Proud in Europe? LGBTI refugees, immigration authorities & the gay community in the EU
Last month Amsterdam was home to the Europride, a European LGBT event which takes place in a different European city every year. As a part of these festivities, the Amsterdam Research Centre for Gender and Sexuality, University of Amsterdam hosted a conference titled ‘Proud in Europe? LGBTI Emancipation in a Comparative Perspective’.
The goal of the conference was to question and compare the current situation of LGBTIs on the European continent from various disciplinary perspectives.
I attended and presented during the panel ‘LGBTI refugees, Immigration Authorities and the Gay Community’, which, due to a huge response, was divided into three sessions. Organized by Peter Geschiere and Gert Hekma the panel offered a platform for refugees, activists, NGOs and academics to shed light on these issues from a comparative perspective and a variety of national contexts including Australia, Belgium, Canada, Italy, Netherlands, and United Kingdom. The panel showcased a range of methodological takes on the issue, including cutting-edge participatory and visual methods research. Most inspiring was University of Sussex’ Irene Fubara-Manuel’s research with queer African migrants in Canada and UK, whose narratives were beautifully and forcefully brought to life using a method called photovoice, which is participant photography blended into animated documentaries.
Although mentioned as speakers in the programme, the notable absentees were the Dutch immigration authorities themselves. This was truly a shame on the part of the authorities as the panel was a unique opportunity for engagement and insight for all parties involved in the asylum procedure. Their absence and silence spoke volumes to the lack of engagement from authorities when it comes to the sensitive topic of sexual orientation and gender identity in the asylum procedure.
The difficulties, hurdles and challenges involved in the treatment of asylum applications on grounds of sexual orientations and gender identity came forward in a number of presentations, including research by Jessica van Zadelhof of COC (an LGBTI movement in Netherlands) and Sabine Jansen of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (Free University of Amsterdam). Their findings suggested that even though clear efforts have been taken by the authorities in the Netherlands and other European countries, a continued lack of adequate knowledge on sexual and gender diversity remains. This was for example demonstrated by asylum applicants being told by Dutch immigration authorities that they could continue to live their lives in safety in their countries of origin, as long as they “stayed in the closet”, as they had been doing prior to migration.
That being ‘Proud in Europe’ is not in the least evident for everyone was most acutely and painfully demonstrated by the testimonies of Ugandan, Cameroonian and Lebanese LGBTI refugees in the Netherlands. Even though I have documented dozens of narratives of queer refugees myself, hearing such stories grips me every time. If anything, their testimonies showed how current asylum policies in Europe are persistently failing to fully address the specific needs of LGBTI refugees, leading to traumatizing experiences for those involved.
For example, an asylum-seeker from Uganda, had escaped an attempted rape in an asylum centre. Her complaints were not taken seriously and she was told “to take care of her own safety”. Such experiences with sexism and homophobia in reception centres are all too common. The refugees spoke of the loneliness and hardship experienced in remotely located asylum centres, and having to stay in multiple asylum centres during months of long procedures (often only being notified of a transfer to another centre mere hours beforehand). They also related having to deal with homophobic interpreters on the one hand, and probing intimate questions by the immigration officials on the other hand. Even after they’ve received a positive decision in their request for asylum, building up a new life in the Netherlands turned out to be anything but a breeze.
In order to digest all the impressions, views and emotions of the conference, I took a stroll through the city after the last panel. Join our Freedom, the posters of the Europride event boasted on every street corner of the city’s famous canals. A freedom, which according to the mayor of Amsterdam, has been part and parcel of the city’s culture for many centuries. As the city prepared itself for its famous and extravagant Canal Pride Parade the next day, one might have been left convinced that Amsterdam undeniably offers a safe haven for people of all walks of life. Yet, like in other places in Europe, this freedom is classed, racialized and gendered.