For Gay Iranian Refugees, a Matter of Life or Death

by Joseph Erbentraut

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday July 20, 2009

NOTE: This is the second of two parts, the first, on the election revolt, was on EDGE in June.

The international media clamor surrounding last month's Iranian election, which saw the contentious re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad result in weeks of protests, demonstrations and violence, may have died down, but the unstable atmosphere lives on for residents of the Islamic republic.

They continue to face major restrictions on free speech and threats to their safety if they choose to speak out. And they will not soon forget the street violence that resulted in the death, imprisonment and harassment of many protesters, activists and journalists--all part of the worst unrest the country has seen in thirty years.

This is particularly true for gay and lesbian Iranians, both those who remain inside the country and those who have escaped. They are familiar with oppressive treatment from their government, one which continues to outlaw homosexuality and crack down against any outward display of queerness. The first story (published here June 30, 2009,) examined the environment facing the Iranian queer community, particularly in light of the government's attempts to silence any post-election voices of dissent.

Building from that story, we now take a look at the climate facing queer Iranians who have fled the country with the hopes of seeking asylum in the West. Forced, in many cases, to leave behind their families, friends and the culture of their blood, their dreams of living in freedom still face a number of challenges.

When gay Iranian refugees and asylum seekers leave, they are sent to live temporarily to a number of a different places, though most end up in small Turkish towns known as "satellite cities," far from the larger cities like Ankara or Istanbul. They file a request to be granted official refugee status with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in order to legally move West, and then they wait. In many cases, that waiting period can last up to three years, a time during which employment is difficult to find and harassment is not unusual.

"[The refugees] get stuck in Turkey for this red tape process for years - one, two or more and you can never figure out why some peoples' process moves faster than others. They live in limbo," shared Tim Murphy, a journalist for Out Magazine who has covered the region extensively. "The atmosphere is very conservative; it's a bizarre, unwelcoming twilight zone. You have no idea when you'll finally be able to settle and exhale."

A report released last month jointly by the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly's Turkey Refugee Advocacy and Support Program and the Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration (ORAM) outlined some of the challenges facing LGBT refugees in the country.

"[They] are subject to a particularly caustic mix of marginalization in key areas of life, preventing them from obtaining assistance or employment, and depriving them of even the most basic security during their lengthy stay," read the report, based on interviews with 46 mostly Iranian LGBT asylum seekers and refugees. "Most live out their time in Turkey in destitution and desperation."

Refugee influx creates crisis

The report also noted that recent years have seen higher numbers of LGBT asylum seekers in Turkey, in addition to a generally higher influx of migrants leaving Africa or Asia for Europe or North America. According to sources interviewed for this story, the increased rate of asylum seekers is problematic for a number of reasons.

Hossein Alizadeh, communications coordinator for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, recently returned from Turkey, where he was investigating the atmosphere facing queer asylum seekers. He was troubled by what he saw, noting "disappointment and frustration" among many of the people he spoke with.

According to Alizadeh, Turkey called only 3,000 refugees home as recently as 2003, before the Iraqi invasion. Today, that number is nearly 20,000, an estimated 150 of whom identify as LGBT.

"There are still refugees coming from Iran, and we get more and more coming in every time there is a political development in one country," he shared. "As more come in, the chance of the refugees finding a host country get slimmer and slimmer."

Another fear among LGBT rights activists working on the issue is that an influx of more gay refugees could result in an increased safety risk for the community. Already this year, ten transgender and gay people have been murdered within the country's borders, the result of both the conservative environment and limited police protection.

"Turkey doesn't like refugees," said Scott Long, director of Human Rights Watch's LGBT Rights Program. "They have to huddle, are subject to violence, are harassed and are accused of being devil worshippers. In some ways, it replicates their experience in Iran. The more of them there are, the more susceptible they will be."

A bittersweet choice

Arsham Parsi left his home of Iran to live in Turkey in 2005, when he discovered the police were seeking him out for his early efforts to organize and network with fellow Iranian gay activists. He stayed there for just over a year before seeking asylum in Toronto, Canada.

"The Iranian queer community who escapes to other countries have no other choice but to go through this process," explained Parsi, who is now executive director of the IRanian Queer Railroad (IRQR), an organization which provides support to gay Iranian refugees. "I had lots of problems [in Turkey], but I had no choice. It's about death or life, choosing between bad and worse."

Parsi echoed the sentiments of the report released by the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly and ORAM that major changes needed to be made to the UNHCR's method of processing and abjudicating refugee status for gay Iranian applicants. He is currently writing an open letter urging the organization to speed up their process. He hopes that other Western groups will sign on with their cause. A similar campaign launched by IRQR earlier this year successfully expediated country assignment for a number of gay refugees.

"We need international lobbying with UNHCR," Parsi said, noting that he is contact with Iranian refugees in a number of other nations also having difficulty. "Everyone knows they are dealing with lots of refugees and they have limited resources and staff, but the important issue is that Iranian queers are particularly vulnerable. They have to process their cases urgently because they are still facing discrimination."

The challenge to the international community

Fearing danger both in their abandoned homeland and in their temporary locations, queer Iranian refugees are indeed left in a quandary. They cannot return home, where it is estimated that thousands of gays and lesbians have been killed since 1979 and daily violence and intimidation continue, but their future remains shrouded in uncertainty.

Activists on the issue hope that LGBT and human rights organizations worldwide come to the aid of queer Iranian refugees, creating an international effort to prevent continued threats on personal safety.

"Significant steps must be taken to make LGBT refugees and asylum seekers safer in Turkey and in many other places throughout the world," said Neil Grungras, ORAM executive director. "The violence and abuses will diminish only when all responsible parties begin giving the problem the intensive and serious attention it deserves."

"It's an international challenge for the Iranian queer community," Parsi said "Where can we live freely and have our rights respected? Most [Western nations] will say that Iran is violating rights, but they should also respect those who escape from Iranian torture."

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to to read more of his work.