Fleeing Homophobia Conference
VU University Amsterdam, 5 and 6 September 2011

Marta D'Epifanio * Recent research has shown how after a general acceptance of the fact that it is a human right to live out sexual orientation and gender identity and claim the refugee status on the persecution on such ground, the process to prove the genuinity of such an identity has encountered several obstacles. While usually information and reports come from english speaking countries and common law jurisdictions where the asylum procedure is run by different institutions, the UNHCR runs the refugee status determination (RSD) procedure in Turkey. Turkey has ratified the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol which removed the previous limitations; however, despite many calls for the lifting of the limitation1, Turkey still maintains the geographical ban created by the Refugee Convention 2 that prevents the resettlement of nonEuropean refugees inside the country. Non-European asylum seekers are considered as ‘temporary asylum seekers’ and are allowed by the ‘foreigners’ police to stay in the country while waiting for the assessment and decision of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). It was not until September 2008 that UNHCR started to include sexual orientation or gender identity as a field ‘of action’. That same year, UNHRC issued a guidance note recognizing that individuals being persecuted due to sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) should be considered to be ‘fleeing due to membership of a particular social group.’ This applies to Turkey too so that in the aftermath of the decision by the UNHCR, asylum seekers are either resettled to a third country or deported. Despite these limitations, Turkey is the recipient of the largest number of Iranian LGBTI refugees because of its position in close proximity to the Islamic Republic of Iran and because it does not require a visa for Iranians. In this paper I will address the process of credibility assessment for LGBTI asylum seekers in the interviewing process by the UNHCR in Turkey, differences from earlier years and what are the indicators considered in order to ‘confirm’ a LGBTI identity.
Graduate, Bilgi University, Istanbul. accessed on 2 august 2011 2 In addition to Turkey, Monaco, Madagascar and Congo all maintain the geographical limitation of the original Refugee Convention; however, Madagascar and Congo are party to a regional refugee convention that offers international protection irrespective of country of origin. (the 1969 Organization of African Unity (OAU) Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa)
1 *


LGBTI Asylum seekers in Turkey According to UNHCR statistics (and confirmed by advocates of refugee rights in Turkey); by the end of 2010, 6.000 refugees were resettled and 500 repatriated; the population of concern in Turkey increased to 18.300 in March 2011 (after resettlement and repatriation) out of which 11.000 are refugees The largest group are Iraqi nationals, followed by Iranians, Somali and Afghans. Table 1. Statistics of how many, from where in Europe/Turkey: percentage of Asylum seekers. Source UNHCR Turkey 2010 Type of Population Refugees Origin Iraq Islamic Republic of Iran Somalia Various Asylum seekers Iraq Islamic Republic of Iran Somalia Afghanistan Occupied Palestinian Territory Sudan Various Returnees (refugees) Others of Concern Total Various Various 3.700 2.100 700 480 1.800 100 800 700 170 110 600 160 310 12.630

In recent years Turkey has seen a rise in the numbers of LGBTI asylum seekers. According to the interviews, no one knows whether the acceptance rate is indeed higher than other countries because UNHCR does not give breakdowns of the grounds for seeking asylum, but it is the highest declared; also, for what concerns Turkey, LGBTI acceptance rate is higher than other grounds. Nearly all of LGBTI asylum seekers in Turkey are Iranians because, like six other countries, it maintains the death penalty for same-sex acts between consenting adults, and like more than 70 other countries, criminalizes homosexuality. According to the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly (HCA) and Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration (ORAM) joint report “Unsafe Haven” updated in 2011, Iraqi, Afghani, Sudanese and Palestinian refugees have also sought protection on this ground. The 134 claims lodged since 2008 are divided into: 124 Iranians out of who 10 were rejected, 5 Iraqi and 5 others. This division does not include claimants that registered after March 2011 so it leaves out all the ones being processed at the moment because data are not available until the end of the procedure 3. Likewise, it is impossible to accurately


Personal interview with UNHCR officer.


break down the data in the different groups (i.e gays, lesbians, etc), but it is evident that the percentage of gay men in comparison to lesbians and transsexuals is higher. Asylum Procedure Iranian LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers face many of the same problems that all refugees face in Turkey. The procedure to follow for all new-comers requires to register to the foreigners’ police to apply for ‘temporary asylum’, a procedure run by the Ministry of Interior, and they are also required to undergo RSD interviews with the UNHCR. The whole RSD procedure has varying durations according to many factors, vulnerable categories (unaccompanied minors, torture survivors, lonely women and LGBTI) have often an expedite track to shorten their wait. Still, the time frame changes sensibly according to single cases. In Van there are people whose wait-range stretches from 9 months to 10 years. It takes about four month to go to the first UNHCR interview, it takes about two and a half months instead for vulnerable groups such as LGBT or unaccompanied minors and the refugee status determination lasts maximum one month. The whole procedure amounts more or less to four months, without counting the additional time to consider for the resettlement country 4. Interviews unanimously provided that for LGBTI asylum seekers it does not take more than one year. In the interviews only one contrasting voice gave a different timing, stating that it can take from two weeks to two years 5. After registering, asylum seekers are dispersed into smaller urban centers, namely ‘satellite’ cities 6, where they have to stay and report to the foreigners’ police office one or two times per week with no possibility of choosing a different location 7. Satellite cities are located in the Turkish inland, and have often been depicted as traditional and conservative urban centers which present difficulties to live in for all refugees, but especially the more vulnerable. In any case, once given temporary asylum, all asylum seekers must apply for a residence permit whose cost is beyond the reach of many. 8 The new law 9 and the circular 19 of March, gives a derogation for vulnerable asylum seekers who have the right to apply for exemption of residency fees in accordance with Turkey’s Article 88 of Fees Law (No. 492). Not only the absence of a residence permit prevents asylum-seekers from accessing the little social services they would be entitled to, but it also slows down the resettlement process; many who cannot pay are denied the required exit stamp even after being accepted, because the fees were not corresponded

After acceptance the file is sent to the resettlement country (mainly Canada, U.S and Australia), at first it has to pass some specific controls. Then they wait for the plane ticket dates and it can take up to 8-9 months. In general it follows those steps but it changes from country to country and the files are not in the hand of the UNHCR once the resettlement procedure starts. 5 Personal Interviews with UNHCR officers, HCA legal advisors and refugee rights advocates. 6 Out of the 28 satellite cities the ones with the greatest number of resident asylum seekers include the eastern city of Van and the central Anatolian cities of Kayseri, Konya and Eskişehir. 7 According to Unsafe Havens, permission to leave has been granted in some cases. 8 The cost of a residence permit is set by the Ministry of Finance each year and established in the Fees Law(No. 492) and it dependes on the nationality of the applicant. In 2008, a sixth-month residence permit cost 273.80 YTL per person plus an additional 81 YTL for the residence permit booklet, which only needs to be purchased once. As of April 2009, that amounted to about 225 USD or 165 Euros. According to the foreigners’ police website as of August 2011 the highest price is 25 USD for the first month plus 5 dollars each following month plus the booklet price ( 9 Up to now there was no comprehensive asylum law but in recent times the Turkish Ministry of the Interiors started drafting a bill regulating foreigners’ entrance and permanence rights in Turkey. It also includes the establishment of a new ‘Migrants Administrative Bureau’ (Goc Idaresi) that will be in charge of dealing with the growing problem of illegal and legal migration. (MOI, 2011; ECRI, 2011).



beforehand, so it can happen that a refugee who was kept waiting for years has to settle the back payments 10. It is fundamental to have a general background about the situation of Turkish LGBT individuals to understand what are the social challenges asylum seekers meet and as well to understand the environment in which people working with them have been brought up in. Turkish society is strictly gendered and gender-deviant individuals are often marginalized and discriminated against with regards to access to work, housing, health and education 11. ILGA report in 2010 highlights that in no body of law in Turkey, no hint to sexual orientation and gender identity as a ground for non-discrimination is ever made. Those rights are been called upon by activists and groups even louder now, in view of the forthcoming modification of the Constitution 12. So what happened with regards to the “Draft Law on Foreigners and International Protection” in between the first and the second draft was not an exception: in an interview with one of the HCA legal advisors, it was remarked that in the first draft, in the 1st section, 2nd chapter, article 4 “Non-discrimination 13” sexual orientation was mentioned among the reasons of non-discrimination while in the 2nd draft on the 27th of January 2011, this ground has been excluded and not yet reintegrated. These legal blanks are reinforced by the general intolerance for sexual minorities in Turkey. Although Turkish law does not criminalize homosexual conduct, it provides no protection from hate-motivated violence and at times mitigating circumstances are reported of having been applied to hate-crimes. The 2011 edition of Unsafe Haven reports that, since its former release at least forty-five LGBT individuals were murdered in hate-motivated crimes, many of the victims transgender. According to Transgender Europe and its Trans Murder Monitoring Project and ILGA report of 2010, there were 13 reported murders of transgender individuals14. As of 2011, only in the last two months (June and July 2011) there have been three murders of transgender inviduals and many trials for former cases are still going on. Since March 2005 the Misdemaenor Law has been preventing transgender individuals to leave their houses in fear of being arrested and fined because deemed to be “against public moral”. This law is still effective, and in Istanbul its application has escalated since the new bonus system which gives “points” to officers with the highest amount of fines, has been introduced 15.
Unsafe Havens 2011 and personal interviews. For example a transwoman has been refused the registration to an english class at English Time once her ID and her gender identity were seen as not matching (June 2010) 12 Source AI Accessed on 3 of august 2011; HRW report; AI Report update 13 MOI (Ministery of Internal Affairs) “Yabancılar ve Uluslararasi Koruma Kanunu Tasarısı Taslağı” (Draft Law on Foreigners and International Protection) available at: Ayrımcılık yasağı MADDE 4- (1) Bu Kanunun uygulanmasında; cinsiyet, ırk, renk, etnik veya sosyal köken, kalıtımsal özellikler, dil, din, inanç, siyasi veya diğer düşünceler, medeni hal, servet, doğum, özürlü olma, yaş veya benzeri unsurlara dayanılarak ayrımcılık yapılamaz. Prohibition of Discrimination Article 4- (1) – In the application of this law; discrimination based on sex, race, color, ethnic or social origin, hereditary characteristics, language, religion, belief, political or other opinions, civil state, property, birth, disabilities, age or similar elements is prohibited. 14 For more detailed information about Transgender Murders in the World the Transgender Europe Net provide an up to date map at 15 Personal interviews conducted in May 2010 with several transgender activists.
11 10


On the ground of being against public moral, LGBT organizations such as Lambda Istanbul or KAOS GL faced the attempts of the government to shut them down. Additionally an infamous sentence from the Minister for Women and Family Affairs who referred to homosexuality as a “disease and biological disorder in need of treatment” generate many protests among the activists and recently the Telecommunications Directorate banned the use of the word “gay” (gey) from Internet domain names. (Unsafe Havens; AI 2011) Like the local LGBT population, the more outwardly recognizable they are the more LGBTI asylum seekers are subject to hate-based verbal and physical violence and to discriminatory practice in employment, housing, education and medical health 16. Upon arrival in satellite cities, asylum-seekers are often recommended to keep discreet to reduce the risk. Since the publication of Unsafe Haven in June 2009, HCA and ORAM have documented five violent physical attacks on LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees, two sexual assaults, and multiple accounts of verbal harassment and threats. In an interview in Van, I have been told that “when they come here, from Iran, they think of here like Europe; they want to wear make-up and earrings so that as soon as they come here they are branded 17”. If they turn to the police they often receive answers on the line of “you deserved that violence, why do you dress this way? Why do you speak and move this way?” thus implicitly meaning that the authorities will not guarantee personal safety. Keeping a low profile, namely not leaving the house, is common to avoid violence or harassment in the streets. A lesbian couple claimed that they could not leave the house nor talk to men because of how single (not married) women are perceived in society, as already breaking gender rules. LGBTI applicants have security concerns even when reporting to the police. Most reports and nearly all of the interviewees remark that the signature procedure is a risky moment for both sexual minorities; both LGBTI individuals and women, when in the line for the signature are repeatedly harassed, women may be alone, or with kids, LGBTI may be visibile, so that they easily become victim of locals who sometimes harass them verbally, physically or chase them back to their houses. In the HCA-ORAM report especially, interviewed aslyum-seekers expressed their unease when appearing at the foreigners’ police because of harassment and ridicule by other asylum-seekers in the line. An Iranian lesbian in Kayseri reported being physically attacked “While I stood in line with my friends, another refugee from Iran, a man, ran at me and hit me in the face. I told him to leave me alone. There was a group of them, and they were yelling at us, calling us “lesbians,” “whores” and “prostitutes 18”. Credibility assessment in Turkey All the problems previously identified pertain especially to practical life conditions of LGBTI asylum-seekers and refugees in Turkey. There are elements to take into account with regards to SOGI claims at the interview level. On the claimant’s part, to prove one’s own sexual identity overcoming the lack of understanding of it and its reduction to mere sexual conduct is the hardest task. On the other side, to evalute it
To be regularly employed is virtually impossible, there have been reports of firings upon discovery of sexual orientation, or refused jobs because of one’s own gender identity. Health services and education are also not easily accessible for LGBTI asylum-seekers. Firstly, due to the isolation they live in, they may not be informed, or if there are no specific organizations (such as Kaos GL and ORAM) caring for them, they may not be able to access information. In general, there continues to be a dearth of interpreters available in medical or state settings for those who cannot communicate in Turkish. Secondly, since they are reportedly harassed when leaving their houses, LGBTI asylum-seekers may avoid showing up at any activity. 17 Personal interview. 18 Unsafe Havens 2011 p.17


without prejudices it is a difficult process. All interviewees agreed on the fact that it is a serious challenge for decision-makers “to express judgments beyond cultural differences because we were brought up in a conservative environment19”, without focusing solely on sexual conduct. At first, with regards to sexual minorities in Iran, officers and legal advisors had to deal with the lack of information. Groups active with sexual minorities are targeted or have to stay hidden, because dealing with sexual minorities entails a social stygma; in other words, the LGBTI issue is kept invisible because considered immoral 20. Within the RSD process, when coming to COI, the fact that there were no reports made it ‘tolerable’ to be gay in Iran since often, conventionally, only gross violations of human rights are reported and we assume that if there are no reports there are no violations. A benchmark for asylum procedure in Turkey is the 75576 appeal 2006 New Zealand case 21 which ruled that being discreet is not a durable solution in Iran so that also in Turkey, UNHCR officers were eventually convinced to assess the personal profile of claimants 22. Moreover, the increasing focus on sexual minorities’ rights in the international arena has also contributed to international refugee law, human rights advancement and the increasing amount of independent COI provided, progressively changed the pattern. Once accepted that LGBT individuals were persecuted in Iran on the basis of membership of a particular social group, the task became how to verify such membership. Research has shown that assessing LGBTI identity entails certain common impediments because of the interaction of the subjectivities of the applicant and the decision-maker. In 2010, on the basis of the Guidance Note, the UNHCR produced a discussion paper, aiming at highlighting specific concerns of LGBTI asylum seekers. With the joint use of the two UNHCR documents and recent research from Millibank and LaViolette, it is possible to identify common traits that have a crucial role in defining claimants. LGBTI individuals experience widespread discrimination and as a common trait they “frequently reveal experiences of serious physical and, in particular sexual violence 23.” In societies where gender roles are strictly codified and separated, women and LGBTI individuals play the role of the subverters of such order simply because of non-compliance to societal standards so that common points have been noted between gender-related claims and SOGI claims. Applicants do not often talk in the first instance. This attitude can be caused by several reasons, the ethnic group or the gender of the interpreter, problems in the translation for some terms which do not exist in some cultures. For example in the case reported by Grungras et al. in 2009, Farsi interpreters sometimes may refer to the applicants through a word which has a negative connotation and is associated with prostitution 24. In one of the interviews, I have also been explained that Kurdish interpreters often do not have other words to refer to gays but the word ‘nemer’ which means ‘not-men 25’. In any case, if there is a feeling that the reluctance of the applicant does not depend on the fact that he/she is lying, the cooperation of a psychologist is sought. It was underlined that resorting to a psychologist is a way to induce the talk and not to attach a clinical record to the applicant 26.

Personal interview with UNHCR officer. Ibid. 21 Refugee Appeal No. 75576, No. 75576, New Zealand: Refugee Status Appeals Authority, 21 December 2006, available at: 22 Personal interview with UNHCR officer 23 UNHRC, 2008, p.7 24 Hamjensbaz, rather than the more neutral hamjensgara 25 Personal Interview 26 Personal interview with UNHCR officer



Being confused, reluctant or unclear about one’s own sexuality is often taken as reason for mistrusting the genuinity of the claim. According to Berg and Millibank (2007), the evaluation of the plausibility of the narrative is a process of projection from the adjudicators upon the applicant who is expected to behave reasonably within the limits of the model. This forced matching of the expectations with the applicant’s narration leaves little ground for the description of the actual ‘personal’ story. Not having a linear development in sexual identity is one of the main issues in latest research and it is considered as an indicator of falseness, because adjudicators expect sexual identity to proceed and develop in a certain way. Before 2007, questioning in RSD was reported 27 to be very offensive and intrusive; with regards to the UNHCR office “Interviews were horrible, questions were direct, offensive and total devoid of understanding, in the office (UNHCR) they didnt know how to ask”. A legal advisor in HCA recalls that it used to be very bad quoting 2006 questions “oh do you give or take” or “do you take pleasure”, using this kind of language. Back then, legal officers chose sexual interaction as a proof of authenticity, considering it as the only certain indicator of homosexuality. “Questions were very harsh, they would inquire about positions during sexual intercourse with their partner in order to understand whether they were passive or active, as though it would affect their claim!”; in this specific case, inquiring about one of the two being the “insertive” partner is based on cultural stereotypes, positions do matter both in Iran and Turkey; for example in Turkey the active member is not exempted from military service because not considered as homosexual and thus would not require protection 28. The legal advisor in HCA remembers only one case; nonetheless this was the line of questioning adopted 29. This typology of questions is an exemplification of the close identification of sexual orientation with sexual acts. In the last two years, none of interviewees recalls having heard harsh or excessively intrusive questioning; there was only one that recalled an occasion of harsh questioning, but it did not have a date and it is unclear whether it came from the UNHCR or the local police. Prior to 2007, decision-makers would expect the main indicators of a LGBT identity to emerge in look and mannerism in addition to the narration of sexual acts; this means that sexual orientation and its physical manifestation can be directly linked and visible. A UNHCR officer said that judgment based on the outward appearance can also be very offensive; he recalls that once, an applicant was rejected because he did not wear eye-liner and was too masculine according to the officer 30 or on the other hand, an applicant that was instead very masculine, came to the interview wearing eye-liner and behaving in a conspicuously unnatural manner. The UNHCR officer reports what asylum-seekers believe by saying that “If you look masculine there might be an option that you are not gay so you are having a false claim to get the status”. Another officer reported being surprised because a lesbian in one of the RSD interviews looked like a woman. There were also cases that produced judgments based on the prejudices of how sexual and social interaction, both with same-sex and opposite sex, should be, and expectations on how sexual identity should develop.

Statement reported in the Human Rights Watch 2010 “A Buried Generation” and personal interviews with legal advisors and UNHCR officers. 28 HRW 2008 “We need a Law for Liberation” 29 Personal Interviews with HCA legal advisors and UNHCR officers. 30 Personal interview.



In 2006-2007, to a gay man who was raped as a boy, it was said that this event is not relevant because he had enjoyed it since he is gay 31. It is a direct connection between a precedent and an outcome which is, in reality, not linked. Following to its logical conclusion, this assumption would predict that all young children who turned out to be gay have all been raped and they did not suffer of it because it made them who they are and they enjoyed it. The same is done with relationships with the opposite sex. The statement “he was married so he cannot possibly be gay” is the result of an assumption based on a behavior which does not come out of free choice. It does not take into account societal pressure in Iran for a gay man to get married. Erasing this aspect reiterates the expected norm of a fixed sexual identity. Considerable external funding and careful training from international consultants such as ORAM have benefited the process greatly. From 2009 on, officers undertook several trainings about vulnerable categories and LGBTI and those trainings and a stricter control over RSD officers dramatically increased the capacity of UNHCR Turkey to deal with its growing caseload. As a result, more LGBT refugees are being expeditiously resettled to safe third countries, minimizing their exposure to the harassment, violence, and poverty they face in the satellite cities. The UNHCR has more in general a sensitive way of approaching applicants. Thanks to the training and more insight with regards to issues surrounding sexuality and gender, the focus is being shifted to the process of how identity is shaped. Questions about how to identify a “genuine gay” were asked to legal advisors, activists working with LGBT refugees and UNHCR officers. They now focus on full life history and daily lives accounts to develop a consistent background for the elaboration of this identity, the motivation to leave and all the unspoken indicators surrounding it such as language. First, focus is on adolescence and school time which conventionally are the phase in which sexual identity emerges. There is an interesting remark I heard by legal officers who focuses on what LGBTI individuals supposedly have in common: the feeling of difference. They assume that since this general difference is part of their identity, it pervades all the aspects of their lives so it can be perceived by accounts of relations with neighbours, classmates or family. The target is then to unravel this feeling of difference more than finding revealing events 32. A further indicator is the language used during the interview. Internalized homophobia could be expressed through a language which despises the identity the applicant is claiming. Many of them refer to their own sexual orientation as ‘my thing’, ‘my problem’ or ‘my addiction’. The subtle power of the absence of definitions and positive connotation in words referring to LGBTI identity contributes to keep the stigma and the shame at a high level. The officer would try to read in between the lines, from the way they talk about family or other people, and any comment about sexuality that the applicant would recall. Conclusions would be partially inferred by the bias or resentment applicants have against specific people, what they heard from those people, what they wanted to talk of and what were their expectations 33. The motivation to leave is also significant. Whether there has been a trigger event, its consistency and credibility in connection to the rest of the narration of the claimant has to be plain. In case of sudden departures, the trigger event often tells of involuntary disclosure if not exposure to authorities or relatives, possibly because of a LGBT party, or blackmailing, and the narrative has to be internally consistent. For example, I have been told about the case of a 45 years old man who claimed to have become gay in a day; his friend informed the authorities and after that he sought for asylum but there was no trigger event or any reason to cause this
31 32

Personal interviews. Personal Interviews with UNHCR officers. 33 Ibid.


change. As well in the case of other two rejections, the fact that there was no link at all between the former happy life and the reason to flee the homeland was decisive34. There are also recent recurrent examples of gay claims attempting to provide proof beyond doubt by having a witness or a tape. They tell of having been caught in the act and had to flee immediately after. Or there are also people making recordings of some sort in intimate moments and then these recordings get into the hands of the wrong person. The counter arguments are often based on assumptions of plausibility as “if it is this dangerous why didn’t you lock the door or hid it better”; however these kind of recurrent cases are very ambiguous in nature because at the same time they cannot simply be ruled out but immediately call for second thoughts 35. A second time disclosure may be seen as a fake claim; to have a sudden change of mind or previously hidden or unavailable corroborative evidence is looked upon with suspicion unless there is actually something to substantiate the appeal; a set-up claim was reported in 2006; an Iranian Christian convert who was rejected, in order to have a stronger claim in the appeal stage, asked to a gay person to testify that they were living together. The man was rejected again but was eventually accepted on his first story upon reopening. A legal advisor recalls that in 2007 “there were many cases at the reopening stage which I do not think were all in good faith, I think they were opportunistic but I do not like to use overgeneralization saying that people bring up LGBT claims when they are rejected and they are making it up. There may be very legitimate cases where the person just did not think it was prevident to ‘confess’ or it was just private and didn’t want to share it with the UNHCR but having understood that they have to mention it does happen”. Only in one case I heard that “there are no liars because it is too dangerous in both countries. I don’t think many people would put up a claim of being gay, lesbian or can be understood if you listen to their past history...I don’t think that many people would feel comfortable claiming that they are lesbians and transsexuals in Turkey too. Why would a person do such a thing? The false claim is part of the prejudices of the legal officers and it can happen in all the claims.” The idea is that the stigma entrenched in the claim would prevent people from lying, thus leaving only real claims to be assessed. While this is a captivating concept and it is based on the actual cultural and social situation in Turkey and Iran, to draw such a conclusion is impossible. This remark must be taken as a reminder of the effect of the hosting country on applicants and how it is vital to be aware of the condition of it. The fact that there are organizations taking care specifically of LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees makes Turkey a ‘more comfortable environment’ than other countries, countries where Christian or religious organizations take care of refugees or where they mostly reside in camps, making SOGI claims more arduous. While only four years ago a disclosure in a second time could have drawn doubts, research and precedents illustrated the meanings connected to such a fact, so now hasty judgments for this reason happen less often. Nonetheless one of the UNHCR officers stated that “a second time disclosure is yet another stratagem to try to get the status. 36” It underlines the assumption that there are rumors among asylum seekers reporting that, since LGBT cases acceptance rate is high, with such a claim they could be accepted more easily. And according to those rumors, in order to be recognized as “gay” there are some standards to comply to, as in the example of the masculine gay claimant who put on eye-liner 37

34 35

Ibid. Personal interview. 36 Personal interview with UNHCR officer. 37 Ibid.


Rumors regarding the necessary traits that constitute a genuine identity have a strong impact. All Iranian LGBTI asylum seekers live in the same satellite cities (mostly Kayseri, Eskisehir, Isparta and Nevsehir), and in the same houses. Applicants share their experience after interviews and, by talking, shape a hyerarchy of allegedly required traits to show during the interview. The singular life experience is modified by requests of a specific performance, actually genuine applicants want to make sure of being awarded the status and are ready to exaggerate one or another aspect. There is also a trend of claims which focusing on a big sensational event overdoes and exaggerates a specific moment to match with the rumored expectations while it is often not necessary. UNHCR officers concluded that sometimes a confession with sufficient insight of “how tiring it is to be mistreated, rejected and hiding, can be satisfactory without staging persecution or sensational events 38. Iranian Transsexuals In cases of claims for transsexuals, the genuinity test appears to be less uncertain; for them to prove their identity can be easier if they already underwent an operation; it is easier to have documentary evidence of the medical torture they were subjected to or the documents of gender reassignment surgery (GRS). 39 Among the interviews and reasons of rejections there are issues specific to LGBTI iranians which UNHCR officers and legal advisors attempt to pick out. Until 2009 there was a wrong assumption with regards Iranian transsexuals during the RSD. It was linked not to disbelief in the actual membership to the social group but to a presumption of knowledge of the legal and social conditions in Iran. The number of transsexual applicants increased after 2005 and again after the elections in 2009. In 2009 Male-to-Female transsexuals were being rejected on the idea that, since the gender reassignment surgery was encouraged by the government, their status was approved of in the society. According to the Human Rights Watch report A buried generation, in the aftermath of the fatwa of the ayatollah Khomeini, not only ‘transgenders’ but also people with a ‘gender disorder’ are encouraged to undergo the gender reassignment surgery in order to match the gender role division in Iran. It is reported that, in 2008 Iran was the second country in the world after Thailand for GRS. After the operation the person is legally recognized as belonging to the opposite sex and his/her documents are changed accordingly. GRS is seen as a cure for ‘gender disphoria’, a way to fix the homosexuals40 to force people into having a GRS even unwillingly but for the sake of being recognized and accepted. “Islam has a cure for people suffering from this problem. If they want to change their gender, the path is open. The same is true for those with two genders. They need surgery. They are allowed, via a sex operation, to become either male or female. This issue is fundamentally different from that regarding homosexuals. They’re absolutely not related. Homosexuals are doing something unnatural and against religion. 41” Several told Human Rights Watch that despite the legal recognition provided to transsexuals in Iran, their lives were worse off than other sexual minorities because they felt completely abandoned by both their families and the state. With regards to UNHCR Ankara, luckily, in the last year it has been acknowledged that, despite being formally legal, being transsexual entails informal discrimination, social rejection and harassment and that there is a likelihood of being discriminated against and being rejected by
38 39

Ibid. Personal interview with UNHCR officer. 40 Hojatoleslam Kariminia, a mid-level cleric 41 HRW - We are a Buried Generation


their own families. Research has also shown it as a cover-up operation to ‘force’ gays to fit gender roles and conform gender binary division 42. It clashes with Iranian social and family structure which stigmatize people who undergo a GRS. The UNHCR stance about Iranian transsexuals is based on a tendency to accept them almost prima facie because of this peculiar legal and cultural situation. These facts are well known to people who are often in contact with LGBT asylum-seekers, but that’s only a restricted circle of officers; people who are not as often and continuously involved with LGBTI asylum-seekers have very little knowledge of the issue. Some examples are confusing intersex with transsexual; being surprised at someone who is referring to herself as a woman but was formerly a man and after expressing the wish to be identified as a woman, stubbornly keeping on referring to her as a “he”; needing reminding that the conservative environment affects judgement; or that a lesbian that looks like a woman is surprising. Conclusions The overall situation with regards to the credibility assessment process in the UNHCR in Turkey does not differ much from the trend of the latest research. First of all, growing awareness campaigns and professional training on behalf of international consultants and LGBTI experts for UNHCR officers and people in sensitive positions have been very effective. This led to the production of country specific guidelines and reports which are ready to use for all the officers. Secondly, the fact that the procedure rests only on the UNHCR, reduces the effect of subjectivity and independent opinions of decision makers. This aspect of the procedure may change with the alleged entry into force of the new asylum law so that how the workload will be shared between the Turkish state and the UNHCR needs to be monitored. With regards to the applicants, the fact that there is a predominantly homogeneous group of LGBTI asylum seekers reduces the need for time-demanding research, leaving room for deeper insights and detailed knowledge for the officers involved in dealing with the group. In the case of Turkey, its being at the crossroad of continents and different cultures and the closeness to Iran and its cultural mindset can supply more and better tools to understand claimants because of an ongoing interaction over time. Despite the many achievements in the asylum procedure, the main concern of LGBTI asylum seekers in Turkey remain the conditions of life in the satellite cities and the amount of harassment and violence they are exposed to. References Amnesty International. 2011. Not an illness nor a crime': Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Turkey demand equality. Available at: Amnesty International. 2009. Stranded: Refugees in Turkey Denied Protection, available at: ECRI, European Commission against Racism and Intolerance. 2010. Report on Turkey: fourth monitoring cycle, available at:


Vanessa BARFORD “Iran's 'diagnosed transsexuals” BBC news 25-02-2008 [online]


Jones, Eddie Bruce and Lucas Paoli Itaborahy. 2011. “State-sponsored homophobia. A world survey of laws prohibiting same sex activity between consenting adults” available at: Helsinki Citizens’s Assembly and Organization for Migration, Asylum and Refuge. 2011. Unsafe Havens. The Security Challenges Facing LGBTT Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Turkey. Available at: Human Rights First. 2010. Persistent Needs and Gaps: the Protection of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) Refugees: An Overview of UNHCR’s Response to LGBTI Refugees and Recommendations to Enhance Protection available at: Human Rights Watch. 2010. We are a Buried Generation Discrimination and Violence against Sexual Minorities in Iran. Available at: Human Rights Watch. 2008. “We Need a Law for Liberation: Gender, Sexuality, and Human Rights in a Changing Turkey” available at: LaViolette Nicole. 2009a. “Independent Human Rights Documentation and Sexual Minorities: an Ongoing Challenge for the Canadian Refugee Determination Process” The International Journal of Human Rights Vol. 13 (2): 437-476, LaViolette Nicole. 2009b “The UNHCR’S Guidance Note on Refugee Claims Relating to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity” The American Society of International Law Vol. 13 (10) LaViolette Nicole. 2010. “Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and the Refugee Determination Process” Immigration and Refugee Board, Refugee Protection Division. Millibank, Jenni. 2004. “The role of rights in asylum claims based on sexual orientation” Human rights law review, 4 (2) : 193 – 228. Millibank, Jenni. 2009a. “From Discretion to Disbelief: Recent Trends in Refugee Determinations on the Basis of Sexual Orientation in Australia and in the United Kingdom” The International Journal of Human Rights, Vol.13 (2) : 391-414. Millibank, Jenni. 2009b. “ The Ring of Truth : A Case Study of Credibility Assessment in Particular Social Group Refugee Determinations” International Journal of Refugee Law, Vol.21 (1) : 1-33. Millibank, Jenni and Catherine Dauvergne. 2003. “Before the High Court : Applicants S396/2002 and S395/2002, a Gay Refugee Couple From Bangladesh” The Sidney Law Review, Vol 25 (1) : 97124 Millibank, Jenni and Laurie Berg. 2007. “Constructing the Personal Narratives of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Asylum Claimants” Journal of refugee studies.


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