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Queer Syrian refugees lost in system once in Canada

There are myriad groups that want to help LGBT Syrians, but the systems in place aren’t helping

Toronto, Canada - December 11, 2015: Sponsors, family, and Canadians simply wishing to welcome their new neighbours await the first plane's arrival of Syrian refugees at Toronto's Pearson International Airport. Credit: Stacey Newman/iStock Editorial

The Canadian government is pledging to place Syrian refugees who identify as sexual or gender minorities in cities where they can access support. But immigration officials say they have no idea how many LGBT Syrians have arrived, and groups wanting to sponsor them are having trouble helping out.

“We are in a daily process to match all refugees to the most appropriate location,” Immigration Minister John McCallum said on Wednesday, Feb 3, 2016. “It’s somewhat tailor-made to suit the particularities of refugee households.”

When the federal government unveiled its plan in November 2015 to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by Feb 29, it listed “members of the LGBTI community” among four priority groups, in keeping with the United Nations’ refugee guidelines.

“We treat LGBT people among the vulnerable, because they are often subject to very substantial persecution in that part of the world,” McCallum said Wednesday.

But the immigration minister wasn’t able to specify how LGBT Syrians will be accommodated, other than placing them in cities where they can find support.

Violence against LGBT refugees has been reported in crowded camps across Europe, while the Lesbian and Gay Federation in Germany has identified several assaults on gay refugees in 2015, often by fellow asylum seekers.

Immigration officials couldn’t say if they’re taking measures to avoid similar situations, but they noted that all government-assisted refugees — who arrive without a group to welcome them — are taken to specialized receiving centres for help like psychological counselling before they are placed in designated housing.

Karlene Williams-Clarke, who heads newcomer services at The 519, Toronto’s LGBT community centre, says LGBT refugees arriving alongside people from their home countries shouldn’t be housed in places “where they feel that they’re going to be ostracized again, or that they’re going to feel uncomfortable being gay.”

But she adds that refugees shouldn’t be isolated from other people, and sometimes need counselling.

“Some people it may be difficult because all your life you live in the closet, and then you come here and you’re free to be you; it takes a little while to adjust.”

Meanwhile, LGBT groups have had difficulty in trying to sponsor Syrians.

“Right now, there is no way effectively for LGBTI refugees to be identified for sponsor groups that are wanting to sponsor them,” says Victoria-area MP Randall Garrison, who’s heard from three frustrated groups in his riding that are trying to help out.

The immigration department says groups can help LGBT Syrians, but through a separate program.

“Due to privacy concerns, we cannot share personal information regarding refugees with potential sponsors such as those who are part of the LGBTI community,” spokeswoman Jessica Séguin said in an email to Daily Xtra.

“Although persecution due to sexual orientation may be the reason an individual needs protection and would be included in case notes, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) does not track this information in its data fields.”

Garrison, the NDP’s LGBT issues critic, says he’s given the government some recommendations on how to make sure queer Syrians receive an adequate welcome.

“I understand that there are privacy concerns, danger concerns. It’s tricky but we have to find a solution,” he says.

Groups can still support an LGBT refugee, but they must link up with trusted, registered community groups.

Since 2013, the Blended Visa Office-Referred (BVOR) program has matched refugees identified by the UN as being particularly vulnerable to persecution or violence with private sponsors in Canada.

The program sends short descriptions of refugees to “sponsorship agreement holders,” and then assembles volunteers to welcome refugees and support them financially for six months.

Justin Taylor, executive director of Rainbow Railroad, a group dedicated to helping LGBT people flee hostile countries, says he’s come across cases of LGBT Syrians in early January.

“There were a number that came up at the start of the year, and as far as I understand all of them were gobbled up,” he says.

His group used the BVOR program to sponsor two refugees, through the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto. But Taylor found that coordinating an influx of volunteers was overwhelmingly time-consuming.

“Probably the biggest challenge right now is there are way too many cooks in the kitchen and way too many people who don’t know how to do this, who are involved in this,” he says.

Taylor says it’s possible few Syrians are declaring themselves as LGBT, while some might be waiting to be processed by over-worked settlement staff.

“We’re really at a point now where things need to calm down a bit and we really need to step back and see what’s working and what’s not working.”

A fourth refugee stream, Family Link, aims to reunite relatives, including people who need financial and logistical help from the public.

Williams-Clarke says the questions surrounding LGBT Syrians illustrates a need for services that welcomes refugees in general.

“There are people who come here by themselves, on their own, have no form of support and are in need of help,” she says. She worries that the attention and resources placed on Syrians will delay people who’ve made an asylum claim five years ago and still haven’t had a hearing.

Every few months, Williams-Clarke scrambles to find shelters for freshly arrived LGBT asylum claimants, sometimes asking people from the same country to offer a couch to sleep on.

“Some people leave from the airport and come here at The 519 with their suitcases, because they have nowhere to go.”