Trump’s Travel Ban: Another Blow for LGBTQ Refugees in MENA
By Kate Moran
LGBT solidarity rally in front of the Stonewall Inn, New York, February 2017. Photo by Mathias Wasik (Flickr).
It’s been more than three months since U.S. President Donald J. Trump issued his now-infamous Executive Order 13769, effectively halting travel from seven Muslim-majority countries: Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and Syria, and placing a permanent moratorium on the resettlement of refugees from Syria.
Although courts across the country and advocacy organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) quickly rallied and successfully suspended the EO, its immediate effects were nonetheless devastating, and resulted in estimated thousands of individuals being detained in airports.
Syrian refugee families who had been approved for resettlement in the United States, waiting in Jordan and with scheduled departure dates, were suddenly informed their flights had been cancelled. Former interpreters and translators for the U.S. armed forces were notified that they were no longer eligible for resettlement under the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, an initiative designed to help Iraqi and Afghan nationals, under threat in their countries of origin as a result of their service to the United States government, escape.
In March 2017, President Trump issued a revised travel ban, pausing the entire U.S. refugee program for 120 days, after which point the number of admitted refugees would be halved (to around 50,000). While the original ban blocked all Syrian refugees indefinitely, the new ban treated them as it treated refugees from other countries. And while this travel ban, too, has been challenged in courts and is currently suspended, many refugees and displaced individuals remain in a state of fear and apprehension, waiting to see how recent events will affect their prospects for resettlement.
Adding to these individuals’ immigration fears and apprehension is the ever-increasing strain under which they are living in countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, where they languish in poverty or near-poverty, often surviving on less than 215 USD per month. In a region where state social service mechanisms are increasingly stretched to capacity, organizations like Spectra Project (SP) play a critical role in providing emergency services to high-risk refugee populations who might otherwise be overlooked. LGBTQ individuals are consistently considered among those at heightened risk for violent abuse, poverty, and exploitation.
According to a recent survey of over 250 LGBTQ refugees in the Middle East and Northern Africa, conducted by Spectra Project and Columbia University, 46% of LGBTQ refugees are facing life threats; 42% of these same individuals cite critical needs—shelter, food, and education—among their greatest.
Moreover, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) indicates that over 60% of the world’s 19.5 million refugees, and 80% of 34 million IDPs, live in urban environments. These individuals, living beyond the purview of traditional camp structures that provide emergency food and cash assistance to residents, experience higher rates of poverty, fewer legal protections, and greater labor exploitation than their counterparts living in camps.
Only a portion of refugees in counties of first asylum (namely, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey) are granted legal work authorization; as such, many displaced communities struggle to make ends meet in the region’s languishing economies, or enter the informal market where work conditions are harsh and exploitative, wages are low, and prospects for advancement are non-existent. LGBTQ individuals face even greater difficulties and discrimination in job placement; men who appear effeminate are often harassed and denied work. As such, sustainable livelihoods opportunities, already in short supply, are even fewer and farther between.
In the Middle East and North Africa, where the space for civil society is increasingly narrow, LGBTQ communities are at ever-greater risk of violent abuse. The UNHCR’s resettlement process for LGBTQ refugees is “slow and sensitive,” with an average processing time of two years. During this period, many individuals continue to be exposed to violence and even death threats.
With immigration and refugee resettlement to the United States paused, LGBTQ refugees, particularly those living in MENA where social protections are few (and most often insufficient), will bear a heavy burden. The travel ban is yet another blow to LGBTQ refugees’ tenuous hold on a viable future for an already-marginalized minority. As travel regulations are clarified and new policies developed, advocacy groups and non-profit organizations must remain vigilant so as to ensure the protection of this vulnerable population.
Spectra Project partners with local and international organizations in countries of transit, such as Turkey, to support LGBTQ individuals’ needs, and to advocate for LGBTQ refugees’ most basic rights. By committing to a small one-time or monthly donation, you can contribute to Spectra Project’s efforts to support, advocate for, and protect vulnerable LGBTQ individuals throughout the MENA region.