Strengthening Protection for LGBT Refugees
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
Thank you, Allison, and thank you to everyone for coming out today and especially to the organizers of today’s event, Human Rights First and the Human Rights Campaign. I’m pleased to be here today with you on the international day against homophobia. I commend your work highlighting the plague of homophobia. And I commend Human Rights First for launching a report to bring attention to threats against LGBT refugees. When we read the accounts of abuse and exploitation included in this report, we have but one option: we must stand squarely on the side of the most vulnerable. We must do what we can to provide them an environment where their safety and security is ensured and their rights and dignity upheld. That must be our priority.
The Obama Administration cares very deeply about the issue of homophobia, and we are taking action. But then, you already know that. The Presidential Memorandum of December 6, 2011 affirmed the United States commitment to promoting the human rights of LGBT persons and directed all agencies engaged abroad to ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance advance this objective, including through protecting vulnerable LGBT refugees and asylum seekers. Last December, Secretary Clinton’s landmark speech in Geneva, as Allison mentioned, laid out a vision of respect for human rights for LGBT persons in every region of the world. Today, the United States Government is working very hard, across agencies, to find ways to protect LGBT refugees and asylum seekers worldwide. The Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration has an important leadership role to play. We must ensure that the global system for refugee protection is fully inclusive of and responsive to the needs of LGBT asylum seekers and refugees.
First and foremost, we believe that advancing the human rights of LGBT individuals is a critical diplomatic goal requiring the broadest efforts of the State Department. We continue to call upon states to protect the human rights of their citizens through our diplomatic engagements with countries around the world. We look forward to the day when LGBT persons are free from persecution and violence. But we know that day has not yet arrived, and we remain committed to our advocacy for the human rights of all individuals. As Secretary Clinton said in December, “Gay rights are human rights.”
The human rights of LGBT persons are clearly defined through existing international human rights law and refugee law. We have consistently articulated this message and the State Department will look for opportunities to expand the understanding and application of international norms and consensus around these issues. We’ve looked to many governments in other regions to play a leading role in this effort. For example, at the UN Human Rights Council’s June 2011 session, South Africa was the main sponsor of the first-ever UN resolution on the human rights of LGBT persons. And the Organization of American States has established the first ever special rapporteur on the rights of LGBT persons. We will continue to help support the voices of civil society organizations, both LGBT and broader human rights organizations in this effort. We will continue to support UN resolutions and other multilateral mechanisms that further clarify and emphasize that LGBT people – like all people -- are entitled to human rights, and to condemn violations of these rights.
At the same time as we pursue vigorous diplomatic efforts to protect the rights of LGBT people, we also recognize the particular challenge faced by LGBT refugees. PRM is already doing a great deal to help these refugees, through dialogue with other countries, through partners like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and non-governmental organizations, and, in some cases, helping to protect individuals in need of urgent help.
This “Humanitarian diplomacy” is vital to ensure that countries of first asylum protect the human rights of LGBT refugees. And again, sometimes countries fall short. LGBT refugees can be the targets of violence in their countries of asylum, or are unable to request assistance, and may be isolated from the established refugee protection architecture. We actively seek solutions to prevent this isolation and protect LGBT refugees.
What have we already done to help? UNHCR is our key partner in protecting all asylum seekers and refugees, including those who may be LGBT. I have discussed these issues with top leadership of UNHCR in Geneva and in Washington. Recently, I raised the plight of LGBT Iraqis with UNHCR officials in Baghdad. With our proactive encouragement, UNHCR released guidance on working with LGBT refugees and asylum seekers last year, issued an updated resettlement handbook that includes new language addressing LGBT refugees, and identified protection of LGBT refugees as one of six action areas in its new gender-based violence strategy for 2011-2016. UNHCR has been forward-leaning on this issue, and its continued leadership in LGBT refugee protection will help ensure a safe and dignified environment for vulnerable individuals in their country of asylum. We will continue to support UNHCR’s efforts to build their capacity on these issues and reach out to our other international partners to provide similar support.
We have also advised our non-governmental organizations partners that LGBT refugees and asylum seekers are a priority population of concern for the United States and that assistance projects should include LGBT refugees and asylum seekers, either through targeted initiatives or integrated services. We’ve affirmed that addressing LGBT protection concerns is a component of programs aimed at preventing and responding to sexual and gender-based violence. And we have funded research to develop best practices for assisting LGBT refugees in urban areas.
We are working closely with organizations like the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and the Refugee Law Project to provide assistance to vulnerable LGBT refugees in Uganda and Kenya – assistance that in many cases may be their only support or lifeline. Embassy staff around the world are aware of tools the State Department has available to assist LGBT individuals who face harassment, abuse or persecution. We have enhanced our training on the special needs of LGBT refugees both overseas and domestically. This training is not just internal to the State Department, but also extends to external partners and other agencies as well. We are funding ORAM, a partner with which UNHCR is conducting trainings with stakeholders in South Africa on LGBT refugee protection. We are working with the Department of Homeland Security and organizations like HIAS and Immigration Equality to train PRM’s Resettlement Support Center staff worldwide on working sensitively with LGBT refugees seeking U.S. resettlement. And we are working with our domestic resettlement agency partners to facilitate successful resettlement for those LGBT refugees who come to the United States.
We know that there is more we can do help create environments in which an LGBT refugee is neither targeted nor harassed nor fearful for his or her life. We must engage with our NGO partners to develop innovative ways to provide protection to those in need in their country of asylum. But we are also acutely aware that in some cases the only true solution lies in resettlement to third country.
Human Rights First’s report calls for the United States to do more to expedite resettlement of LGBT refugees to the United States. The problem with trying to move LGBT refugees to the United States more quickly is that the US resettlement process takes too long for the most urgent cases. It is a complex process, involving several Federal Departments and many actors and steps, including time-consuming interviews and background and security checks. Rather than focusing primarily on the largely unattainable promise of expedited resettlement for some number of people, we should look at the full range of protection measures and solutions available in every case. The United States can invest in ways to protect vulnerable LGBT people in their countries of asylum or, in the case of Iraq where we have an in-country program, where they currently live. We can support efforts to make safe shelter available for highly vulnerable LGBT refugees, as the Human Rights First report notes. We also have been instrumental in building a broader system of international refugee resettlement that can help. While we in the United States excel in admitting more refugees to our country than all other countries combined, we also must acknowledge that other countries can (and do) move faster to resettle particularly vulnerable individuals. The United States was instrumental in the establishment of UNHCR’s three Emergency Transit Centers, which provide temporary protection for refugees in the process of resettlement, when keeping them in place exposes them to threats to their security. Through these measures, the international community can prevent continued persecution and harm coming to LGBT refugees and expedite effective protection to them wherever they may be.
So in conclusion, we are united in our conviction that LGBT refugees must feel safe and secure, with their rights respected and their dignity upheld. We already do a great deal but are not satisfied. We will continue to draw attention to this issue and utilize all options available to us to work towards this goal. We will continue to seek innovative solutions to protect and assist threatened individuals, wherever they may be. And we will continue to stand on the side of dignity for all individuals, but especially the most vulnerable.