On the 18th of June 2021, the UvA (University of Amsterdam) Pride organized a webinar on LGBTQI+ Asylum in the Netherlands called A Hostile Welcome: Anti-LGBTQI+ violence in the Dutch asylum procedure. The webinar was initiated by Dr. Marie-louise Janssen and co-organized and hosted by Jesper van de Vooren, Peter Miller and Eddy Chouity.
The direct cause of organizing this event is the tragic story of a Nigerian lesbian refugee who got severely injured in a homophobic attack by yet another Nigerian refugee who, following a heated argument, poured boiling water on her in Gilze-Brabant, at one of the AZC (AsielZoekers Centrum) camps. Further details of this appalling incident can be found on this link.
Webinar Content and Guest Speakers
This incident sparked a long debate on the controversy around separating the camps, and on the violence, bullying and discrimination that LGBT+ refugees endure in the asylum centers.
Drawing on accounts from LGBTQI+ asylum seekers, activists, and academics, this webinar aimed to shine a light on this form of violence, asking what the causes and consequences of this violence are, and how we can analyse, discuss, and address this violence in a time of heightened political polarisation, xenophobia, and homonationalism.
The program included the following speakers:
• Adam Esmael, former LGBTQI+ asylum seeker from Syria.
• Carla Pieters, LGBTQI+ activist from the Netherlands.
• Sandro Kortekaas, president LGBT Asylum Support, the Netherlands.
• Laurens Buijs, sociologist UvA, entrepreneur and activist
To the exception of Laurens Buijs who could not be available on the day of the webinar due to unforeseen health problems, all the other speakers attended the event and shared with us their stories about coming to the Netherlands to seek asylum and drew on their personal experiences in the refugee camps. Lya Jawad -a transgender woman from Lebanon- filled in Laurens’ spot after Elias Karam- a prominent Lebanese LGBTQI+ activist currently working with Secret garden in Amsterdam- who was scheduled to fill in that spot, decided to give it up to Lya, who was eager to share her experience with us.
The webinar was divided into two parts intermitted by a 10 minute-break; the first part was allocated to our guest refugees Saphinah, Adam and Lya on one hand, and to Carla Pieters on the other, to discuss in rounds their take on our questions that will be further elaborated on in the coming parts. The second part of the webinar was allocated to Sandro Kortekaas, to an interactive Q&A with the attendees, and to the refugees’ final words.
Part I of the Webinar
The interview started by asking our guest speakers to introduce themselves and tell us a little bit about their experience in coming to the Netherlands and having been a refugee in the camps here.
Whether it being a personal choice to pursue a better life, or a coerced decision following a hapless outing or a painful scandal, what is common among our guest speakers is that they ended up seeking asylum in the Netherlands, on the basis of their sexuality.
To Saphinah for instance, it was not a choice. After having been accepted in the gender and sexuality summer program at the UvA, she unfortunately did not remember to delete the motivation letter that she wrote to the university as part of her application, wherein she mentioned her sexuality and the struggles she went through as a closeted lesbian in Uganda. And sadly enough, after moving to Amsterdam for her studies, her husband found the letter and not only did he out her to her family and friends, but he threatened to kill her if she was ever to set foot again in Uganda. Having already been a student in the Netherlands when she received the news and threats, the one and only choice she had was to file for asylum. For Adam and Lya however, the situation was slightly different; their decision to come to the Netherlands and apply for asylum stemmed from a personal conviction that the Netherlands would offer them a better quality of life and a future bearing more hope, opportunities and peace.
Afterwards, our guest speakers shared with us their experience in the asylum camps, arguably better referred to as asylum centers. They unanimously found it difficult to navigate their lives amongst other homophobic refugees, and felt little to no safety provided by the camp administrators and security personnel. From incidents of mockery and derision to incidents of vandalism and robbery, our speakers were victims of- and witnesses to – several homophobic verbal or physical attacks. Lya for instance had her belongings including her laptop stolen by her roommate and Saphinah was sexually assaulted by a 19-year-old boy who she could fortunately stand up to. However, in both incidents, not only did the administration of the center take no action, but Saphinah was actually advised to closet herself in order to avoid further trouble in the future. Whereas Adam – whose experience was a bit different as he could stand up for himself and silence the perpetrators of verbal attacks – still acknowledged what his fellow LGBT+ refugees go through in relation to these forms of violence and discrimination.
This conversation sparked an interesting intervention by Carla Pieters, who criticized the camp administrators and laid out the fact that some of them could possibly be homophobic themselves. Carla is a volunteer at Secret Garden and has been warmly opening her home and arms for the LGBTQI+ refugees who fail to survive the camp life. Saphinah’s story did not seem very surprising to her as some of her guests were repeatedly asked to closet themselves for protection. She brought to the fore the relatively low level of education of some of the COA personnel as one possibility for this ill-informed and irresponsible approach in tackling those reported incidents.
In the same vein, this engaging discussion instigated the question of what is really expected from the LGBTQI+ refugees when it comes to expressing their gender and sexual identities: on the one hand, they are asked to re-closet themselves to stay out of trouble in the AZC camps by ill-informed employees, and on the other, they are expected to be fully expressive and talk at length about their sexuality in their interviews with highly educated IND (Immigration and Naturalisation Service) personnel, who eventually decide whether or not they are granted their residence permit. This intricate process gets even more complicated and subject to further controversy if we factor in the
pool from which one lawyer and one interpreter are selected at random from to handle the refugees’ cases, and also, if we add to the equation the refugees who fake their homosexual identity to be granted asylum on the basis of sexuality.
At this point, it was time for a short break. But before taking this break, we took a moment to remember Sarah Hijazi, an Egyptian woman who was detained and tortured in the Egyptian prisons for having waved a gay flag in a concert by a Lebanese band (Mashroo’ Leila) who were performing in Egypt at the time. The 14th of June – only 4 days before the webinar – was her Memorial Day. She sadly took her own life after having relocated to Canada to seek asylum. As organizers of this webinar, we find it extremely important to shed light on what LGBTQI+ refugees go through by allowing them a voice and a platform where they could actually be the ones speaking of their problems and proposing solutions, in the hope of avoiding similar tragic incidents happening in the future.
Part II of the Webinar
After returning from the break, Sandro Kortekaas shared with us the type of work that he does as the founder and president of the ‘LGBT Asylum Support’, a Dutch NGO (Non-Governmental Organization). Volunteers at his organization support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) asylum seekers in the Netherlands and act as a link between them and other Dutch organizations. They work particularly with a vulnerable group of LGBT refugees, who feel obstructed to talk publicly about their sexual orientation when they apply for asylum, due to either their cultural and religious background or to traumatic experiences back in their home countries.
Despite the many stories he had heard over the years, the stories of our guest speakers still moved him immensely and he commended their courage to speak up. He mentioned that the main aim of the ‘LGBT Asylum Support’ is to collaborate with the local authorities and the COA (Centraal Orgaan opvang asielzoekers), to make this transition as easy as possible for the refugees. The COA translates to ‘Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum seekers’ and it is the body responsible of receiving, supporting and guiding asylum seekers in the Netherlands until the IND decides whether or not they are eligible for asylum. More information on the COA could be found via this link.
At this stage, the discussion shifted progressively towards the different ways that can indeed facilitate this transition: in addition to empowering those vulnerable LGBT+ subjects and teaching them about their rights on in the Netherlands, and bringing everyone (including potential harassers) up to speed about those rights, separating the camps was laid out as one possible solution. Because of the work that the ‘LGBT Asylum Support’ is actually doing, all asylum centers today display the Dutch constitution law that protects all sexual minorities and grants them equal rights to their heterosexual counterparts. And still, to Sandro, Saphinah and Lya, placing the LGBT+ refugees in the same centers with the same people from whom they fled will make them prone to discrimination and harassment all over again and will eventually push them back into the closet. To Adam on the other hand, creating a separate camp for the LGBT+ refugees does not solve the problem but rather only adjourns it. To him, it does not fulfill the integration ideology intended as these two groups of people are bound to, sooner or later, bump against each other. Whatever solution gets adopted has to therefore take into consideration a long-term rather than a short-term fix. Following an interesting back and forth exchange of arguments, it was finally established that LGBT+ vulnerable subjects should be at the very least given the option to be placed in a separate center rather than being segregated and placed automatically in one, putting their life and well-being as the main priority and leaving the concerns about integration and homogenization for a later stage.
It was not surprising that all of our guest speakers underwent a lot of hardships as LGBT+ refugees in the Netherlands. Being a refugee is troublesome enough due to the cultural shock and the inevitable adaptation one has to go through, so one can only imagine how hard it must feel to be a refugee belonging to the LGBT+ community and be constantly picked on by the community you are trying to run away from.
To our guest speakers, the key is to always believe in yourself and keep fighting and working towards your goals. They participated in this webinar because no change can occur if vulnerable groups do not speak up. Saphina is currently working in youth care as a family therapist and is carrying on her activism that she had started back in Uganda. Adam is currently enrolled in an English Teacher Training program and has already started his career as a primary school English teacher. And finally, after having worked with Tayf, (NGO and a center for the LGBTQI+ in Beirut that supports youth in their well-being, identity expression and sexual health), Lya is currently involved with trans-united Europe. By bringing up and sharing their own experiences, they all hope to have an influence on future decisions regarding policies and asylum politics to make this experience easier for future asylum seekers. To Sandro and Carla, this is what the NGOs are all about; to support on the one hand this group of vulnerable people when governmental organizations fail to do so, and on the other, to watch, monitor and call out policy makers to fine-tune their corresponding strategies.
Finally, UvA Pride does think that a sequel to this webinar should follow, wherein the topic at hand can be examined from.