Europe sends gays seeking asylum back home and back to the closet


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As gays and lesbians facing repression at home have come knocking on European doors, pleading for asylum, they have often been assured they will be safe -- if they stay home and stay in the closet.

In Hungary, a court weighing the case of a West African woman opined, “If she would not make her lesbianism public, she would not have to fear the consequences of her behavior,” according to a Dutch study of European asylum practices last year. Switzerland turned down an Iranian man, saying homosexuality was tolerated in Iran “when it is not publicly exposed in a way which could be offensive.”


The British Supreme Court made headlines by rejecting that idea two years ago, likening requiring gays and lesbians to hide their identities to sending Anne Frank back to her Amsterdam attic. The United Nations refugee agency flatly states that asylum seekers cannot be expected to change or hide their identity to avoid oppression, and that being forced to do so can itself be a form of persecution.

Yet the argument that gays and lesbians can simply be sent back to the closet has continued to hold sway in many parts of Europe, according to researchers who have tracked cases in France, Belgium, Ireland, Poland, Denmark and elsewhere. In one recent case that sparked outrage in Germany, an Iranian woman was turned down for asylum and told she could live “unobtrusively” without any problem.

Her story became infamous in Germany after she pleaded with a Nuremberg feminist organization for help. Samira Ghorbani Danesh, 24, fled Iran nearly two years ago after dodging arrest at a Tehran party that was broken up by religious police who took her girlfriend away. Danesh hid elsewhere while police turned up at her home looking for her.

Iranian law says homosexual acts between women are to be punished with whippings and, after the fourth offense, death, though researchers and activists say it is unclear how often such executions are carried out. Terrified that police or her father would punish her for being a lesbian, the Iranian woman fled to Turkey and ultimately arrived in Germany, where she sought asylum.

Her attorney, Gisela Seidler, argued that Danesh faced arrest and torture in her home country. But German immigration officials said the young woman could simply hide the fact that she was a lesbian and live safely in Iran. Unhappy with the decision, Danesh spoke out about the case in German media, a decision that brought an outpouring of support from gay rights groups but also added to her fear of returning.

“Now she is in even more danger,” Seidler said earlier this year. “Her name is known all over the world.”

German immigration officials said they could not discuss the case with The Times, explaining generally that “the decision to grant asylum always depends on the individual’s personal story.” But Seidler later said that after the outcry over the case, authorities offered Danesh “subsidiary protection” in Germany, which falls short of being refuge but allows her to stay in the country.

Now living in a Bayreuth shelter for women, Danesh has learned German and wants to get a job in real estate. She still doesn’t know what happened to the woman she had loved in secret in Tehran.

Legal experts say that although the case is now closed for Danesh, the battle is still raging across Europe. Wrestling with another asylum case that hinged on sexuality, the Netherlands recently asked the European Court of Justice to weigh in, posing the question, “Can aliens with a homosexual orientation be expected to conceal their sexual orientation from others in order to avoid persecution?” The decision, expected sometime in the next year, would be binding on European Union countries.

Some refugee experts say requiring gays to be discreet is unfair. “You would never tell a Jew, ‘Just take off your yarmulke,’ or tell a political dissident to shut up,” said James C. Hathaway, director of the Program in Refugee and Asylum Law at the University of Michigan.

But governments seem to fear that a blanket guarantee for gays in homophobic countries could lead to a flood of northbound refugees from Iran, Saudi Arabia or strictly religious African nations, scholars said. With European governments increasingly embracing gay rights as many Middle Eastern and African countries crack down against them, the issue is now a dividing line, Hathaway said.

Granting asylum based on sexual orientation or gender identity that has stayed secret is a troubling idea for immigration authorities, said Neil Grungras, executive director of the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration. His organization, based in San Francisco, has trained immigration workers not to rely on stereotypes.

“Their biggest fear is, ‘How the heck do we know?’ ” Grungras said. “They think, ‘If I can’t tell someone is gay by the way he walks or his lisp, then how do I know? Anybody can lie to me.’ ”

Researchers and activists estimate asylum cases based on sexual orientation or gender identity remain rare. Based on the few countries that track the numbers, ORAM estimates that only 5,000 of 175 million gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex people living in oppressive environments seek asylum; the Dutch study estimated up to 10,000 such applications in the European Union annually.

A flood of gay refugees is unlikely, activists argue, pointing to past, unrealized fears that women would deluge immigration offices with gender-discrimination claims. But legal experts believe the fear is driving even liberal European countries to try to push Danesh and others like her back into the closet.

“They don’t want every gay person in the global south to come seeking asylum,” said Fatma Marouf, an associate professor of law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “This is a way to raise the bar.”


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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles