Persecuted beyond borders: why Italy needs LGBT refugee shelters

LGBT refugees fleeing torture, violence and discrimination often find persecution has followed them to Europe. Reception centres are beginning to respond to urgent needs.

Claudia Torrisi
20 September 2017

Amani Zreba (right).

Amani Zreba (right). Photo: courtesy of Amani Zreba. All rights reserved.

Amani Zreba, 36, was forced to flee Tripoli six years ago because of her sexuality. “I had a girlfriend from Egypt, and the whole society was hostile to us. At first I went to Egypt with her. I stayed there for a year, but I had to move even from there,” she told me.

Zreba now lives in Milan, and is a volunteer for Immigrazione e Omosessualita, an association supporting LGBT refugees. “I came here as asylum seeker," she said. "It was not easy, but after six months I got my status as a political refugee."

Today she wouldn't even consider going back to Libya. “I am scared," she explained. "And now the situation in the country is really dangerous.”

Her organisation is hoping to open a reception centre specifically for LGBT asylum seekers in Milan, to provide shelter from sometimes vicious homophobic violence, experienced throughout their journeys towards official refugee status.

‘Isolated and fearful’

Libya’s 1953 criminal code criminalised homosexuality, with penalties of up to five years in prison. The fall of Muammar Gaddafi has not improved things; in 2012 a Libyan official shocked the UN by proclaiming that “gay people threaten the future of the human race”.

According to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, Libya is one of 72 countries that criminalise people based on their sexual orientation. In at least eight of these states, those convicted under anti-LGBT laws can be executed. In 19 countries, homophobia is state-sanctioned under “morality” laws that “actively target public promotion or expression of same-sex and trans realities.”

When Zreba arrived in Italy, she was sent to a reception centre where she felt intimidated by other asylum seekers because of her sexuality. “I was told that there was a guard from Libya in the centre. I was afraid that he or others could find out the reason of my asylum request and my sexual orientation,” she said.

Zreba recalls being “isolated and fearful for the whole time” she was in the centre waiting for her application to be accepted: “It was intolerable. I was afraid for my family in Libya because of the war, but I was worried about my situation too. It was the toughest human experience I ever lived.”

Amani Zreba.

Amani Zreba. Photo: courtesy of Amani Zreba. All rights reserved.

In Italy, eight of the top 10 countries that asylum seekers flee from have harsh anti-LGBT legislation: Nigeria, Pakistan, Gambia, Senegal, Eritrea, Bangladesh, Guinea and Ghana.

Compiling data on LGBT asylum seekers however is difficult work; often this data is simply not collected or recorded. In 2013 researchers found that, globally, LGBT asylum applicants originate from “at least 104 countries in the world”, but they said “it is not possible to quantify their numbers”.

They described conditions for LGBT asylum seekers across Europe that resonate with Zreba's story, with individuals “frequently confronted with homophobic and transphobic behaviour, ranging from discrimination to abuse and violence.”

Abusers may be other asylum seekers in reception centres. They may also be reception staff or other authorities in the asylum system. Gabriella Friso from rights group Certi Diritti told me about a young gay man from Nigeria who was abused in a reception centre near Milan.

“We had to move him to another centre because he risked being beaten by other migrants," she said. "He was completely isolated: the community from Nigeria inside the centre ignored him...On the other hand, the staff didn’t know how to handle the situation.”

“frequently confronted with homophobic and transphobic behaviour, ranging from discrimination to abuse and violence”

It’s impossible to accurately count the number of asylum seekers who have been persecuted because of their sexuality. Some choose to remain silent about their experience; some are granted asylum on non-LGBT related grounds; others live without legal status.

Most LGBT asylum seekers in Italy come from north Africa and the Middle East, but “some of them arrive from Russia and the former Soviet Union too, a few from South America”, said Friso. She said most of these individuals are men, as women "generally remain under the control of men: fathers and then husbands. Many girls are forced to marry and hide their homosexuality.”

Individuals persecuted based on their sexual orientation and gender identity qualify for refugee status under the 1951 UN Geneva Convention which states that anyone unwilling to return to their country of origin due to a “well-founded fear” of being persecuted for “reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group” can claim refugee status. An EU directive specifies that sexual orientation falls within the definition of a “social group”.

But in reality asylum authorities are often unable to effectively protect those fleeing such persecution from further harm. Livio Neri, a lawyer who has worked with LGBT asylum seekers, said that authorities often lack sufficient understanding of the cultural senstivities of this issue.

Or they may "demand an awareness of sexual orientation that the [asylum] applicant may or may not have,” Neri added. For some LGBT asylum seekers, the lawyer said, “coming out as gay is taboo even to themselves.”

Affronts on dignity

In at least two EU countries a controversial, invasive procedure used to identify and treat paedophiles known as phallometric testing was also previously used on asylum applicants to “prove” their sexuality, if their claim was based on sexual orientation.

The test worked by measuring physical reactions – penis growth or vulva blood flow – to pornographic images. Outcry led to the suspension of the tests in 2009. It's understood that they have not been used since, but officials may still ask brutally intimate details in confusing and distressing asylum interviews.

In 2012, in response to horror stories collected by LGBT rights activists, the UN published new guidelines for reception centre staff, specifying that they should avoid “excessively detailed personal questioning” or practices that “violate human dignity”. Two years later a series of decisions made by the EU Court of Justice banned some of the lines of questioning that had been used.

“it is not easy to tell our personal stories or what happen in our countries"

Claims from right-wing commentators, that LGBT asylum applicants 'fake' their sexuality to more easily get refugee status, are groundless, says Friso. “It's the opposite: for many communities being gay is [seen as] an aberration. Refugees are afraid even to meet rights groups, because if their sexuality comes up there could be problems for them or for their families.”

Friso has found that LGBT asylum seekers may actually hide their sexuality from asylum officials, in fear that disclosure could hurt their application.

“The majority of LGBT migrants arrive from country that criminalise, incarcerate, torture and sometimes kill these people and some of them don’t even know that in Italy people are not persecuted for their sexual orientation. I had to explain it to them,” she adds.

“It is not easy to tell our personal stories or what happen in our countries,” says Zreba, and a lack of information and resources can be a problem too. “Some migrants are homosexual but they are afraid to say it. Maybe they need to speak with a psychologist or reach NGOs or associations, but nobody tells them anything about this.”

So far most EU member states make no special accommodation facilities for LGBT people, “but special measures – such as transfers to single rooms – can often be taken in case of abuse or harassment.”

“just imagine: you flee from your country because you are persecuted and scared, then you arrive in Italy and you are put in a centre where you are still attacked and scared"

Schwulenberatung, a German association for LGBT rights, recently opened a shelter in response to attacks in reception centres in the country. Between September and December 2015 there were at least 95 such attacks; most were committed by other migrants.

Similar projects have slowly started in Italy. In May, the organisation Arcigay took an apartment for LGBT asylum seekers in Modena, while a shelter will be opened in Bologna by the Movimento identità transessuale (MIT) association that supports trans people.

“In recent years many trans refugees have told us about episodes of violence in reception centres,” MIT’s vice president Cathy La Torre said earlier this year.

Zreba’s organisation hopes to open their shelter in Milan in the near future, and is lobbying for separate accommodation and social support for LGBT refugees who arrive in Italy traumatised by their experiences and journeys.

She is quick to stress that it’s not a matter of giving anyone special privileges: it’s about recognising the right to safety and preventing further violence.

“Just imagine: you flee from your country because you are persecuted and scared, then you arrive in Italy and you are put in a [reception] centre where you are still attacked and scared," she said. "It’s not special privileges. There is no privilege in being safe.”

L’Italia femminista: read more from 50.50 author Claudia Torrisi.

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