Fleeing Persecution Based on Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity or Gender Expression: Information for Asylum Seekers and Refugees
This “Q&A” guide will give you basic information you’ll need if you’re considering leaving your country to escape persecution. The guide is intended to help you make an informed decision about whether, where and how to proceed – ideally before you start your journey.
The questions and answers in this guide are relevant to LGBTI refugee and asylum cases around the world. If you do not find an answer to a basic question here, please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Where appropriate, we will add your question along with our answer to this growing resource page.
We regret that we are not able to offer case-specific advice at this time. If you need help with your application for asylum or refugee status, you must find legal help in the country where you apply for refuge.
- What are my possibilities if I’m in danger in my country?
- Is getting asylum easy?
- Can I receive asylum or refugee status if I’m in danger because of my sexual orientation or gender identity?
- What kind of harm is serious enough to make me eligible for asylum?
- How do I show that the persecution I face is based on my sexual orientation or gender identity?
- Does it matter who’s persecuting me?
- Should I consider relocating within my own country to avoid persecution?
- Can I request asylum in any country?
- What do I need to do before leaving my country?
- What should I do after arriving in the country of asylum or transit?
- Can I expect the asylum or resettlement process to be quick?
- In my country, people who are known to be LGBT are discriminated against and suffer violence. I know of two who have been killed. But if you hide who you are, you can stay safe. Can I qualify for refugee status?
- I married a man because this was required by my family. But the true love of my life is a woman. Can I still be recognized as a refugee for being a lesbian?
- I am applying for asylum because I was caught being intimate with another man, but I am actually bisexual. Should I hide my relationship with women from the refugee authorities?
What are my possibilities if I’m in danger in my country?
You can either find a way to live safely in your country or you can consider leaving. Most people stay at home if they can. No matter how difficult life is at home, it’s usually easier than starting anew in another country. If you must leave your country, requesting asylum or refugee status may be an option.
If your life, liberty, physical safety or other basic human rights are in danger (in short, where you fear persecution) because of your sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, you may be considered a refugee under international law and may be eligible for refugee status.
Tens of countries grant asylum to those who are already within their borders. These are called “asylum countries.” In other countries, which do not have domestic asylum systems, you may be able to stay temporarily in the hope of resettling elsewhere. These are called “transit countries.”
Is getting asylum easy?
It’s anything but easy! To receive asylum, you must manage to leave your country and enter another country, which itself can be a difficult and dangerous task. In asylum or transit countries you will likely confront financial difficulties, isolation, loneliness, discrimination and many of the other hardships we all face away from home. This is not meant to discourage you from fleeing difficult or dangerous conditions. Still, it is crucial to know what to expect as you weigh your options.
Can I receive asylum or refugee status if I’m in danger because of my sexual orientation or gender identity?
The answer is generally “yes,” but it depends where. Most Western countries recognize today that persecution based on sexual orientation or gender identity is a valid basis for asylum or refugee status. In many other countries, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) can accord you refugee status on these grounds.
What kind of harm is serious enough to make me eligible for asylum?
It is impossible to list here all the ways in which people are harmed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. If you fear execution, detention or torture because of your sexual orientation or gender identity, you will likely be eligible for asylum. Persecution may also take other forms including criminal charges, arbitrary arrest, detention, forced medical treatment, physical violence, exclusion from basic services available to the general population, serious and systematic discrimination or other serious human rights abuses. Whether a particular harm or cumulative harms amount to persecution is always determined on an individual basis and will depend on the facts of your case.
How do I show that the persecution I face is based on my sexual orientation or gender identity?
We usually know exactly why we’re being targeted, but proving a persecutor’s motivation can be very challenging. If you fear persecution because you have relations with people of the same sex as you, you will need to show what your persecutor said or did, and how it was tied to your sexual orientation. If you are persecuted because your behavior is considered gender-nonconforming (for example if you are a man and you dress, walk, talk or otherwise act “feminine”) you will need to show that your persecutor targeted you for these reasons. On rare occasion, you’ll have written proof like official documents of arrest. Most times, the case will be decided based on your testimony.
Does it matter who’s persecuting me?
Sometimes. Persecution by government authorities is grounds for asylum, but so is persecution by other actors including family members, non-governmental organizations, religious institutions, particular individuals or other elements of society. If your feared persecutor is non-governmental, you will be eligible for asylum only if the authorities cannot or will not protect you.
Should I consider relocating within my own country to avoid persecution?
Of course most people prefer to stay in their own country if at all possible. Also, most asylum countries will not grant you asylum if you could have lived safely in your home country. For example, if you face violence in a small town but can live in a liberal city in your country, you will probably not be eligible for asylum. It depends on the conditions in your country and your particular circumstances.
Can I request asylum in any country?
Not all countries have independent asylum systems. Some countries (mostly in the Americas and Europe), have asylum systems which will assess your claim and grant you domestic legal status and other rights if you qualify. In much of the “global South,” refugee systems are managed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). If the UNHCR recognizes you as a refugee, you will likely avoid deportation and may be resettled. In some countries, neither asylum nor refugee status is a realistic option. You should investigate the situation in the country where you are going before you depart.
What do I need to do before leaving my country?
Do as much preparing as possible while you’re still at home. Once you’re away, it will be much more difficult to access documents you’ll need to show both your identity and your fear of being persecuted. You should have readily available your identity documents, passport, birth record, marriage and divorce records, and school records. Correspondence and photographs proving your claim are also helpful, as are medical records of injuries, official documentation of arrests, detention or interrogation, or any other evidence which proves harm you suffered. We recommend that you scan these documents prior to your departure and also back them up electronically. You can email these documents to yourself or upload them to an online document storage service) so you can later access them from any place.
Also know your departure route and method and have a valid travel document at all times. Lastly, set aside as much cash as possible to flee and survive during your flight to safety.
What should I do after arriving in the country of asylum or transit?
Apply for asylum or refugee status as soon as practical after arrival. In most countries, the authorities assume that a serious delay in applying for refugee status indicates you are not really afraid to return to your home country. We recommend that once you arrive at the destination country, you contact a legal organization that specializes in refugee or migration as well as any other organization focusing on LGBTI rights, if one exists. These organizations may assist you in the asylum or refugee status process or with other matters. We also recommend that you contact UNHCR (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), the UN agency charged with refugee protection. Many UNHCR offices today are LGBTI-aware, and may assist you in obtaining the information you need to apply for asylum or to assist you in other ways. In transit countries, it is almost always the UNHCR which must assist you if you wish to avoid deportation. In some countries, the UNHCR and other agencies also assist with material needs like housing.
Can I expect the asylum or resettlement process to be quick?
Asylum or refugee adjudication is a long and often difficult process. The time it takes for cases to be revolved varies from several months to several years. The process is emotionally stressful. During this time, you must stay hopeful and learn to “live for the moment.”
In my country, people who are known to be LGBT are discriminated against and suffer violence. I know of two who have been killed. But if you hide who you are, you can stay safe. Can I qualify for refugee status?
In more and more countries and at the UNHCR, the answer is “yes.” Up until recently, many countries rejected asylum claims of people who could avoid harm by going home and living “discretely” (in the closet). In the last few years a growing number of countries – especially in Europe — have concluded that this way of thinking is wrong. Courts in these countries have ruled that a person cannot be required to live “closeted” in order to avoid persecution.
Some countries make a distinction between people who must remain “discrete” to avoid persecution and those who wish to avoid social pressures. Before applying, make sure you understand the rule in the place where you are applying to best assess your chances of success.
I married a man because this was required by my family. But the true love of my life is a woman. Can I still be recognized as a refugee for being a lesbian?
Assuming you fear persecution because you are a lesbian, you may qualify for asylum or refugee status even if you were (or still are) married to a man. Many refugee and asylum examiners today know that social pressures and cultural norms can push people into marriages they don’t desire. Many also know that the way people express their sexual orientation can change over time. Even if you have a knowledgeable interviewer, be prepared to answer many questions about the circumstances around your marriage, your sexual orientation and your current relationship. Depending on where you’re applying for asylum or refugee status, you may encounter an interviewer who does not understand you can be lesbian and yet get married to a man.
Be sure to convey to your interviewer why in your society all people must marry regardless of their sexual orientation. Try to communicate the hardship a lesbian there may face if she remains unmarried.
I am applying for asylum because I was caught being intimate with another man, but I am actually bisexual. Should I hide my relationship with women from the refugee authorities?
Bisexuality can be a basis for refugee status or asylum, although you may have a more difficult time proving your eligibility, and should expect some difficult questioning during your interview. Still, you should be truthful and not conceal any information. Inconsistencies and untruthfulness usually emerge during a thorough refugee interview, and can result in denial of your case. Be honest about your relationships with women. If you truly fear harm because you were or are with another man, you should ultimately win.