauma survivors in different countries worldwide.
“Usually, queer people are the most vulnerable ones. We see different fluxes that change through time. First, it happened with Syria and Uganda, and now it is happening with Afghanistan. We understand that some countries should be protecting the human rights of their people better, but some countries say they do on paper, but actually, that doesn’t happen. Sometimes they seem like they protect their queer citizens, but in reality, they are not well enough protected and therefore, we see them applying for asylum here in Norway. The same thing applies to some countries in the Middle East. I think most of the asylum seekers here in Norway come from the Middle East and Africa. Not much from Asia nowadays. When I say this, I always say it from the experience of receiving members in Skeiv Verden in the services we provide.”
Mental health problems such as depression, self-harm, anxiety, PTSD and suicidal thoughts can affect anyone, but it is more common within the LGBTQIA+ communities. Being LGBTQIA+ does not cause these problems. However, the discrimination, homophobia, social isolation, rejection, stigma, or the difficulties of coming out LGBTQIA+ people face can affect their mental health. Add all of that to the experience of staying in a refugee centre where all of these things are not taken into account, and most of the time, the refugee centres are not prepared to receive or deal with those particular cases.
Sometimes LGBTQIA+ refugees are sent to stay in a refugee centre where they are victims of bullying, rejection and homophobia by other refugees that carry the values of the countries they have fled from.
Joseph Mardelli, project leader at Skeiv Verden (Skeiv kompetanse)
Joseph Mardelli, is a project leader at Skeiv Verden (Skeiv kompetanse)
When I asked him if he thinks that refugee centres are well informed to receive LGBTQIA+ asylum seekers, he commented: “ Sometimes we get inquiries from asylum centres asking for advice on how to treat someone who’s LGBTIQA+, and this is one of the reasons why Skeiv Verden is conducting regular visits to the asylum centres across Norway and provide information about discrimination, bullying, and gender and sexual diversity. Unfortunately, there is a huge lack of information about queer refugees and their needs in some places. This knowledge is essential when employees in the asylum centres face situations where LGBTQIA+ refugees experience bullying, exclusion or even harassment and violence, for example. This is making the situation worse for LGBTQIA+ asylum seekers. Our aim, however, is to create safer and better experiences in the asylum centres. We’ve been visiting all the ordinary asylum centres in Norway since 2017 and some introduction program centres since 2020 under our project Queer Competency (Skeiv Kompetanse), which receives funds from the Integration and Diversity Directorate (IMDi). I must say that most of these centres are trying to cooperate with us and constantly improve the situation. Still, we need more support and a more constructive action plan to help us create better experiences for LGBTQIA+ newcomers.”.
“Having fled targeted violence, discrimination, and abuse, LGBT refugees arrive in Norway with a lot of traumas that the system sometimes ignores.”
Mounir, a pseudonym of a refugee from the Middle East, who prefers not to reveal his real identity, told me in an interview conducted online, “I came to Norway 3 years ago. The first day I came here, I was sent to a refugee centre in Oslo. I had to stay with other refugees, where I faced harassment, bullying and lots of homophobia. Every time I sent a complaint or tried writing an email to UDI, their argument was always the same: Norway is a country that protects human rights and LGBTQIA+ rights, and they don’t tolerate homophobia. They asked me to bring this up with the administration of the refugee centre where I was staying. But I never took those empty words seriously because the very 1st day I arrived at that camp, I told one of the staff that I am gay, and he answered that I had to keep my mouth shut to survive there. UDI has this set of perfect but unattainable rules. They seem completely unrealistic when you look at them from within the refugee centre,”. He explains tearfully and continues: “How will they protect me? As refugees, we barely have the right to see a psychologist; fortunately, I found Skeiv Verden or I would have committed suicide a long time ago. On top of all that, they closed down the refugee centre in Oslo and moved me to a small village in the south where I couldn’t even attend any of the Skeiv Verden activities or make friends.”
Photo of Tingvoll, south of Norway, where Tingvoll asylum centre is located. Photo from Tingvoll Asylmottak Facebook page.
Immigration authorities closed down the last remaining refugee centre in Oslo in mid-2020 and transferred refugees to centres across the country. The UDI argued that this was due to less refugee influx in Norway; meanwhile, others see it as planned policies by authorities to make asylum harder.
“Of course, everything they do is planned. It’s based on political strategies and general policies they’re following. We witnessed a government change due to the last election in September 2021, but so far, there have been no signs of changing the asylum policy. They are still applying policies that aim to make Norway less attractive, especially for asylum seekers and refugees because in my opinion they’re still seen as a burden and not as a resource.” Joseph Mardelli comments.
Having fled targeted violence, discrimination, and abuse, LGBTQIA+ refugees arrive in Norway with many traumas that the system ignores too often. Unfortunately, many LGBTQIA+ refugees assume that is the end of their prolonged suffering and traumas, but when arriving in Norway, they realise that it is just the beginning of a new phase.
Lucas Casanova said: “ We have a special situation here in Norway. People who come here on a refugee status based on sexual orientation are not treated as trauma survivors. However, we also know from experience that people who had their identity suppressed or neglected through childhood and teenagehood are complex trauma survivors (complex PTSD). So you don’t have to be a survivor of imprisonment or rape or torture to be identified as a trauma survivor; unfortunately, the system is neglecting that and considers only people who can prove that they have been to prison or tortured, etc. as a trauma survivor and thus offering them mental help. But the reality is every LGBTQIA+ refugee needs special mental health care and follow up, this is what we are promoting at Skeiv Verden, help queer refugees and offer them support, but we must take into consideration that there is a limit to our job, for instance, most of the refugees in Norway stays in remote areas far from our main offices in Oslo which means we have to use alternatives such as conducting online sessions, which, from my experience, is not the same thing as face to face meetings ”.
Mounir has been waiting for a decision on his asylum claim from UDI for three years now, and there is no way for him to know when he will get his answer. “Every time I try to ask UDI when I will get my decision, the answer is the same; we can’t tell when you must wait. I have spent three years of my life waiting in an asylum centre for a decision; what do they want? Do they want me to go back home where I will be imprisoned, tortured, and harassed? Just because of some bureaucracy and a system that doesn’t see us worthy of better treatment? And the irony of it all is that they name this year as (Queer cultural year); what are we celebrating? Aren’t we also human beings worthy of having their lives protected? Shouldn’t our condition of living here improve? imagine that after all this waiting that they could reject my claim as they have already done to two of my friends, they sent them back.”
It is known that asylum cases often require a long time before a decision is made. Some cases take more than three years, and the number of successful claims is limited. There are no official statistics available, but when a case is rejected, if the applicant, for instance, fails to provide any kind of evidence of their sexuality, they are forced to go back to the violent, homophobic countries they came from. I was able to confirm the claims made by Mounir about the harassment and bullying that he has been subject to in Tingvoll. He showed me some of the emails he sent to UDI and the asylum centre, which haven’t been answered so far. However, I could not confirm whether UDI has sent Mounir’s queer friends back to their countries as UDI does not comment on individual cases. There have been many stories in the media; for instance, I know of one case where authorities rejected an asylum claim of LGBTQIA+ refugees and deported them because they could not prove that they were queer!
LGBTQIA+ refugees are among the most vulnerable refugees; they face challenges requiring special protection. Unfortunately, they are let down by the system supposed to protect them. These refugees need assistance based on their individual needs. While there have been efforts to address the needs of unaccompanied minors, not enough has been done to resolve the issues faced by LGBTQIA+ refugees.
A queer refugee from North Africa, who prefers not to reveal his real identity and therefore goes by the name (Dan), is currently staying at an asylum centre in (Tingvoll Mottak) in Tingvoll, the south of Norway. Dan had told me his story: “When I came to Norway, I stayed in Oslo for a month. Life there was much easier. I attended some activities held by some queer organisations there. I met some friends through some dating applications such as Grindr and Tinder. Still, after the centre closed down, I was transferred to Tingvoll Mottak, I tried to hide my sexual orientation, but in the end, my colleagues in the centre discovered that I am gay. Since then, I have been subject to harassment and homophobia. I sent many requests to the Immigration Department (UDI) for transfer from here, but they did not respond to me; I begged a lot, but it didn’t work … even when I filed a complaint to the staff in the refugee centre, the matter was not dealt with seriously. You can ask any queer refugee in any of the centres in Norway; they will all tell you many stories of harassment and bullying that we are exposed to during our stay in those centres. For instance, most of the employees do not have any experience dealing with LGBTQIA+, even in the activities organised by the centre here. I do not feel the desire to participate in them; simply, for me, these centres are part of a system that wants to make our lives difficult and want to use us as a means of sending signals to others that Norway does not welcome refugees, contrary to what it says on papers! Why do I have to wait until the day someone stabs me with a knife until I file a complaint to receive a response to my request and move me to a safer place? The place here is far from Oslo, where one could get mental health support; I don’t have friends here, I have no one to talk to, I spend most of the day alone, and no one seems to care about us. They don’t even know that we, as queers are more vulnerable. Simply it’s a private company that wants to make money and hire people with the least costs they could pay; I keep wondering if I am a human being worth being alive, my mental health is worsening, and they think I am just doing that to persuade them to make my asylum process go faster.”
“LGBTQIA+ refugees are experiencing a critical situation that’s hidden in plain sight.”
I approached the asylum centre for comment; instead, they forwarded my request to UDI, who sent me an email stating: “Since it is UDI that processes such relocation applications, we are the right body to respond to this. We see that the resident states that he has applied to us for relocation several times but has not received a response. This is very unfortunate and something we would like to follow up with. Everyone who applies for relocation must respond to their inquiries. Here it looks as if a mistake may have been made, and in that case, we would like to sort it out. The challenge is that we do not get to see the specific inquiries….when we do not know the person’s identity.”.
Today, Norway is seen as a free country contributing to global peacemaking. Immigration authorities have to focus on evolving their laws taking into account the unique needs of LGBTQIA+ refugees, rather than focusing on preventing more refugee arrivals into Norway.
The Norwegian Directorate of Immigration (UDI) sent me an answer to comment on the claims made by Mounir and Dan via email: “Harassment and other forms of abuse are, of course, never acceptable in asylum reception centres as well as everywhere else in Norway.
Asylum reception centres are voluntary, temporary accommodations; those asylum seekers have a legal right to use them while their asylum application is being processed.
Asylum seekers have the same rights to health care offered by the local municipality as everyone who lives in Norway…
UDI is aware that LGBTQA+asylum seekers may find living in asylum reception centres challenging.
Generally speaking, UDI focuses on vulnerable groups, and LGBTQIA+topics are a regular part of the training that UDI organises for the reception centres…
If LGBTQIA+asylum seekers experience not being adequately accommodated by reception staff, they can directly contact the UDI regional office responsible for the reception centre.
Although reception centre staff have expertise in the topic and accommodate the resident adequately, we know that many asylum seekers come from countries where being queer is not accepted and/or prohibited. Therefore, living in an asylum reception centre means you are exposed to different attitudes in the resident group.
The UDI requires asylum reception centres to have a mandatory information programme for residents. The reception centres provide residents with knowledge of various forms of cohabitation through this programme, including LGBTQIA+, and the regulations and laws governing this. The reception centre often uses external resources, such as Skeiv Verden, to do this.
Along with substantially fewer arrivals of asylum seekers to Norway, we now have fewer reception centres, and few are located near major cities. UDI has in several cases initiated that LGBTQIA+asylum seekers get accommodation in places where they could make use of the competence of Skeiv Verden.”
LGBTQIA+ refugees are experiencing a critical situation hidden in plain sight; that is hard to document. Many are afraid of coming forward and speaking up about their pain as queer refugees because they are stuck in a process made by a system constantly trying to make Norway less appealing so no more refugees will seek asylum. Many other refugees are tired of repeating their stories over and over again. They barely have energy left in them after months or sometimes years of waiting for their asylum case to be resolved.
Human rights are not politics; this is not about “left” or “right”; this is about our fellow LGBTQIA+ that fled their homes fearing persecution and came here hoping for a better life, a life where they can love whoever they want, dress the way they want, choose the gender they want. So when we celebrate 50 years of freedom here in Norway when we march in the parade this year during Pride, when we dance and celebrate together, let us not forget those who are living in an asylum centre somewhere in a remote area, let us not forget their pain and their right to a better life. They were once forgotten at their home when they fled; let’s not contribute to making them “forgotten twice”.