LGBTQ Syrian refugees seek sanctuary

by | Dec 4, 2015 | News

Laura DaSilva
Senior Reporter

A Toronto group is working to provide a safe haven for LGBTQ refugees fleeing state sponsored violence in places like Syria.

Rainbow Railroad‘s Executive Director Justin Taylor told Humber News he receives daily requests from LGBTQ people in high-risk countries who need help getting out.

“Everyone who calls is in a different situation. Some people have just been attacked by their families, or have been kicked out of their homes,” he said.

“Usually people have been victims of violence and reach a point where they realize they’re no longer safe in their home country and need to leave.”

The issue of LGBTQ refugees gained prominence last week when Immigration and Refugees Minister John McCallum said Canada will prioritize full families, vulnerable women and members of the LGBTQ community.

One challenge with the resettlement of a large volume of new residents is the added pressure that educational institutions will feel.

The recently established LGBTQ+ Resource Centre at Humber College says it is ill equipped to handle issues of refugee resettlement.

“We absolutely support LGBTQ refugees in whatever struggles they may be having when they arrive, but I don’t think that as the resource centre we are the best option to offer the support they might be looking for,” said Natalie Elisha, co-ordinator for Humber’s LGBTQ+ Resource Centre.

Elisha pointed towards Rainbow Railroad as an organization that specializes in LGBTQ refugee resettlement.

Taylor said being LGBTQ adds to the struggles refugees face in places like the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa where extremely harsh laws against homosexuality are common.

Asylum seekers fleeing their homelands sometimes face violence in refugee camps in neighbouring countries that can be equally homophobic, Taylor explained.

‘Can’t go to police’

“It’s still illegal for them to be gay there, so if something happens, like they get robbed, they can’t even go to the police because they’re afraid they would get arrested.”

Homosexuality, for example is illegal in Syria, and those found guilty can face up to three years in jail.

Rainbow Railroad helps by verifying cases involving at-risk LGBTQ people with partner organizations on the ground in the specific regions.

“We also help them understand what their options are for getting to a safer country,” Taylor said.

That can mean anything from helping someone get organized to move directly to a western country and claim asylum once they get there, to helping them move to a neighbouring country and go through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees process to be resettled, he said.

Rainbow Railroad “has helped cover the costs for 95 people relocating from countries where they faced persecution because of their sexual or gender orientation, Taylor told CBC Radio.

The challenge for these refugees is that they are often alone.

“A lot of refugees are fleeing together as families. With LGBTQ asylum seekers, they’re usually fleeing from their families,” Taylor said.

“They’re often traveling alone and don’t have any support whatsoever because they’ve either been victims of violence at the hands of their families or had to run away.”