New study on LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers highlights the need for data and research

Graph for illustration only
Graph for illustration only

In a new report from the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, researchers concluded that LGBTQ migrants are particularly vulnerable to discrimination, persecution and violence throughout the migratory process.

In the report, which examines the experiences of LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers, researchers studied root causes of migration, barriers to claiming asylum and arrival and resettlement challenges. Through this research, the study found that LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers are challenged with overcoming distinct obstacles. 

“Research shows that LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers face unique challenges that require targeted resources to ensure their safety and access to necessary medical care, especially for transgender and gender non-conforming individuals,” said lead author Ari Shaw, Senior Fellow and Director of International Programs at the Williams Institute. “But more data are needed to understand where the system is falling short for LGBTQI+ refugees and what interventions can best protect and promote their fundamental rights.”

In a previous study, the Williams Institute found an estimated 30,900 LGBT people applied for asylum in the United States between 2012 and 2017, with nearly 4,000 seeking asylum due to fear of persecution on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The majority of LGBTQ people seeking asylum in the U.S. came from the Northern Triangle region of Central America (Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador).

The current report synthesizes the literature on LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers worldwide, discusses knowledge gaps and establishes a research agenda.

There are a number of root causes this study found for LGBTQ migration, including a disproportionate subjection to violence by private citizens, family members and government agents in one’s country of origin. Transgender refugees and asylum seekers are also often visible in their gender nonconformity and therefore particularly vulnerable to violence and persecution.

The study found that these LGBTQ persons experience internalized shame and forced concealment of their sexual orientation or gender identity. This often arises because they are pressured by families or communities to adopt socially acceptable roles.

For those LGBTQ refugees that await asylum, challenges only become more difficult. Asylum seekers often face difficulties navigating transit zones, where they risk daily exposure to harassment, violence and discrimination. Even where support services may exist, migrants report difficulty accessing them or facing discrimination in attempting to seek various forms of care.

Researchers concluded that one of the main obstacles to seeking asylum appears to be a lack of awareness that sexual orientation and gender identity constitute viable grounds for an asylum claim. The requirements for a successful asylum claim require that LGBTQ migrants “come out” to present themselves as a sexual or gender minority in a way that is “credible” and “legible” to asylum adjudicators.

Transgender refugees face the fear that their adjudicators may rely on outdated notions of what it means to be transgender. This may include seeking or having received medical intervention. These challenges often serve as barriers, preventing LGBTQ refugees from seeking or reaching asylum safely.

If asylum is eventually reached, LGBTQ refugees still experience difficulties in resettlement. Conditions in detention centers can be challenging for LGBTQ migrants, who may be placed in jails or jail-like facilities and experience abuse. Transgender refugees and asylum seekers may be particularly affected by punitive or harmful practices in detention, such as being denied medical treatment including access to hormone therapy and other gender-affirming medical care.

These physical challenges, according to the study, may make LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers vulnerable to sustaining mental health outcomes given multiple and compounded traumas experienced throughout the migratory process.

As Shaw said, the study uncovered some questions. Numerous unanswered or unexplored issues remain, including demographic characteristics of LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers, migration dynamics and the outcomes of asylum adjudication and refugee status determination processes. Click here to read the full report 

In February 2022, the Williams Institute convened 25 experts for a one-day conference to discuss what is known and not known about LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers. A summary report from the convening is available online.