Irena Abdelalem Abdelmaksoud, Protection Officer for IRC partner InfoParks, writes about her work with LGBTQI+ refugees. She talks about what must be done to shine a light on the difficulties facing LGBTQI+ refugees in Serbia today.
Refugees in Serbia: The situation
The situation for refugees in Serbia hasn't changed since 2016. There are still a lot of new people arriving every day. The only legal way to leave Serbia is through the Hungarian waiting list, where refugees must apply through the Hungarian embassy in Belgrade. The process can be timely and difficult to navigate, forcing people to take greater risks for their journey. For example, unaccompanied boys often hide in gas tanks or under trains. Some cross rivers in small boats. In most cases they're intercepted by the police and beaten, then brought back to Serbia. People are in a very hard situation.
LGBTQI+ refugees in Serbia remain fearful
Refugees from the LGBTQI+ community face heightened risks. Most of the people come from countries like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Yemen, where being gay is illegal. If you get arrested, you could face prison, torture, and horrific abuse. Some people never come out of prison; they simply disappear Even once they have fled, LGBTQI+ people are especially vulnerable to discrimination and abuse, even within refugee communities.
Most of the LGBTQI+ refugees that we've met are completely terrified to tell anyone about their sexuality. Their fear is not unfounded. I have heard about stories where LGBTQI+ people have been brutally beaten by authorities.
Many of the people who are dealing with refugees in Serbia are not trained to work with LGBTQI+ people. Therefore, they are not aware of the risks they might face. Someone who's not trained is not going to recognise that a person might need additional help. Sometimes, they could make things worse by acting in a discriminatory way. This can make people feel even more excluded and afraid to seek support.
Being a refugee is really hard and dangerous, being an LGBTQI+ refugee adds another layer of danger to that.
One of the main gaps in Serbia is that there are no specialised NGOs, working with LGBTQI+ refugees. Local NGOs working with the local LGBTQI+community in Serbia, often don't understand the problems that people are facing. They don't have cultural mediators and they don't know how the asylum system functions, or what kind of services are available.
IRC partner NGO works with LGBTQI+ communities in Serbia
What we do as an NGO is try to be the bridge between the refugees and migrants who are LGBTQI+ by working with the local LGBTQI+ communities. We provide cultural mediators, we inform them of the services available to them, how they can be protected, how they can be accommodated, and so on.
Generally, LGBTQI+ is still a taboo topic in Serbia. I think the younger generations are more inclusive, but the LGBTQI+ community still faces discrimination everywhere - in education, employment, and in their everyday life.
Growing up gay in Syria: One refugee’s story
I think about this young guy from Syria that I met. He talked about his experience of growing up as a young, gay person in Syria. He grew up with a lot of shame and fear. He tried to turn to religion. But with every religious class, he felt even more ashamed and even more excluded. He dreamed of going to the Netherlands and continuing his education there.
He told me this thing that I always remember because it was really hard to hear. He said that if he became a doctor, if he was seen as someone who is successful, maybe his family would be proud of him, and maybe they would not care about his sexuality. He said that everyone is dreaming of finding their true love. But for him, he was just dreaming of not having to look over his shoulder and not be afraid to be himself.
The last we heard from him was in March. He was still trying to cross the border. He was arrested, between Croatia and Hungary, then he was pushed back to Serbia. He told us he was beaten by a police officer on the border because of his sexuality.
This young man was just one story. It makes me wonder how many more people are out there, especially young people, who live in constant fear.
More must be done to protect the LGBTQI+ community
It's the same situation for most cases, especially with young people. It's about the shame, guilt, and fear of being part of the LGBTQI+ community. Often people don't have a chance to learn about themselves and sexual orientation. Those topics are strictly taboo in many cultures. So, for most young people, they don't have access to information. It's understandable why many young people from the LGBTQI+ community suffer from depression.
What angers me the most is that decision-makers are not taking responsibility. They are turning their heads the other way. By law, people are entitled to seek asylum and have safe passage. People in charge are denying these rights for those seeking safety. It is sad that European countries that should be protecting people are the ones violating human rights for LGBTQI+ refugees.
The number one thing is to ensure that not only do programmes exist for LGBTQI+ refugees, but they are accessible. It means nothing if you have camps with an office that says ‘LGBTQI refugees’ in huge letters, but you're not working with the community to break the sigma as well. My number one wish is for all NGOs to make sure that they have accessible programmes, for all people to know they have safe places where they can get information.
We must advocate, not only when it's Pride Month, to make sure that people understand why it is important that LGBTQI+ focused programmes exist, the issues that people are facing and what can be done to help them.
Founded in Serbia in 2015, IRC’s partners InfoPark provide refugees and asylum seekers with essential information, emergency food supplies, medical assistance and psychosocial support.