“[g]ay asylum seekers are increasingly going to extreme lengths to meet immigration officials’ demands that they prove their sexual identity […]. This includes filming themselves having sex.”
Last week the Icelandic government decided to include queer peoplein a group of 10 to 14 refugees from Afghanistan (and perhaps Iran) which will be granted asylum in Iceland in 2013 and 2014. For the past years Icelandic authorities have mainly chosen to offer single women with children asylum and this will be the first time that sexual minorities are included.
– By Íris Ellenberger
There has been a debate about queer asylum seekers within the Icelandic queer community since last May when the authorities refused to consider the asylum application of a gay Nigerian named Martin. Homosexuality is illegal in Nigeria and punishable with 14 years of imprisonment in some regions. Martin had fled Nigeria, having been abused on account of his sexual orientation, and ended up in Italy where he applied unsuccessfully for asylum. There he lived under harsh conditions for nine years before seeking asylum in Iceland in the summer of 2012. Some months later, in the spring of 2013, his application was dismissed on ground of the Dublin Regulation which states that asylum applications should be dealt with by the first state a refugee arrives to, which is hardly ever Iceland.
Martin was to be deported to Italy when NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) such as No Borders and The National Queer Association (Samtökin ’78) intervened, putting pressure on the Minister of the Interior, Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir, to reopen the case on the grounds that he would most likely be deported from Italy to Nigeria, where he risks being persecuted because of his sexual orientation. The minister agreed to look at his application again and accordingly postponed his deportation.
Even if Martin‘s fate is still undecided, last week’s government decision indicates that Icelandic authorities are more willing to take sexual orientation and gender identity into consideration when granting asylum (or residence permits on humanitarian grounds which is usually the verdict with applications from individuals). And that is awesome, right? Well, maybe not entirely judging by the experience of asylum seekers in our neighboring countries.
Iceland is not the first country in the world to grant members of sexual minorities’ asylum on account of their sexual orientation and gender identity. In some of these countries, including the UK and Canada, it is becoming clear that queer asylum seekers being affected by harsher attitudes and stricter measures in a particular way. Natalie Kouri-Towe pointed out, in an article in the Canadian webzine No More Potlucks in 2011, that „[q]ueer asylum seekers in Canada are commonly scrutinized for their gender presentation and sexual practices in judgments over their refugee claims. Asylum seekers are regularly denied status and deported on the basis that they don’t appear to be gay. “ Despite this the Canadian Minister of Citizenships, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney, had used queer asylum seekers to make the immigration system seem unbiased and Canada appear morally superior while simultaneously cracking down on asylum seekers, „increasing deportation and detentions …“
Similarly The Guardian reported earlier this year that „[g]ay asylum seekers are increasingly going to extreme lengths to meet immigration officials’ demands that they prove their sexual identity or else be returned to countries where they face persecution.“ This includes filming themselves having sex. According to altered official guidelines asylum seekers go through an assessment during which they have to prove that they are gay, lesbian or transsexual in order to be granted asylum. This of course puts extra pressure on people who have already suffered persecution in their home countries, gone to great trouble to get the Europe or North America and then been met with oppressing immigration systems which have been proven to take a very large toll on their mental and physical health. We must not forget that last week, just days before the Icelandic government‘s announcement that they would include queer refugees in their handpicked group of 10-14 asylum seekers from Afghanistan, another asylum seeker committed suicide in the town of Keflavík, where most refugees in Iceland reside. And that is not the first time this has happened in Iceland.
It remains to be seen how things will play out for queer asylum seekers here. As soon as the announcement hit the news last week, commenters began speculating that refugees would start faking homosexuality. In the spring of 2012 six asylum seekers came to Iceland, who claimed to be under 18 years of age and thus guaranteed certain rights according to the Convention on the Right of the Child. They appeared older so they were forced to undergo dental examinations which would determine their age. They were told that if they refused they would be treated as adults within the system. Only one turned out to be a minor, according to those tests, but if their treatment is any indication, queer individuals will probably not be granted asylum without scrutiny. So it presents a dilemma, when the government wants to provide queer asylum seekers special exemptions, while simultaneously perpetuating an oppressive immigration system which makes it almost impossible for individuals to get asylum in Iceland and forces them to live under harsh conditions while their fate is being decided. After all, how are you going to prove, for example, that someone is homosexual or that their sexual identity does not “match” their biological sex? Not to mention all the people who fall outside the homosexual/heterosexual, male/female binaries.
Who knows? Maybe the Icelandic authorities will be just fine with taking queer asylum seekers at their word. But judging by experience, my guess is that this will not be the case. So before we start cheering we might want to stop and consider whether special exemptions or measures for queer asylum seekers might have a detrimental effect on their lives, especially those who do not look, speak or act according to the stereotype of homosexual and transgender people.
It is certainly great that the Icelandic authorities are taking steps to alleviate the conditions of a marginalized group among refugees and asylum seekers. But the solution does not seem to be that simple, judging from the experiences in the UK and Canada. In order to aid queer refugees and asylum seekers it will probably not be enough move gender identity and sexual orientation further up on the list of priorities. The government must also recognize that it is likely that the best way to really truly ensure the welfare of queer asylum seekers is to induce much more humane and just regulations and environments for asylum seekers in general.
As for the queer community, it has in recent years enjoyed quite a bit of good will from the authorities and the general population. It is understandable that queer Icelanders are not willing to risk their privileged status, compared to other minorities in Iceland, by joining forces with probably the most controversial group of them all. But the queer community must consider the possibility that the most effective way to gain equality and justice for all queer individuals in Iceland, regardless of legal status, is to join the fight for the rights of all asylum seekers. That is, if it is willing to do the right thing by the most marginalized of us all.