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LGBT Iraqis’ search for safe havens fraught with danger

‘If you look different, you become an instant target’: Hossein Alizadeh

For LGBT Iraqi asylum seekers, the process might include remaining in a country like Jordan that is not gay- or trans-friendly while awaiting approval of an application for refugee status, which could take a few years, says Hossein Alizadeh of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. Credit: iglhrc.org

Even as LGBT Iraqis experience pervasive discrimination and threats to their lives from militias, the police and civilian society — including their own families — the prospect of finding safe havens within the country or seeking asylum abroad is also fraught with risk and danger.

Thousands of Iraqis find themselves the targets of persecution. Those who stand out because their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity defy cultural norms find themselves the focus of suspicion at in-country checkpoints, when they try to move to different cities, or marginalized in the general refugee population and in some host countries if they manage to get out of Iraq.

“The gay men who are more effeminate or trans individuals are more at risk because they are easy to spot and therefore easily targeted,” says Hossein Alizadeh, regional program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), which released two reports on LGBT life in Iraq in November. “If you look different or [authorities] feel you are crossdressing, you become an instant target, and a very eligible victim, so to speak,” he says, noting that checkpoint police are known to gang rape people before letting them move on.

Meanwhile, militias are often a source of organized campaigns of violence in a number of Iraqi cities. “Often what they do is they go after a couple of individuals who are known in the community to be gay; they start torturing them and beating them up and forcing them to give up the names of other friends or go through their phones and pick up the contact information and then go after them as well,” Alizadeh says.

The militias mete out their persecution in cyclical fashion, with the violence dying down for a period of time, which prompts people to resume their lives with a tenuous semblance of normalcy until the next wave of hostility starts. “That gives you a sense of false hope, because human tendency is to meet up with other people and to have a normal life; as soon as things settle, you hope now you can come out. Well, maybe and maybe not,” Alizadeh says.

Given the perilous environment, it is dangerous for LGBT Iraqis to try to form activist groups or even meet for social gatherings. And while people take to the internet to seek relationships and build community, there is still a risk of harassment and blackmail, he adds.  

Alizadeh notes that while gay men will take chances on finding dates online or hanging out, women’s ability to engage in such activities is often circumscribed by their financial dependence on their fathers or male relatives. “If you are forced into a marriage at a young age, how can you possibly explore that side of your sexuality?” Alizadeh asks.

Women can also face the threat of honour killings if their behaviour falls outside the dictates of society. Alizadeh says the government admits that it can account for only a small percentage of honour crimes committed. He wonders how many lesbians fall victim to such acts, considering the dearth of information about a phenomenon that is so common.

Alizadeh points to an IGLHRC attempt to partner with a group on the ground to provide shelter for people but notes that this is a temporary solution. The ability to achieve some form of safety or protection hinges on people’s wealth, social status and other markers of relative privilege. “If you have a lot of money or you are very well-connected, you can walk with a relative degree of comfort knowing nobody’s going to bother you,” he says. Often lower- to middle-income people are targeted by militias, as they tend to be more vulnerable because of limited options for social mobility, inadequate access to education, and circumstances that have led them to become the primary or sole source of income for a family that is having a hard time making ends meet. This kind of scenario describes Sadr City, a suburb of Baghdad, where Shia militias rule and from which it is difficult to find a way out.

“[The militias] don’t necessarily want to have a universal presence, but they want to make sure that wherever they are strong, the neighbourhoods are on notice,” Alizadeh explains. “There is nothing better than going after a number of unwanted elements — and nobody is more unwanted than somebody who is gay or lesbian or transgender. That’s how they go after these individuals, just to show their muscle, just to establish their credibility within the community.”

Despite the widespread view that homosexuality is a Western import and a sign of perversion, Alizadeh says pressure from the Dutch government led the Iraqi government to form an LGBT committee in 2012, which met for 18 months, to come up with recommendations that didn’t see the light of day because of the Islamic State’s growing geographical spread.

According to the IGLHRC, the committee apparently began work to sensitize government officials about LGBT issues and to urge them to observe their obligation to protect all people under Iraq’s jurisdiction.

Alizadeh says the very establishment of the committee suggests that the government is open to being influenced by the international community.

“There is a political process behind it, and I think it is important to keep in mind that one instant reaction we can have is just to put pressure on the Iraqi government,” he says. The other tack is to support Iraq’s civil society to better understand issues of gender and sexuality, Alizadeh adds, emphasizing that discussing LGBT issues within the rubric of human rights is key. “The issue should not be about sexuality; it should be about human rights. That is the narrative that many Iraqis can relate to — the mistreatment of individuals,” he says.

Pointing to the report “We’re Here: Iraqi LGBT People’s Accounts of Violence and Rights Abuse,” Alizadeh notes that human rights violations start at home. “Better education of the society — a long-term investment — can prevent a lot of honour crimes [against] women and also the targeting of people because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Fostering relationships with partners, within the legal and medical professions, for example, who will support LGBT people is also critical. “We work with some of them; we talk with some of them,” he says. “They are not willing to be out and open about it out of safety concerns, but definitely there are people who understand the situation, feel sympathy, and even might feel they are themselves queer.”

Still, the existing chaos and instability do not inspire much hope.

“One of the realities of post-Arab Spring in the region has been more Islamization of the societies — not only the Arab societies, but also countries like Turkey, which used to be more secular but now you see more religious rhetoric coming from even the ruling party,” Alizadeh says. “That has been the kind of political message that the region has found appealing to counter the Western invasion, so to speak.”

On a limited scale, there has been outreach to religious leaders, who are willing to engage with issues of sexual orientation and gender identity, as part of a broader strategy of changing hearts and minds, he says, but points out that this approach requires a lot of investment that is not possible now given the current situation on the ground. “Sooner or later, we have to make that investment, not only for Iraq but also for the broader region, to have open dialogue about issues that have so far been avoided and politicized.”

As for LGBT Iraqis who decide to leave their country, the financial and bureaucratic hoops to be circumvented are additional obstacles, compounding the ever-present danger to their personal safety.

Getting a passport is a costly undertaking, made more challenging by the requirement that people who are fleeing have their birth certificates — a risky proposition for transgender people whose official documents may not be in sync with their lived experience or appearance. A woman who wants a passport often must secure the permission of a male guardian or relative, who applies for and picks up the document.

Typically, most refugees used to go to either Turkey or to Jordan for ultimate relocation to a Western country. But raging hostilities in Syria have led to the flight of more than a million Syrians to Turkey, while an equal number of Iraqis and Syrians have sought refuge in Jordan, Alizadeh notes. A process that used to take a year or two now takes five or six years, provided those fleeing have the means to make their relocation happen.

For LGBT asylum seekers, the process might include remaining in a country like Jordan that is not gay- or trans-friendly while they await approval of their application for refugee status, which could take a few years. “While you are waiting there, you have to be able to support yourself, and you have to sustain all the xenophobic and homophobic comments by the community,” adds Alizadeh, who believes that LGBT cases need to be expedited and points to French authorities’ decision to take in Iraqi Christians who were issued visas through a consulate in the city of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan.

“We feel there are ways that the same thing can happen with other at-risk individuals, so you don’t end up waiting for five years even if you have the money. And if you don’t have the money, it’s out of the question.”