Officials with the U.N. Refugee Agency in Central America and Mexico say they remain committed to helping LGBTQ asylum seekers and migrants in the region.
UNHCR Guatemala Representative Besem Obenson told the Washington Blade during an interview at her Guatemala City office last September that she and her colleagues work with Asociación Lambda and other Guatemalan NGOs to provide LGBTQ asylum seekers with access to LGBTQ-friendly shelters, psychosocial care and other programs once they identify themselves as LGBTQ. Obenson said UNHCR also works with the Guatemalan government to improve the way it responds to an asylum seeker with an ID document that does not correspond to their gender presentation.
“Our role … is to strengthen the government’s response to refugees and asylum seekers,” said Obenson.
Rafael Zavala, a senior UNHCR official in El Salvador, echoed Obenson when he spoke with the Blade at UNHCR’s office in San Salvador, the Salvadoran capital, last July.
Zavala noted UNHCR has a formal partnership with COMCAVIS Trans, a Salvadoran transgender rights group. Zavala said UNHCR also works with two other LGBTQ groups — Aspidh Arcoíris Trans and Diké LGBTI+ — in a less official capacity.
“What we do is work at the community level to strengthen their role in communities,” Zavala told the Blade. “We also build for them safe spaces (to accept internally displaced people, migrants and deportees who are LGBTQ) and also find spaces where they can receive services, attention and legal assistance.”
Anti-LGBTQ violence among migration ‘root causes’
Vice President Kamala Harris and others have acknowledged anti-LGBTQ violence is one of the “root causes” of migration from Central America’s Northern Triangle that includes El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
The Mexican Commission on Refugee Aid (COMAR) on Monday reported 27.7 percent of the 131,448 people who asked for asylum in Mexico in 2021 were Honduran.
The Justice Department notes 85,391 people asked for asylum in the U.S. in the 2021 fiscal year from Oct. 1, 2020, and Sept. 30, 2021. More than twice as many people asked for asylum in the U.S. during the 2020 fiscal year, which began before the pandemic.
The Justice Department statistics indicate 10 percent of the 8,679 Guatemalans, 11 percent of the 5,464 Hondurans and 14 percent of the 8,030 Salvadorans who applied for asylum in the U.S. during the 2021 fiscal year won their cases. Neither the Justice Department nor COMAR specify the asylum seekers’ sexual orientation or gender identity.
The Biden administration last February began to allow into the U.S. asylum seekers who the previous White House forced to pursue their cases in Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols program. The Biden administration has sought to end MPP, but a federal appeals court last month blocked this effort.
Title 42, a Center for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the pandemic, remains in place.
UNHCR non-discrimination policy includes sexual orientation, gender identity
UNHCR Senior Protection Officer Sofia Cardona last summer during an interview at UNHCR’s Mexico City office acknowledged that identifying asylum seekers who are LGBTQ is a challenge. Cardona and other UNHCR representatives with whom the Blade spoke for this story referred to the agency’s 2018 non-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation and gender identity and specifically recognizes LGBTQ asylum seekers.
“Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons face complex challenges, threats and barriers and are often exposed to discrimination, abuse, prejudice and violence due to their sex, sexual orientation and/or gender identity,” notes the policy. “This is often severely compounded in situations of displacement, where the nature of the discrimination they encounter can be particularly virulent, their isolation from family and community profound and the harm inflicted on them severe.”
The policy states “diversity refers to different values, attitudes, cultural perspectives, beliefs, ethnicities, nationalities, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, health, social and economic status, skills and other specific personal characteristics.”
“Diversity characteristics vary from person to person and intersect, making each person unique,” it reads. “These differences must be recognized, understood, respected and valued by UNHCR in each context and operation in order to address effectively the needs of all persons of concern. Respecting diversity means recognizing and valuing those differences and creating a protective, inclusive and non-discriminatory environment where everyone’s rights are upheld.”
Cardona noted UNHCR staff and representatives of NGOs and governments with which it works regularly attend LGBTQ sensitivity trainings. Topics include ways to determine whether an asylum seeker is LGBTQ without forcing them to out themselves.
“You can’t force a disclosure,” said Cardona. “You can neve directly ask somebody, so, are you gay? Are you transgender? It’s incorrect because you may put people at risk, so it’s a very thin line of you can never force a disclosure of someone’s gender identity or sexual orientation, but you must signify to somebody that you are a safe space to receive that disclosure.”
Cardona said UNHCR representatives can ask an asylum seeker what their name is or disclose to them that they are “de la diversidad” or “from a diverse background.”
“You never begin an interview assuming anything by the way a person looks because in forced displacement gender expression is unlikely to match up to gender identity,” Cardona told the Blade. “So you need to understand that you may very well have conversations with a trans man who is wearing makeup and a dress, and you may very well be having a conversation with a trans woman who has a beard because that is how they are protecting themselves in a sphere of forced displacement.”
Cardona also noted UNHCR staff wear buttons with slogans that include “en seguridad” or “espacio libre de discriminación,” which translates into “in safety” or “discrimination-free space” respectively. Both Cardona and Zavala were wearing such buttons when they spoke with the Blade.
“We try very, very, very hard to work with our staff and also our partners … so they have their capacity strengthened in LGBTI rights,” Dagmara Mejia, the director of UNHCR’s field office in the Mexican border city of Tijuana, told the Blade last summer during an interview at her office.
Mejia noted the trainings she and her colleagues conduct focuses on topics that include the use pronouns that correspond to an asylum seeker’s gender identity and shelter standards for LGBTQ asylum seekers.
UNHCR works with Jardín de las Mariposas, a shelter for LGBTQ asylum seekers in Tijuana that is less than two miles from El Chaparral, the main port of entry between the city and San Diego. UNHCR also maintains contact with Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration Executive Director Steve Roth and the California-based Transgender Law Center.
“If there is no disclosure, no trust, then we cannot meet their needs and respond,” said Mejia.
“We also create these environments that allow the community to feel safe and to know that it is a place where they can come without the risk of discrimination,” said Zavala.
Obenson told the Blade that UNHCR has worked with the Foundation for Ecodevelopment and Conservation (FUNDAECO), a Guatemalan NGO, to hire asylum seekers who have chosen to stay in Guatemala as park rangers. Trans women are among those who FUNDAECO has hired.
“People need to feel safe,” said Obenson. “People need to be able to live their authentic selves without fear of violence or fear of retribution.”
“That for me, as a rep, is what I strive for,” added Obenson. “Everything that we do here at UNHCR is to encourage that.”