Post submitted by Senior Global Programs Officer Jay Gilliam
An overflow crowd of Congressional staffers heard the powerful and moving stories of LGBTQ refugees during a Capitol Hill briefing this week organized by the LGBT Equality Caucus, with assistance from HRC and Human Rights First. The briefing, moderated by HRC Global Director Ty Cobb, brought together LGBTQ people from the Middle East and U.S. refugee policy experts to examine the impact of President Donald Trump’s executive order on LGBTQ refugees, and ways to support them.
Even under the best circumstances, LGBTQ refugees face enormous challenges when fleeing persecution and violence. Yet the Trump Administration’s executive orders on refugees and immigrants make the process even more difficult. The orders essentially shut the door on LGBTQ people trying to flee some of the most homophobic and transphobic countries in the world.
Joining HRC’s Cobb for the panel were Jennifer Quigley of Human Rights First, Ayaz Shalal from Iraq (who participated via Skype), Arsham Parsi from Canada-based Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees, Mona Siam of Jordan, and Samia Bhatti from Pakistan, who is currently at watchdog organization Freedom House.
The briefing offered an opportunity to share stories about how the Trump Administration’s policies have negatively impacted LGBTQ refugees. For many, leaving home can mean the difference between life or death. Bhatia, a transgender woman who fled Pakistan, said, “I was vulnerable and not feeling safe, even when just going to the grocery store. If I had been banned coming to the U.S., I’m sure I would be dead today.”
Simply getting out of the country and resettling can take years and is fraught with peril. Siam spoke about how refugees like her often face violence while waiting to relocate to a safe country. “We are afraid to be caught in a system that will persecute us,” she said. “So we hide in isolation, afraid to get stuck in unsafe refugee camps.”
In reducing the number of refugees the U.S. will accept, Trump’s executive order cuts deeply into a program that has saved the lives of so many LGBTQ people. It also pauses the program for several months, effectively blocking entry to all people from seven countries that have been among the most dangerous for LGBTQ people.
The order’s rushed implementation has added on to that harm. Parsi witnessed this firsthand supporting refugees through his organization. He noted that refugees “didn’t know what happened in the first days of the Executive Order. [Because of that], many considered suicide.”
Even LGBTQ people from banned countries who are not fleeing their homeland, but simply visiting the U.S., have been affected. Ayaz Shalal, a gay Iraqi human rights activist, was invited to participate in HRC’s Global Innovative Advocacy Summit with other LGBTQ advocates from around the world but is now unable to attend. The work he does for his organization will suffer because of it, he said. “I can’t find supporters for my work. Nor can I share with people about the work we’re doing and learn about others’ work.”
Despite the life-threatening consequences of Trump’s Executive Order, and his missed opportunity to support the global LGBTQ movement, participants said they still see paths to making things better. Panelists encouraged participants, including congressional staff members, to highlight the important issue of vulnerability when discussing LGBTQ refugees with Members of Congress.
Quigley, of Human Rights First, said that the acute vulnerability of all refugees is what is important. Despite the Trump administration’s assertions to the contrary, “religious persecution is just one part of the overall vulnerability that many different kinds of refugees face,” she said.
Panelists also encouraged congressional staff to urge their bosses to stand up to the administration against this discriminatory order and introduce legislation that affirms protection for LGBTQ refugees.
HRC is committed to continuing to elevate the personal stories of LGBTQ refugees to ensure that there is a face to the negative effects of this executive order.