Working with LGBTIQ+ Persons in Forced Displacement: Narratives from Afghanistan and Lebanon

Dr. Jasmin Lilian Diab, Director of the Institute for Migration Studies, LAU
Dr. Jennifer Skulte-Ouaiss, Director of the Title IX Office, LAU
Dr. Charbel Maydaa, Advisory Board Member and Alternate Co-chair, ILGA Asia
Bechara Samneh, Advisory Board Member and Youth Program Coordinator, MOSAIC


Overview: Gender Identity in Displacement

In situations of forced and protracted displacement, individuals who identify as members of the LGBTIQ+ community not only have the same basic needs, and face the same challenges as other displaced persons, but they additionally encounter other forms of discrimination and human rights violations. Moreover, refugees and IDPs from the community encounter distinct protection risks associated with their real or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, expression and/or sex characteristics (SOGIESC) – particularly when they do not conform to prevailing socio-cultural norms and practices.

Exclusion, violence, exploitation, stigmatization, discrimination, and abuse in countries of origin drive many members of the LGBTIQ+ into situations of forced displacement (internally and/or across borders). For members of the community, these challenges often persist in countries of asylum/host countries, as they are frequently excluded from traditional lines of aid, assistance and support afforded to displaced communities. They may additionally continue to endure marginalization and abuse. Although members of the LGBTIQ+ community may seek protection/refuge for reasons that are directly, indirectly or unrelated to their SOGIESC, they remain at heightened risk of exclusion, exploitation and violence throughout the entire displacement cycle. They encounter multiple obstacles to accessing tailored/targeted humanitarian assistance, appropriate health care services (particularly for trans persons), and gender-based violence (GBV) services as well as education and livelihood opportunities. Challenges are especially acute for persons whose affirmed gender identity does not match their official identity documents. Moreover, in countries such as Lebanon and Afghanistan, where protection for refugees (and particularly LGBTIQ+ persons) is limited, reports of harassment from security forces and arbitrary detention are rampant.

ILGA Asia in Afghanistan: Gender Identity in Transitioning and Protracted Crisis

Prior to the Taliban rule, the situation as described the 2017 US State Department report mentioned the acts of violence, discrimination, and other abuses based on sexual orientation and gender identity that the LGBTIQ+ community in Afghanistan faced. This was done under the protection of a law that criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual conduct, and does not prohibit discrimination or harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity.  In 2020, the U.S. State Department reported that the LGBTIQ+ “continued to face arrest by security forces” that “homosexuality was widely seen as taboo and indecent”,  This also affect the service provision whereby LGBTI rights organizations could not legally incorporate and therefore “remained underground.” The government only permits condom distribution to married couples, and there is stigma against people living with HIV.  With the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, ILGA Asia established its Afghanistan Special Program to assist LGBTIQ+ Afghans living in fear and life-threatening conditions, and provide them with needed emergency evacuation. Since then, ILGA Asia has been working with international partners to coordinate possible evacuation and exit routes for Afghan women and LGBTIQ+ activists through ensuring a safe passage out of Afghanistan and neighboring countries. However, many LGBTIQ+ people remain in the country, waiting for opportunities to find safety before they are persecuted and killed. Their condition worsens by the day with the numerous human rights infringements that ILGA Asia has documented.  The Taliban has been clear on its policy of non-tolerance against LGBTIQ+ Afghans. Individuals who are identified as LGTBQI+ by the Taliban are subjected to various forms of physical abuse.  Incidents of threats, harassment, beating, stabbing, arbitrary kidnapping and detention, random disappearances, as well as shootings and killings have been reported.  In addition, due to the fear from the Taliban, reports of families pressuring their LGBTIQ+ members to either flee from home, or coerce them into arranged heterosexual marriages have also been reported - pushing the individuals to run away without any safe shelter to turn to. 

All of this has had a major impact on the psychological well-being of the LGBTIQ+ community. This is seen in the increasing rates of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and suicide attempts among a lack of access to psychosocial therapy services. In addition to all the aforementioned, LGBTIQ+ individuals remain some of the most economically vulnerable amidst rising inflation.  With many afraid to leave their homes for work, others who have already been fired or are facing threats because of the nature of their work, LGBTIQ+ members remain subject to blackmail, extortion, and threats about being outed to the Taliban.  Rapidly escalating black market prices for legal documents such as visas and passports further adds to already significant challenges, making the likelihood of an LGBTIQ+ person being able to move to a safe country almost impossible from a financial perspective.  The situation calls for special international attention for catered solutions, because without them the LGBTIQ+ community remains one of the most vulnerable in transitioning and protracted crisis scenarios globally.  

MOSAIC in Lebanon: Gender Identity amid “Other” Priorities

In Lebanon, sexual diversity phobia and social oppression are still vastly widespread due to cultural prejudices. LGBTIQ+ persons still face discrimination based on their sexual orientation, gender identities/expressions, and sex characteristics (SOGIESC) in all aspects of their lives. The Lebanese penal code (article 534) still penalizes same sex relationships, complete sex reassignment and sterility. Additionally, LGBTIQ+ persons still face rejection when seeking employment opportunities, housing or education which may lead to socio-economic hardships. Thus, many LGBTIQ+ persons in Lebanon avoid seeking services altogether which may negatively impact their health and wellbeing.  In partnership with the Gender, Justice and Security Hub at LSE, MOSAIC conducted a one of a kind regional research project that examined the direct and indirect impacts of conflict and displacement in the context of the Syrian Civil War on persons of diverse sexual SOGIESC, both in Syria and in neighbouring countries, in particular Lebanon and, to a lesser extent, Turkey.  The research findings highlighted the significant threat of harassment and abuse by state authorities, whether Syrian, Turkish or Lebanese. The research also highlights the prevailing gender normative policing that the region exhibits through acts of pressuring men to appear ‘hard’ and avoid any sign of ‘softness’ or ‘effeminacy’, including for example showing emotions towards children in one’s family. In Lebanon, persons of diverse SOGIESC are discriminated against especially if they are refugees. This can even be seen within the diverse SOGIESC community itself, where misogyny, lesbophobic, transphobic, or xenophobic sentiments exist.  However, the availability of an LGBTIQ+ safe civil space with the services and support somewhat protects the community. 

The study also explores the impacts of COVID-19, the economic crisis, and the aftermath of the August 2020 Beirut port explosion that have pushed many persons of diverse SOGIESC further to the margins of society.  The research findings echoed and reiterated many of the broader issues raised by literature on diverse SOGIESC in situations of conflict and displacement, such as the multiplicity of forms and perpetrators of violence, abuse and discrimination; the violent policing of gender norms and expressions by armed actors and civilians; and the importance of support networks. In addition to the aforementioned, the negative mental health impacts of incessant abuse and marginalization also form central themes in the everyday lives of IDPs of diverse SOGIESC in Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey.

Concluding Remarks

Despite progress to improve the protection of people with diverse SOGIESC and in the areas of gender responsive resettlement, discrimination against the community remains endemic, and their protection needs often go unmet. An evident gap remains regarding the specific vulnerabilities of people with diverse SOGIESC in countries of origin, transit, migration and asylum. Furthermore, not all stakeholders are aware of their own preconceptions or discriminatory attitudes about sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and bodily diversity.

International efforts by UN agencies and international humanitarian organizations still lack adequate and targeted consultations with staff, operational partners and LGBTIQ+ people of concern. Guidelines and strategic messaging, coupled with the mainstreaming of LGBTIQ+ issues in mandatory learning programs, policy directives and humanitarian responses remains poorly targeted and insufficient. The research described here is a first step toward addressing the human rights needs of the SOGIESC communities in Afghanistan, and among Syrian IDPs and refugees who remain in the region. Knowledge must now be coupled with targeted training as well as awareness raising. While these communities are some of the most vulnerable in these two violent contexts, individual and group agency should not be ignored, especially as NGO and IO practitioners and government representatives seek to improve programming and interaction with the LGBTIQ+/SOGIESC community more specifically.