As increasing numbers of refugees flee persecution because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, a study has found that NGOs serving asylum seekers and refugees worldwide often fail to adequately assist lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people.

The Organisation for Refuge, Asylum & Migration (ORAM) and Indiana University sociologists have released the first-ever survey of attitudes of 384 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from 100 countries that serve asylum seekers and refugees.

According to ORAM, NGOs provide crucial support and protection for refugees, including essential medical, legal, housing and educational services.

The survey found, however, that NGOs often fail to adequately protect LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers. The researchers said that it also revealed that many NGOs ignore the refugees’ plights or are ill]equipped to work with LGBTI people. Those gaps were identified across the globe but were starkest in countries where protection is most needed.

Although nearly all NGOs surveyed agreed that LGBTI refugees deserve protection, a significant minority stated that they were not willing to provide that assistance. “Let’s be honest, the refugees, the migrants… who are homosexual or lesbian, theyfre frowned upon,” said one NGO’s representative.

“Refugees fleeing persecution because of their sexual orientation or gender identity face further harm from the culture of silence in the international refugee protection system. They are placed in housing where they are exposed to violence, or are compelled to hide the true reason they were persecuted, which puts their legal status in jeopardy,” said Neil Grungras, Executive Director of ORAM.

“Among the most pervasively and violently persecuted in the world, LGBTI individuals are virtually invisible in the international refugee protection realm.”

Indiana University sociologist Oren Pizmony]Levy commented that: “There appears to be a vicious cycle. Many NGOs do not welcome LGBTI refugees and the asylum seekers don’t approach them. NGOs think that persecution based on sexual orientation or gender identity is not serious and NGOs tend to overlook the problem.”

In follow-up interviews, many respondents said that their NGO lacks the tools and knowledge for ensuring their services are open and welcoming, but wished they could better serve LGBTI populations.

In recognition of World Refugee Day this past Wednesday, ORAM called on NGOs to create “non-threatening and welcoming environments for LGBTI individuals” and “to encourage staff to openly engage with issues of sexual orientation and gender identity while avoiding stereotypes and assumptions”.

It also recommended that NGOs build their knowledge and capacity on LGBTI issues through ongoing sensitisation training and adopt codes of conduct preventing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

“No once chooses to be LGBTI and no one wants to become a refugee,” noted Grungras.

“ORAM calls on those working with refugees to recognise UNHCR’s World Refugee Day by taking steps to ensure LGBTI refugees feel safe in the hands of those tasked with protecting them. Only then can we help those who are forced to flee find safety, regain hope and rebuild their lives,” he said.

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