Breaking the invisible wall between the LGBTQI+ community and queer refugees

This interview was published on on 13 June 2023 and translated into English by Mertcan Karakuş.

Since 2015, the date of their official establishment, HEVİ has been working in the field of humanitarian mobility via organizing with LGBTQI+ refugees. The association, which self-identifies as a ‘‘minority organization,’’ has been fighting against the escalating anti-refugee discourses and hate politics in order to make refugees’, especially the LGBTQI+ ones’ voices, stories, problems, and struggles visible.

For our ‘‘Talking about Migration’’ dossier, we talked with members of the association about their work, the anti-refugee hate, impacts of this hate and queer refugees’ relationship with the LGBTQI+ community and movement in Turkey.

Your association has been working on migration and LGBTQI+ refugees for a very long time. Could you explain why this topic is important to you and why you are working in this field?

Many members of the HEVİ LGBTI+ Association are the ‘‘unwelcomed ones’’ of Turkey’s internal migration flow. Thus, being forcefully removed or displaced is a political field for HEVİ. Our own experiences ease our integration to the field, for sure.

HEVİ, which was founded in İstanbul by a group of displaced activists, hit the language barrier of the LGBTQI+ movement in Turkey, although not in the same way (or as much) as) LGBTQI+refugees do, and this caused us being unseen/ignored in the struggle and made us feel insufficient.

The mnemonic link between the emotions/circumstances which the LGBTQI+ refugees are in or made feel such as insufficiency, solitude, and despair and our own experiences has led us to see LGBTQI+ refugees as a part of the association, not as just a field of work.

Refugees are at the top of the most fragile, most targeted and most hated groups of the world list. The LGBTQI+ refugees experience those more and more intensely than others, but they are mostly ignored even by LGBTQI+ people of the countries that they took refuge in. Do you have any comments on this?

In order to answer this question, we should look into, and remember the meaning of the word refugee. Its literal meaning is: ‘‘a person who has been oppressed or has the fear and concern of being oppressed because of their religion, nationality, being a member of a certain social group and/or political opinions; who has left or has been forced to leave their country because of those reasons; who can not or do not want to return to their country because of their fear; whose concerns are recognized by the country that they have found asylum in.’’ Even if their status change according to the country that they come from for different states, this definition is used in many countries. Refugees frequently face xenophobia in the countries that they take refuge in. Some citizens of that country, who believe or choose to believe in the myths that claim everything bad in their country is coming via refugees, are carried away (intentionally or via manipulation) by a misbelief that assumes there was no crime or criminals in their country before. This delusional belief and another important myth that is about the fear of ‘‘they will bring the war here as well’’ fuel the hate towards refugees. We can observe the effects of these myths even among the LGBTQI+ movement. We have witnessed some opinions that count the refugees as the source of homophobia and/or transphobia in Turkey. The struggle in Turkey should be a safe space for all LGBTQI+ people, but it covers only a certain group and LGBTQI+ refugees are not included in this group. Mostly, the LGBTQI+ movement in Turkey is not (or could not) be considered as a field of organizing for the LGBTQI+ refugees. 

During the election campaigns, refugees became one of the most controversial, most discussed topics. Sending refugees back has been in the discussions for a long time now. At this point, maybe we ought to talk about what the LGBTQI+ refugees experience, what they are subject to in Turkey.

While we analyze the status of the LGBTQI+ refugees in Turkey, we should acknowledge that they are going through a layered discrimination process. The discrimination (from their access to social rights to violation of their right to live), which the LGBTQI+ refugees have been exposed to, was made invisible during the elections which had been carried out in an atmosphere that was composed of a combination of hate towards refugees and LGBTQI+-phobia. They have been deprived of their most basic rights such as housing, healthcare, and access to equal justice. They are trying to maintain their lives and find jobs in order to support themselves, while fighting against layered discrimination, but finding employment is getting harder and harder in this hate-filled atmosphere. The physical and psychological violence in the workplace such as discrimination, extortion, and rage is rising. All of these negativities indicate serious problems about the safety of  LGBTQI+ refugees in Turkey. Most LGBTQI+ refugees are waiting to be located in a safe third country. If that was not the case, we could assume that the situation would become worse.

The discrimination which people have been exposed to is not only stories we just listen and move on; it is about humans’ struggle for existence. That is why urgent action is needed. We observe that the discriminative discourse, which targeted the refugees during the election process, has been narrowing down the living space of the LGBTQI+ refugees. We can say that they have been exposed to racism by many people they know in Turkey and their experiences on accessing their basic and social rights have become beyond discriminative now. Experiencing similar discrimination that they had been exposed to in their homelands, some of them waiting to be located in a safe third country for almost more than ten years, difficulty in finding employment and housing make their lives exponentially harder, both physically and psychologically

Organizations are ‘‘refugee friendly’’ on paper but in practice, we do not see refugees in the struggle or in social life. How is the relationship between LGBTQI+ refugees and the LGBTQI+ community in Turkey?

In Turkey, current politics produce hostility towards refugees, and refugees face open discrimination in public. Refugees are sometimes targeted by the ruling parties, and sometimes by the opposition.

Many fabricated and/or false allegations/myths about refugees, who have been used as a material for the inner politics of Turkey, have been served to the whole society via the support of the media. Sometimes, we observe that non-governmental organizations also take part in this perception that has been created, intentionally or unintentionally. 

We should state over and over that LGBTQI+ refugees are one of the groups that have  been affected the most by this distorted perception, discrimination and racism because the discrimination, which they are exposed to because of their both refugee and LGBTQI+ identities, continues to grow incrementally. 

When we look closer,  the LGBTQI+ movement in Turkey has discourses against all kinds of racism and discrimination but we can say that they fall short in creating specific policies for LGBTQI+ refugees. At the top of the list, we face an important problem: Most of the organizations that create social policies, and focus their activism on the field, still are not accessible to those who speak languages other than Turkish. The language barrier, which refugees, who came here for various reasons, can not overcome, builds a wall between the LGBTQI+ organizations and refugees, and prevents LGBTQI+ people from reaching out to the LGBTQI+ organizations. In 2018, we did a project on the LGBTQI+ refugees’ demands from the LGBTQI+ organizations in Turkey. We conducted a study on the demands of LGBTQI+ refugees from the LGBTQI+ movement in 2018. The most expressed demand was that the organizations should be operational not only in Turkish, but also in other languages and this demand was included in the agenda. But we have witnessed that the LGBTQI+ organizations have been far from inclusivity in terms of these demands to this day. This situation continues to be the reason whyLGBTQI+ refugees, who live in Turkey, are not to or can not be a part of the movement.   

Unfortunately, ‘‘refugee friendliness’’ does not go far from being just a discourse in Turkey. Reforming the LGBTQI+ work by enacting LGBTQI+ refugee-inclusive policies is important in terms of both the inclusivity of the LGBTQI+ movement in Turkey and its being refugee friendly in practice. 

As you stated before, too much misinformation about the refugees has been intentionally served. What are the effects of this misinformation to the refugees’ lives? What are the false facts about refugees? Could you tell us some of the frequently repeated and believed ones and their true versions?

Too much economy-related, ‘‘hostility towards refugees’’ oriented, baseless information is put into circulation in Turkey. The most mentioned one of those is that the refugees are getting the human rights-oriented services such as health and education for free. 

Regarding the access of the refugees living in Turkey to the right to healthcare; third paragraph in part a of the Article 89 of the Law on Foreigners and International Protection (No. 6458 – Date: 04.04.2013) has been changed via the law published in the Legal Gazette No. 30988 (Date: 12.24.2019). Before this change in law in 2019, international protection applicants and the ones who are granted the status could access the right to healthcare via the general health insurance, without a time limit. After the amendment, refugees have access to their right to healthcare just for one year following their application for international protection. 

There is another false fact that says the refugees in Turkey benefit from a special status for higher education. But if they want to have higher education, they are subjected to the ‘‘Law on Foreign Students Who Studies in Turkey’’.

We should also mention the false fact that claims refugees were granted citizenships, which was in the public discussion during the election process. The Temporary Protection Status and the International Protection Status, which are granted to refugees in Turkey, are closed statuses and according to the law, transitioning to these statuses is not possible. 

Finally, if we look into the rumors that says refugees are receiving financial help or salaries from the government, we see that there is no such legal practice. The money, which was paid according to the agreement between the EU and Turkey after Turkey promised that it will keep the refugees within its borders, is not being handed out to the refugees as it has been alleged. However, the ones who have been boosting the hate towards refugees choose to ask refugees, not the real people in charge, about the whereabouts of this money.  Unfortunately, it is clear as day that these false facts we mention above boost discrimination and violence towards refugees.

HEVİ LGBTQI+ publishes books and reports about refugees, and it has a social service hotline. What kind of work do you do other than these and what are your plans for the future?

I think we should talk about our social service hotline a little more. We provide legal as well as free psychological counseling (we should mention that psychological counseling will be provided just during 2023) for LGBTQI+ refugees only. Other than these, we also provide peer-to-peer mentoring and guidance support like other organizations do. We try to organize yearly social rights workshops, which include both information about the immigration regulations in the country and enable LGBTQI+ refugees to vocalize their demands. Besides, instead of meeting LGBTQI+ refugees just for forums or workshops, we organize picnics or events for their special cultural days and we socialize via these events. Because most of the time, non-governmental organizations in Turkey forget that refugees are people too and they need socializing as much as every human being. This is also related to not thinking that the refugees might have human needs too. 

Besides HEVİ LGBTQI+ Association’s present counseling programs, we have been preparing a policy paper and a directive, which other institutions who work with LGBTQI+ can benefit from. This document, one of the firsts in the field,  will define how the protection/safety procedures should be and be useful for the intuitions in Turkey, especially the ones that work with LGBTQI+ refugees who experience a layered discrimination.. Our refugee committee is also working on various projects which aim to make the LGBTQI+ refugees’ activism visible and mainstream. We plan to organize various events in order to make it visible especially in the LGBTQI+ movement. 

Last but not least, what should LGBTQI+ community do in order to make queer refugees a part of both the movement and the social life? What do you suggest?

They should be giving voice to and making space for LGBTQI+ refugees, the subjects of this work, so that they can self-organize within the movement. In this context, we published the Declaration of LGBTQI+ Refugees’ Demands in 2021. We sadly observe that nothing has changed since its publication date. 

LGBTQI+ refugees are exposed to violence in the public space constantly. Because of this, they stay away from organizing. This cycle of violence prevents them from accessing their basic rights such as housing, education, and employment. Because of this fabricated solitude, LGBTQI+ refugees fight alone against deep poverty, language barrier, racism and discrimination . 

The LGBTQI+ associations, initiatives, and entities without policies specialized on LGBTQI+ refugees should develop LGBTQI+ refugee-inclusive policies and during this development, they should include LGBTQI+ refugees within the process. They should ensure LGBTQI+ refugees take their places in the movement via using multi-lingual publications; they should clear the way for the LGBTQI+ refugees to speak their own minds on the LGBTQI+ movement-related developments and social policies; they should support LGBTQI+ refugees in becoming a subject of the movement. 

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