Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on March 20, 2016, at 3:27 p.m. ET
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama heads to Cuba this weekend with the shadow of Guantanamo Bay hanging over him. He has made a last ditch effort to close the base, which holds dozens of detainees linked to the “war on terror.”
Entirely ignored in that debate is the fact that Guantanamo also holds another group of people the U.S. doesn’t want to let into the country: people fleeing persecution — mostly from Cuba and Haiti — who the Coast Guard picked up at sea before they made it to U.S. shores. The U.S. can’t send them home — to return those believed to have a well-founded fear of persecution would be a violation of international law — so the U.S. takes them into what the government calls “protective custody” at Guantanamo.
Today, just eight people are held in what the government calls the Migrant Operations Center in Guantanamo, a building reminiscent of a budget hotel on an isolated side of the base far from its commercial district and the military detention center.
If they had managed to set foot on dry land in Florida, they would have a right to request asylum in the United States and would be entitled to lawyers and other legal protections as their claims were processed. But since they were picked up at sea, they have no right to asylum in the United States and instead have their cases processed at Guantanamo Bay, where they have no access to lawyers or courts. If they prove their persecution claims to the satisfaction of a U.S. official, they are resettled abroad, not in the U.S.
In the run up to Obama’s visit to Cuba this weekend, the White House affirmed that it would leave what’s known as the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy unchanged. That means it will continue using Guantanamo Bay to process those who have a credible fear of persecution.
The numbers now held in the Migrant Operations Center are small, though 121 people have been resettled from there since Obama took office. Lawyers who have fought the program say that, regardless of the numbers, it keeps Guantanamo as a place outside the Constitution for people fleeing persecution even as the Obama administration says it is trying to comply Supreme Court rulings that the Constitution must apply to people in military detention.
“It’s inconsistent as a matter of policy … [to] close that part of Guantanamo and bring alleged terrorists into the United States while keeping bonafide refugees detained,” said Ira Kurzban, a Florida immigration lawyer who first sued on behalf of thousands of Haitian refugees captured at sea while fleeing after a coup 1991. “There’s just no justification for that.”
The U.S. government used Guantanamo to warehouse thousands of people fleeing persecution for at least a decade before the military base became known to world as the home of the dozens held in the name of fighting terrorism.
The White House turned to the base at a time when there was widespread fear in the United States that large numbers of refugees would unleash a threat that many Americans hoped could be contained abroad.
The country at the time was Haiti, which had been viewed as a security threat to the United States since the late 1700s, when slaves overthrew their masters and set up the first black-led government in the Americas just off the coast of Florida. This continued through the administration of President Ronald Reagan, who struck a deal with the country’s then-dictator in 1981 to return any Haitians caught fleeing by sea because these migrants “threatened the welfare and safety and communities” in the U.S.
When a new wave of thousands fled Haiti after a 1991 coup, there was an additional fear: HIV. The Reagan administration declared HIV a “dangerous contagious disease” in 1987 and barred those carrying the virus from entering the United States. Haitians, like gay men, were widely perceived as especially dangerous carriers of the virus from the early days of the epidemic in the United States. Haitians living in the U.S. were evicted from their homes, had their businesses boycotted, and encountered graffiti like “Haitians = Niggers with AIDS.”
A court briefly blocked President George H. W. Bush from returning thousands of Haitians who had been stopped at sea by the Coast Guard because they might have valid asylum claims. Rather than bring them to the U.S., he ordered a camp of tents and razor wire built for them on the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, New York Law School Professor Brandt Goldstein recounted in his book about the legal battle that followed, Storming the Court.
It would ultimately hold more than 15,000 people before the administration found a way around the court’s order and resumed simply sending newly apprehended Haitians back. Those on Guantanamo were considered for political asylum, and more than 6,000 were ultimately brought to the United States while thousands of others were ultimately returned. As the Bush administration rushed to empty the camps, around 300 people were stuck in limbo in a compound that had been set up as a camp to “concentrate the HIV-migrants and their families,” Goldstein reported.
The administration was using a special procedure for those with HIV that seemed designed to make their cases fail, Goldstein reported. Most refugees were flown to the U.S. for their final asylum hearing, where they had a right to an attorney. But those with HIV were processed entirely at Guantanamo and were denied attorneys even when they asked for them.
A team from Yale Law School brought two lawsuits on behalf of the Haitians: One challenged the administration’s power to return people picked up on the high seas without evaluating the fear of prosecution. The other one was brought on behalf of those with HIV, arguing that the Constitution guaranteed them access to an attorney and other rights of due process, even on Guantanamo Bay.
The arguments in the second case raised the same set of issues that lawyers for those detained in George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” would raise after 9/11. And the government’s response in 1992 was almost verbatim what its lawyers would argue to justify those detentions.
“Guantánamo is a military base in a foreign country,” a Justice Department lawyer argued in an early hearing in the case of the Haitians. “They’re outside the United States and therefore they have no judicially cognizable rights in United States courts.”
The Yale team hoped that then-President Bill Clinton would free the Haitians before the court had to rule. He won the White House while the matter was in the courts, and had denounced the elder Bush administration’s policy during the campaign. Hillary Clinton had even privately assured the Yale professor leading the litigation, Harold Koh, that she would advocate their cause with her husband during an October 1992 meeting at Yale, Goldstein reported in Storming the Court.
(Koh, who later served as an assistant secretary of state under Bill Clinton and as the department’s legal advisor under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, declined to speak with BuzzFeed News for this story. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)
The trust in Clinton “reflected our naivete about the nature of these political processes,” Tory Clawson, one of the then-law students on the Yale team, told BuzzFeed News.
But in a dramatic about-face that stunned the Yale team, Clinton declared shortly before taking office that he would continue the Bush administration’s practice of returning fleeing Haitians. Once Clinton took office, Bush administration lawyers who lingered at the Justice Department continued to fight Koh and the Yale students all the way to the Supreme Court, where the government trounced the Yale team in the case concerning rights on the high seas.
But the Yale team won a sweeping ruling from a lower court in the other case, the one concerning whether the HIV-positive Haitians had constitutional protections on Guantanamo.
“The detainees have a right to due process,” the judge declared, noting, “If the Due Process Clause does not apply to the detainees at Guantanamo, [the government] would have discretion deliberately to starve or beat” people held there.
The Clinton administration didn’t challenge the Haitians’ release, but it threatened to keep fighting the legal issues on appeal until the Yale team agreed to have the ruling nullified. To allow the arguments to stand, Stuart Gerson, who was the acting head of the Justice Department’s Civil Litigation department at the time, told BuzzFeed News, “would be a surrender of executive branch constitutional authority that would hurt them in the future.”
They were specifically worried that the ruling could some day cost the president’s power to hold people on Guantanamo outside the reach of the courts, Gerson said. And the Clinton administration quickly found a new purpose for Guantanamo — to hold thousands of Cubans who fled by boat in 1994. That’s when “wet foot, dry foot” was born — those who made it to the U.S. mainland were fast-tracked for residence, while those with political persecution claims caught at sea went to Guantanamo while the U.S. found another country to take them in.
The question of the Constitution’s power over foreigners at Guantanamo was not addressed by the Supreme Court until 2008, when the Bush administration had sent military detainees to Guantanamo in an attempt to place them outside the reach of the courts. The Supreme Court ruled against the administration.
“Our basic charter cannot be contracted away like this,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court — in an opinion that referenced the Yale litigation at one point.
Shortly after taking office, Obama called for the Guantanamo detention center to be closed because it was created based on “the misplaced notion that a prison there would be beyond the law.”
But that notion was first raised in the courts concerning people fleeing persecution, and Obama has made no moves to change to that program — which the government has used for more than 400 people since 1996, according to the State Department.
To press that principle with respect to military detainees while not doing the same with people fleeing persecution is not just “hypocritical as a moral position but [also] lawless,” said Michael Wishnie, one of the students on of the Yale team in the Haitian cases who now teaches at Yale Law School.
It’s especially galling, Wishnie said, because the executive branch could unilaterally move to close the Migrant Operating Center. “That’s stroke-of-the-pen territory.”
In response to questions by BuzzFeed News, a State Department spokesperson said those sent to the Center are “neither detained nor imprisoned,” though she would not say how long they generally stay in the facility. Unlike the military detainees, they are free to leave at any time, though their only option to leave without being accepted by another country as a refugee, however, is “to return to their country of origin” — the very place the U.S. government decided it would violate international law to return them to.
The administration also argues it doesn’t ferry boats of asylum seekers to U.S. shores for a very good humanitarian reason: Crossing miles of ocean is dangerous, and it doesn’t want to create an incentive for more people want to make the trip.
The White House responded to several questions from BuzzFeed News about why the Migrant Operation Center remains in operation while the president is seeking to close the military detention facility with a statement from a senior administration official that said, “The United States is committed to supporting safe, orderly, and legal migration. The Administration has no plans to alter current migration policy regarding Cuba.”
But even though the numbers of who pass through the program are small, lawyers who’ve worked on the issue say the underlying principle at stake is the same as the one at stake with the military detainees.
The military detention program was built on the foundation laid by the treatment of the Haitian asylum seekers — the facility where the military detainees were first held on Guantanamo stood on the exact spot where a camp for the Haitians once stood.
And as long as the U.S. treats Guantanamo as outside domestic law in asylum cases, said Jonathan Hafetz who was a senior attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union National Security Project, it will call into question the U.S.’s commitment to its principles.
The government is still using the base “as a way to minimize [people’s] legal rights,” he said.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on February 8, 2016, at 4:35 p.m. ET
Mohsen was crushed the day his possum died.
The possum, whom he’d named Tcho, had never been a particularly good pet. The animal resisted his captivity in Mohsen’s small room, peeing everywhere and biting Mohsen as he slept. But Tcho was at least a kind of company on the Pacific island that had been a prison for this 28-year-old refugee for more than two years.
“It kept biting me until the day it died,” Mohsen said. “But sometimes it would listen to me.”
In 2012, Mohsen, who is bisexual and a Christian convert, fled his home in Iran after his uncle hit him with his car and, when he survived, vowed to finish him off.
Mohsen was hoping to take shelter in Australia, but the boat smuggling him to its shores was stopped at sea. Now he is trapped on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. He has has twice been beaten by off-duty immigration officers in the past year and is now afraid to leave his room. The locals seem frighteningly foreign to him: Possums like Tcho are slaughtered and eaten, and the locals chew something that stains their mouths the color of blood.
Mohsen is one of more than 1,300 asylum seekers that Australia has sent, since 2012, to what is called the Manus Island detention center. It’s a facility for single men and teenage boys; several hundred women and families are being detained 1,300 miles to the east on the island nation of Nauru. They were all captured at sea while trying to reach Australia by boat from Indonesia, under a policy that even the United Nations secretary general has personally pleaded with the Australia’s prime minister to bring to an end.
Canberra calls this the “Pacific Solution” to the problem of people attempting to get to Australia by boat. Those it cannot force back into international waters it holds in camps outside its borders in an attempt to prevent them from asserting the right to asylum on its territory.
“I wish I had died on that boat 100 times a day.”
Government officials have justified the policy as a way to discourage people-smuggling, and the country’s High Court upheld the constitutionality of the offshore detentions in a ruling issued on Wednesday that clears the way for 267 people — including 91 children — to be returned to Nauru after a period in Australia for medical care. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull applauded the ruling and vowed to continue the policy, saying that it ensures that “our borders are secure.”
Conditions at the Manus Island detention center are so bad that human rights advocates have alleged they violate international law. Amnesty International described it as “resembling a combination of a prison and a military camp.” Human Rights Watch compared it to Guantanamo Bay. The center even included a shower block that guards had allegedly nicknamed the “rape dungeon,” according to an account from someone who worked in the camp until early 2014.
There’s an added fear for queer asylum seekers like Mohsen. They worry about being targeted by others in the camp, who are mostly from Iran and other countries where homosexuality is criminalized, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. They also are afraid of Papua New Guinea’s police force because the country’s laws punish homosexuality with up to 14 years in prison.
“This place is no better than Iran,” Mohsen said. “I wish I had died on that boat 100 times a day.”
Mohsen left Iran after his uncle hit him with his car, the culmination of more than a decade of abuse that began when he was 13. It began when his family learned he’d had sex with another boy. Things got worse after he converted to Christianity in his early twenties. His father and uncles were high-ranking members of the police force in their province on Iran’s border with Iraq, and he said they once had him imprisoned and tortured for more than two weeks after his conversion. (Mohsen’s account could not be independently confirmed; his last name is withheld due to security concerns.)
Now he believed they meant to kill him. His uncle only succeeded in breaking his arm with his car, but he called Mohsen to make clear he wasn’t done: “Next time will be different — you will not escape from death.”
Within days, Mohsen had sold the two stores he owned and all his possessions to buy a ticket to Indonesia; there he paid a smuggler $30,000 to get him across the Indian Ocean to Australia. He handed over the cash on the day he arrived in Jakarta, only for the smuggler to disappear. After a day passed without the smuggler answering his calls, Mohsen saw on Facebook that he had changed his profile picture to show him holding a stack of cash, and Mohsen knew he’d been robbed.
“He had all the money in his hands ... so I understood what had happened,” Mohsen said of the photo. “I was left behind with not even a dollar, not knowing any language.”
“I was left behind with not even a dollar, not knowing any language.”
He scraped by doing sex work, but later was able to pick up some cash running errands for other refugees who were too afraid to leave their hotel rooms while waiting for their boats. That’s how he finally got a lucky break: He knew a family who’d paid for the trip but who got cold feet at the last minute. He was able to board the ship for free by pretending to be one of them.
He remembers there being around 100 other refugees from Iran on the boat, which started leaking three days into the journey. He saw the passengers bailing water break out in boils from urine and vomit that polluted the water gathering in the hull.
But though it looked like they would sink, Mohsen said he was never afraid; he was drunk. He’d brought six bottles of liquor to get through the trip, but he was still jealous of ones who had passed out altogether from the stress of the journey.
He downed the last shot when he saw an Australian boat sail to their rescue after their fifth day at sea.
“I told myself all the misery’s over,” he said. “I knew whatever was waiting for me was better than the past.”
Mohsen was wrong.
Manus Island is the northernmost large island belonging to Papua New Guinea, more than 600 miles from the northern tip of Australia’s mainland. It’s largely covered by rainforest and sparsely populated by about 50,000 people — its largest town, Lorengau, is home to only around 6,000. Guidebooks say Manus once had a tourist industry built around scuba diving, but today it is known primarily as a holding pen for asylum seekers Australia does not want.
Australia and Papua New Guinea want the outside world to see as little of Mohsen’s home as possible. It is very difficult for foreign journalists to get official permission to visit Manus Island, so Mohsen spoke to BuzzFeed News by Skype.
Mohsen has been outspoken about conditions on Manus. He pressed charges against the officers he said first beat him last year and has given interviews to Australian reporters. But this is the first time he’s spoken publicly about the experience of being a queer refugee.
He has more freedom since being officially recognized as a refugee in 2015 and allowed to leave the detention center, he said, so he feels able to speak up on behalf of those still locked inside. But with no hope of getting off the island, he also feels he has nothing left to lose by coming out publicly.
“The only one having access to a phone and is out of [the detention center] is me. ... I could talk about all the things happening there — those who were killed and what we were going through,” Mohsen said. This is why he agreed to talk when he first learned BuzzFeed News was working on this story through a contact in Iran. “The fact that I am Christian puts me in danger, the fact that I am bisexual puts me in danger, the fact that I am here puts me in danger. ... What can make this worse?”
“The fact that I am Christian puts me in danger, the fact that I am bisexual puts me in danger, the fact that I am here puts me in danger.”
The detention center itself — where all the other known queer refugees are still living —is almost entirely closed off to the outside world. An Australian law even threatens jail time for employees who reveal details about what goes on inside its walls.
The roots of the “Pacific Solution” lie in a standoff that took place in August 2001 involving a group of 430 Afghan refugees. They’d been rescued by a Norwegian freighter after their boat became stranded in the Indian Ocean. The Australian military boarded the freighter to prevent it from bringing the Afghans to an Australian territory called Christmas Island. Most of this group was then sent to Nauru, some remaining there for three years.
Fears of terrorism helped turn the ad hoc approach into law. Legislation was adopted shortly after 9/11, and then-Defense Minister Peter Reith helped sell the proposal by warning that the boats could “be a pipeline for terrorists.”
The Pacific Solution allows Australia to claim it is upholding international human rights law while still turning away people with credible asylum claims. Key to this is making sure they never set foot on Australian land — many rights under international and national law only begin once someone has already entered a country’s territory. Maintaining this premise has required the Australian government to also re-interpret what counts as its territory. The government claims that Christmas Island, where refugees are processed before being sent to Manus or Nauru, doesn’t count as part of Australia for immigration purposes even though it is a territory wholly under Australia’s control.
This approach gives Australia one of the harshest policies toward asylum seekers of any developed democracy, say human rights activists.
“It’s a pariah nation in terms of refugee protection,” Human Rights Watch Australia Director Elaine Pearson, who visited Manus last June, told BuzzFeed News.
Australia stands out for the numbers of asylum seekers it holds offshore, but it didn’t invent the idea. The U.S. used similar logic in the 1990s when it held around 300 HIV-positive Haitian asylum seekers for two years at its base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the same place that would later hold detainees in the War on Terror outside the reach of U.S. courts.
Australia has gone a step further, however. Not only do refugees on Manus Island spend years in a horrific detention center, their asylum applications are processed in Papua New Guinea instead of Australia. (Papua New Guinea, meanwhile, expected to benefit from several million dollars in aid from Australia as well as the jobs the detention center creates for Manus residents.)
This means that LGBT asylum seekers are being forced to seek asylum in a country that criminalizes homosexuality, which human rights advocates say is a direct violation of prohibitions in international law against deporting people to places where they have a well-founded fear of persecution.
“I thought Australia and its people would be my protector, but they taught me otherwise,” wrote one gay Iranian in the detention center in a set of letters published by The Guardian in 2014. Another wrote, “I sought asylum from [the] Australian government which claims to respect the human rights … [but] I am a homosexual, a gay man, and because of that I was tortured here and no one is hearing me to help.”
The United Nations has condemned the camps as a form of “mandatory detention” that violates international law, and problems in the camps — like riots and rape — have been extensively reported. Australia's immigration minister declined to be interviewed for this story through a spokesperson, but Australian leaders appear more enthusiastic than ever about the plan. Both major parties intend to campaign on continuing the program in the next election. Some Australian leaders are even arguing it should be a model for the world as Europe is overwhelmed by refugees arriving in the hundreds of thousands from the Middle East and North Africa.
“The only way to prevent a tide of humanity surging through Europe and quite possibly changing it forever,” said former Prime Minister Tony Abbott in an October speech in London, means “turning boats around for people coming by sea ... and it means establishing camps for people who currently have nowhere to go.”
The situation in the Manus Island detention center was so bleak that Mohsen said he attempted suicide multiple times during the two years he was held there.
Even now, he said, “There is not a minute that I do not think about ending this life.”
The facility where he lived was meant to be temporary and hold fewer than 500 people. But the number climbed to more than 1,300 over the course of 2013. That was thanks largely to a new program announced while Mohsen was at sea — July 19 — that refugees sent to Manus would be eligible for asylum only in Papua New Guinea rather than Australia.
Mohsen’s new home was a muddy compound penned in by a chainlink fence about eight feet high. Pictures from inside the facility leaked by asylum seekers or captured surreptitiously by the press show modified shipping containers, tents, and tin-roofed concrete buildings built during World War II crowded with asylum seekers in the tropical heat. The refugees would have had a view of the beach a few yards away, but when Amnesty International visited in 2013 the sea view was blocked by green mesh that a camp official said was to prevent the media from using boats to photograph conditions inside.
A 2014 report by an Australian Senate committee collected extensive testimony about the horrors in the camp: The toilets backed up, dead flies were found in the food, there were suspicions that the guards were urinating in drinking water, and detainees sometimes got heat stroke because they had to wait in long lines for food without shade in direct sun.
Mohsen said there was also extensive abuse at the hands of Australian security contractors and Papua New Guinea immigration officers, and the Australian Senate committee heard accounts of similar incidents. One of the most disturbing testimonies came from Nicole Judge, who worked on programs in the camp run by the Salvation Army during the second half of 2013. She reported witnessing Australian guards with the United Kingdom-based security company managing the camp, G4S, beat an Iranian unconscious after he ran back to his room to take cover from a rainstorm, an attempted “invasion” of the camp by locals from outside who used machetes to sever water lines, and evidence of sexual assault that security officials ignored.
“We’ve had some cases of people who’ve been raped.”
“I have heard P1 [shower] block in Foxtrot [compound] being referred to by G4S guards as a ‘rape dungeon’,” she wrote. In one case she saw reported seeing a young man from Myanmar leaving the toilet block “looking to be in pain” after entering with an older detainee, and was told by a supervisor, “because these transferees were Muslim and actively engaging in prayer that any sexual activity would have been consensual.”
Abuse inside the camp keeps queer refugees in fear even of one another, said a 24-year-old from Tehran who asked to be identified only as Amir.
“I can’t trust anyone,” said Amir, who BuzzFeed News reached with help from an Australian refugee activist and a contraband cell phone — guards confiscate cell phones discovered in the camp. Amir interrupted the conversation several times whenever someone else came within earshot.
Amir said he fled Iran in May 2013 after his boyfriend’s father reported him to the police, but he hasn’t told anyone in the camp the truth of his case and he largely avoids others he suspects are gay in fear of being targeted.
“I told everyone I had a problem with my girlfriend [back home] so that no one would realize,” he said.
If others found out, “They’d harass me, make fun of me, you know we still have this Iranian culture” in the camp, he said. “We’ve had some cases of people who’ve been raped.”
Mohsen spent many months after his arrival on a hunger strike, part of a protest movement that built as the camp grew increasingly crowded throughout 2013. Some of the refugees Amir knew had sewn their lips shut in protest.
According to the Australian Senate report, the protests reached a boiling point in February 2014, after immigration officials told a group of protest leaders that they "would never be settled in Australia and that if they wished to settle in a third country, they would receive no support from Australia or [Papua New Guinea] to do this,” according to an account of the event by Amnesty International.
The protests ignited long-simmering hostility from the local community, who felt they had not gotten the economic benefits promised from having the camp on their island. When Papua New Guinea police rushed in to shut down protests on Feb. 17, they were backed by a mob of locals who’d been stockpiling weapons outside the compound.
By the time peace was restored on Feb. 18, an Iranian named Reza Barati was dead, allegedly from having been beaten. Amir said a Papua New Guinea officer entered his room and beat him with a baton though he was hiding from the violence. Mohsen said he was hit in the head with a rock and knocked unconscious.
The despair is so great that detainees are attempting suicide or harming themselves.
Australia has made some changes since the riot, including finishing the transfer of control over the camp to a new contractor. But it has also made the camp even more secretive, including adopting the law that could jail employees working on the island for disclosing conditions there. The despair is so great on both islands that detainees are attempting suicide or harming themselves in other ways at a rate that the Sydney Morning Herald reported was reaching “epidemic levels.”
The riots have also left the prospect of settling in Papua New Guinea even more terrifying to the asylum seekers, especially since the government has made it nearly impossible for them to settle in another part of the country.
More than 100 asylum seekers in the detention center have had their refugee petitions accepted and now have the right to move to a more comfortable and open facility outside the island’s main town called the transit center, but they are refusing to relocate. Around 300 asylum seekers have decided to go back to the countries they fled, including a Syrian who was tortured by police for 20 days after he returned last year and was later injured in shelling that killed his father.
Mohsen has lived in the transit center since last spring, but he said he’s attempted suicide twice in the months since. Almost all the other queer refugees are still inside the detention center, in part out of fear of the country’s sodomy law. That fear is so great that at least one asylum seeker reportedly refused to report two incidents of rape because he worried the Papua New Guinea police would throw him in jail.
Amir doesn’t want to take the chance of living on the outside — but unless Australia changes its policies, his only other choice is to go back to Iran.
“I cannot take the risk of living somewhere even worse than here, where those people who wanted to kill us — who killed Reza Barati — live,” he said. “If I had left for any reason other [than being gay], I'd go back the next day.”
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on December 27, 2015, at 10:18 a.m. ET
SAN SALVADOR — La Cuki Alarcón was late to work on the night that his roommate disappeared, which is why he is still around to tell what happened.
His hair was extravagantly curled, and he matched a long skirt with high boots, a look he hoped hid his legs, which he thought looked too manly to appeal to his clients.
Alarcón was hurrying to the strip they used to work across the street from El Salvador’s national symbol, the Divine Savior of the World monument, a statue of Jesus with his feet planted on a globe perched atop a column about 60 feet in the air. Work was so steady on that corner that Alarcón thought a client might have already picked up his roommate and the other locas they hung out with. Outsiders called them all “homosexuals,” but the sex workers — some who lived as women all the time, others who dressed as women primarily on the job — called each other “crazies” even though some used it as an insult that would roughly translate to “sissy.” (Alarcón asked BuzzFeed News to refer to him using male pronouns.)
As Alarcón reached the opposite corner, he could see his friends were still there. He hesitated for a minute before crossing because the stoplight was out, and that’s when he realized the locas were not alone. Four tall men in ski masks were throwing them into the back of a green truck, clubbing them with the butts of their guns.
Alarcón remembers the year as 1980, a time when death squads were using trucks like this one to make people disappear by the hundreds every week. This was the beginning of the civil war that consumed El Salvador until 1992. The United Nations, NGOs, journalists, and scholars have sought to uncover what happened to many of the more than 75,000 who were killed or disappeared during the conflict, but no one has ever investigated what happened to Alarcón’s friends. As far as anyone knows, no one has even recorded their names among the missing.
But Alarcón can still rattle off the names of many of the dozen he remembers being thrown into the truck that night. There was his roommate Cristi, whom he remembers as a gentle 26-year-old who would bring him gifts of coats or shoes from trips she’d frequently make to Guatemala and Mexico. Another was Verónica, from San Bartolo near the Honduran border, who was so pretty that her clients would sometimes insist on having their pictures taken with her. Carolina was so well put together that she’d sometimes get into trouble — she looked “all woman,” Alarcón said, and her clients could get violent when they discovered she was trans as she undressed.
Alarcón is one of the only witnesses to their disappearances who is still alive, but the story of that night is well-remembered. It has been passed down from generation to generation of trans sex workers in the country’s capital, San Salvador. It’s been retold so many times it can sometimes be hard to separate fact from legend, passed down in the same way many families retell the haunting mysteries that still linger from the war. The tale stakes a claim for trans women in a country that often seems to wish they would disappear.
“Maybe there still could be some justice for us, right?” Alarcón said during an interview in San Salvador last December. “Maybe remembering everything that happened to these friends can bring some peace for all homosexuals?”
I first learned about this story from a 38-year-old Salvadoran trans activist named Karla Avelar in the fall of 2014 while working on a story about LGBT kids fleeing the country to make the dangerous, illegal trip to the United States. El Salvador has some of the highest rates of anti-LGBT violence in the hemisphere, and Avelar recounted waves of unpunished murders over the past several decades. In 2014 alone, at least 12 women and two gay men were killed, according to media reports. There was the “Bloody June” of 2009 in which at least three trans women and two gay men were murdered. Avelar herself survived being shot in the 1990s by a serial killer who had been gunning down trans sex workers.
The ones taken from the Savior of the World were almost mythical to Avelar, who was a baby when the events occurred.
“We don’t even really know much ourselves, but a little while ago one of the survivors told us what happened and said to us, ‘Why don’t you document this, that I was a victim of that attack?’” she said. But the task seemed impossible. “There is no documentation whatsoever, no publication nor record — there is nothing.”
Avelar knew of just one witness who still survived, a woman named Paty who she said was 78 years old, a miracle in a country where violence and HIV are so widespread very few trans women survive to middle age.
“They said that they had dressed them up as soldiers and made them play war”
I flew to El Salvador as soon as I could. Paty’s health sounded fragile and if she died before her memories could be recorded, any hope of documenting the atrocity would die with her. I decided to work with Nicola Chávez Courtright, co-founder of a small organization documenting the history of El Salvador’s LGBT movement called AMATE, hoping she would have ideas on how to start substantiating Paty’s memories.
When we visited Paty — whose full name is Patricia Leiva — shortly before Christmas last year, we learned that much of what Avelar told me was wrong. Leiva was only 60, though it was understandable why Avelar had thought she was much older. Health problems had swollen her stomach like a basketball and made it nearly impossible for her to walk. She also had not been there on the night of the disappearances from the Savior of the World, and years of heavy drinking meant she could only recall bits and pieces of the story, despite having heard it countless times.
Leiva lives in the remains of what used to be a popular beer hall called the Bluegill in a once-thriving red-light district called the Praviana, now subdivided into tenements. The bar had belonged to La Cuki Alarcón, Leiva told us, and he had been there that night.
Alarcón is now retired and lives in the suburbs, surviving with help from his children who live in the United States. Alarcón doesn’t routinely go by “La Cuki” (a Spanish spelling of Cookie) anymore, preferring his male name. But he asked that we not publish his legal first name because he was worried about his safety for talking about the war. Besides, he said, “La Cuki” had been “my nomme de guerre — my homosexual one.”
Alarcón hid from the men rounding up his friends that night by throwing himself to the ground in a small garden. He tried to slink away after watching the men pile his friends into the truck, but more armed men were patrolling the surrounding streets. He remembered making it to the La Religiosa funeral home up the block, where he tried to take sanctuary, but he said the guard wouldn’t let him in because there was a lavish wake underway — “There are only famous people in there,” the guard told him. So he waited out the raid crouched between the cars parked outside.
When the coast was clear, he went back to work on the corner. Within minutes, a client had come and picked him up. Alarcón figured he’d see Cristi in a day or two, which is how long the cops usually held sex workers after a routine vice raid.
But Cristi never came home. None of them did.
Alarcón went to the police stations to try to find her. He even hired a lawyer. But the cops made fun of him and hinted that his friends were already dead.
“They said that they had dressed them up as soldiers and made them play war,” he remembered.
“Maybe there still could be some justice for us, right? Maybe remembering everything that happened to these friends can bring some peace for all homosexuals?”
El Salvador’s 12-year civil war had its roots in political battles that had been going on for half a century. In 1980 it blew up into one of the last and bloodiest conflicts of the Cold War. That year, military leaders ousted moderates in the ruling junta while paramilitary squads aligned with the regime hunted down government critics. The war vaulted into international headlines in March, when the head of the country’s Catholic Church, Archbishop Óscar Romero, was shot through a church doorway while he was celebrating mass.
The U.S. government threw tremendous weight behind the military leaders even as the body count grew, and a rebel force called the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front fought back with a little support from Nicaragua and Cuba. Echoing the early days of Vietnam, Washington sent in military advisers, contributed tens of millions of dollars in military aid, and trained Salvadoran troops at an installation in Panama known as the School of the Americas. The U.S. continued this support even after reporters for the Washington Post and New York Times uncovered that a U.S.-trained battalion was responsible for one of the war’s most infamous atrocities, the extermination of an entire farming village called El Mozote in 1981.
The two sides were locked in a stalemate as the Cold War came to an end with the Soviet Union’s collapse. Peace accords signed on Jan. 16, 1992, made uncovering the crimes committed during the war a cornerstone of rebuilding the nation, creating a Truth Commission run by the United Nations to gather witness statements and write a definitive account of the war’s greatest atrocities.
Because many of the war’s abuses were so extensively documented in that process, we thought we might find some record of the disappearances from the Savior of the World. But we came up empty. Our best hope was the archives of the two human rights offices run by San Salvador’s Catholic Archdiocese — the most active human rights monitors during the war — but they could locate no records matching the case. They might have been able to search more if we could provide the victims’ legal names, but Alarcón and the others we spoke with only knew them by their female names.
We had hoped that El Salvador’s oldest gay rights organization, Entre Amigos, would be able to help us substantiate these memories. When it organized the country’s first pride march in 1997, the group declared it as a commemoration of another event said to have happened during the war years: the abduction of a number of trans women from the heart of the Praviana red-light district by a U.S.-trained battalion in June 1984. This is the one case of crimes against LGBT people claimed to have been recorded by human rights monitors during the war.
Entre Amigos’ co-founder William Hernández told us in an interview that he had uncovered a statement from a witness to that incident while working in the archive of an organization called the Nongovernmental Human Rights Commission just after the war's end. But, Hernández said, the account was so confusing and incomplete that, when examined “from a legal point of view, it wouldn’t give me anything that argues that this was real.”
He initially said that he would be glad to dig it out of the group’s files for us anyway, but he grew increasingly combative when we attempted to follow up. Finally, he sent us a note saying his lawyers did not “trust how the information will be managed” and requested that we remove reference to Entre Amigos from this story.
So we went directly to the Nongovernmental Human Rights Commission, and they told us they could not locate any such testimony in its archives. None of the people we interviewed said they’d witnessed an abduction as described by Entre Amigos or knew of anyone who had. If the testimony existed and it was as mixed up as Hernández described, there’s the possibility that the person was describing the disappearances from the Savior of the World and some of the details got scrambled in the retelling, including the year.
And we could never pin down the date of the disappearances for sure. It’s not uncommon for people to have difficulty remembering dates from the war years — even when loved ones died, the violence was so unrelenting that the number on a calendar seemed like a fairly meaningless abstraction in daily life, other reporters who covered the conflict told us. Calendar dates might even be especially hard for the trans women we interviewed, most of whom didn’t finish elementary school because they were thrown out by their families once their femininity became apparent.
The witnesses we interviewed mostly gave dates ranging from 1978 to 1980, but the fall of 1980 seems likeliest. One person who lived in the Praviana at the time told us she remembered they were still searching for the missing when one of the most notorious killings of the war took place: the rape and murder of three American nuns and a laywoman by the National Guard on Dec. 2, 1980.
This timing may be confirmed by something we found while paging through three years of newspapers from the period, held in dusty binders in the collection of San Salvador’s Museum of Anthropology. The only announcement for an event at the La Religiosa funeral home we found was published by both major dailies, El Diario de Hoy and La Prensa Gráfica, on Oct. 1, 1980. It was for a man who had died in Los Angeles, California, whose remains had been shipped home for burial, suggesting he may have been from a wealthy or important family. Alarcón remembers the wake where he tried to hide from the raid as being especially fancy, so there’s a possibility this was it.
That’s not a lot to go on, but two days later, El Diario de Hoy reported that police were leading sweeps to “purge those elements that are undesirable to society” in response to recent thefts. The operation was reportedly focusing on a park about two miles away from the Savior of the World — though close to the Praviana — but the next day La Prensa Gráfica quoted police saying the effort was expanding to target “other sites known as refuges for criminals.”
It may be hard to imagine a dozen people could disappear without attracting some attention. But at that point in the war, unexplained deaths had become so routine that it was remarkable when anyone raised a fuss. (And these were sex workers — trans ones at that — the kind of people whom many would probably have been happy to see cleared off the streets if they noticed them at all.)
Bodies were being dumped at a rate of more than 150 a week, which the U.S. Embassy would tally in regular “Violence Week in Review” cables, even as the U.S grew closer with the El Salvadoran regime. Remains were found scattered around the capital every morning, sometimes with their faces destroyed so they could not be identified or left in a spot where vultures could be counted on to scatter their bones. Trucks like the ones Alarcón saw at the Savior of the World were icons of the inescapable violence.
The death squads’ victims were “killed in the usual fashion,” reported a cable from the U.S. Embassy to Washington of the 179 people who died in the week ending Nov. 28, 1980: “Kidnapped by a group of armed men who appeared as civilians, taken away in the ubiquitous pick-up trucks, shot or strangled or both, and then dumped along roadsides.” Six of that week’s murders included top opposition leaders that attracted some outcry, the cable noted, but their deaths were “unusual in that they have gone noticed.”
If news of the death of a group of sex workers had reached officials at the U.S. embassy or human rights organizations, it could have easily been ignored as an extreme vice raid rather than as a political crime.
But those who lost their friends believe they died because of politics. The most intriguing part of the legend of the disappearances from the Savior of the World — and the part that is probably the most impossible to pin down — is that they were killed to cover up a government secret.
They were taken that night, the story goes, in a hunt for two sex workers who had evidence of a crime. Evidence they had stolen from an American.
Some of the locas thought the American was a diplomat, while others believed he was a reporter. No one really knew why he was in the country, but they all knew what he looked like. The ones we spoke to who had seen him recalled that he appeared to be in his fifties with close-cropped white hair and a mustache or a goatee. He was a big spender who always hired two at a time — “one for him to make love to while the other made love to him,” one person told us.
They were taken that night, the story goes, in a hunt for two sex workers who had evidence of a crime. Evidence they had stolen from an American.
The two he picked up shortly before the raid stole his briefcase. Inside were some cameras that the locas believed had been used to photograph some kind of a government crime.
All this might be easily shrugged off as the kind of conspiracy theory that proliferates in wartime, except several sources said they’d heard it from people directly involved. La Cuki Alarcón said the American came to his bar offering a reward to get his cameras back. Another sex worker, who asked not to be named, said she’d been warned that a hunt for the thieves was underway by a sergeant in the National Guard who was her regular client. Several told us that one of the thieves had a wife, a cisgender woman named Sonia who lived in San Salvador for at least another 30 years and would sometimes talk about how the authorities eventually dug the briefcase out of her patio with the cameras still inside.
Everyone believes both thieves escaped, but there are a lot of different stories about what happened to the ones who disappeared beneath the Savior of the World: They were tortured by having their fingernails pulled out and their breasts shorn off. They were dragged to death by horses at the infantry barracks. They were dumped in a hole on the road to the notorious Mariona prison.
Their families tried to find them. A woman named Yazmín Zulema Enríquez, whose mother did laundry in a Praviana brothel, told us how relatives of the missing would come for help with their search. She remembered being left in charge of the brothel when the owner would personally make the rounds of the offices of the National Guard, the Treasury Police, and the National Police. The men said to have taken the locas away wore no uniforms, so there was no way to be sure which force had taken them.
“We didn’t even hear of any of [the locas] being held prisoner,” Zulema told us. “Of all the ones they carried off, not even cadavers were found.”
El Salvador is filled with stories like these, people turned into ghosts because unanswered questions are all that remains of them. A monument to the dead and disappeared that was unveiled in San Salvador in 2003 now bears the names of around 30,000 dead or disappeared who have been documented. Another 45,000 are estimated to be missing from that wall, a number that includes the ones who disappeared beneath the Savior of the World.
Unexplained death became even more common for the trans women of San Salvador after the war. They were victims of the gangs that took over San Salvador’s streets, or targeted in drive-by shootings, or killed by HIV. By the turn of the century, the Praviana — which the sex workers say was home to dozens of trans women around the time of the war’s end — had essentially ceased to exist.
All that’s left is what remains of the Bluegill, with Patricia Leiva living in its carcass. Her home is a small room with a beat-up pallet on a concrete floor for which she pays $3 per day. She survives primarily by selling a few Coca-Colas and packs of gum from her door. She also still turns the occasional trick, though she can only walk a block or so on a good day.
She lives about a mile from the Monument to Memory and Truth, and her rusty shack is the closest thing to a memorial for the friends who passed through it. If it is too late to find out who killed the ones who disappeared beneath the Savior of the World, they at least want their memories to be believed.
Leiva showed us her ID card when we asked if it was safe to publish her name for this story.
“Use my name!” she demanded. “This is serious what we’ve talked about. And we’ve told the truth.”
January 4, 2016, at 11:39 a.m.
This story has been updated to clarify the nature of the document that Entre Amigos claims to possess.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on November 16, 2015, at 1:26 p.m. ET
DENIZLI, Turkey — There was only one way Danial could think of to get out of Iran: He would have to sell his kidney.
He got the idea from fliers offering cash for organs, which he had seen pasted to walls in the northern Tehran neighborhood of Tajrish. Danial had vague memories of them tacked near the bus stop where he’d get off to go to his painting classes. Those classes were how he kept his dream of becoming an artist alive, despite the fact that he’d never been allowed to go to school.
His situation felt hopeless. His mother had confronted him about being gay one December morning in 2013. By noon he had fled the family home, taking nothing but the clothes on his back and 50,000 rials — about $2 — in his pocket. His boyfriend lived in the city of Isfahan six hours to the south, but it wouldn’t be safe for them to stay together even if he could afford a bus ticket. Danial had a job at a glass factory in southern Tehran — he still has scars on his emaciated body from where the furnaces burned him — but it didn’t pay enough for him to rent an apartment on his own, let alone escape across the border into Turkey.
“I had no way forward, no way backwards — I just wanted to escape from that place,” Danial said.
For most Iranians, getting to Turkey would be as simple as buying a plane ticket, which can cost less than $200; a few hundred LGBT Iranians make this trip every year because it’s an easy jumping-off point to a new life in the West. Iranian passport holders don’t need a visa to enter Turkey, and the United Nations fast-tracks LGBT refugees for resettlement because it considers them especially vulnerable.
"I just wanted to escape from that place."
But Danial couldn’t get an Iranian passport. He was the son of an Afghan, one of the estimated 3 million who have come to Iran since the 1980s, fleeing decades of war and looking for work. The Iranian government wants them out; it generally doesn’t grant their children citizenship and deliberately makes it hard for them to access basic services — that’s why Danial hadn’t gone to school. Without documents, Danial could only get to Turkey by hiring smugglers to sneak him across the border, which would cost a seemingly impossible amount: around $1,000.
Selling his kidney turned out to be harder than Danial had hoped. He initially marched into a government-run clinic on Valiasr Street in the heart of Tehran and announced he wanted to sell his kidney, but they wouldn’t even let him past the front door because he had no ID to prove he was an adult.
Then he got a break, of sorts. A man followed him out of the clinic and introduced himself as the uncle of an 8-year-old boy who needed a kidney transplant. They had a short conversation establishing that Danial had a compatible blood type, and the man offered him 50 million rials, about $1,700.
“I had no other options, so I accepted,” Danial said.
Like millions of other refugees from across the region, Danial saw going to Turkey and then on to the West as his only path to the future. But as their numbers have grown — from around 25,000 to over 2 million in just four years — the system for processing refugees in Turkey is being strained to breaking point. Danial sold his kidney to get to Turkey, trusting the system would take care of him once he got there. Instead he discovered that he had to fend for himself, navigating a system so complicated that the refugees with the fewest resources can easily fall through the cracks.
Danial had met his boyfriend, Parsa, at a birthday party for a mutual friend about two years before he fled his family. (Both men asked to be identified by their nicknames out of fear for their safety.)
Parsa, a 21-year-old aspiring musician with an electric, angular smile, was DJing, and he chatted Danial up about a painting of a flower he’d made as a birthday present for their friend. Parsa was about four years older than Danial and had also struggled to pursue a career in the arts after his family forced him to abandon his studies. They started dating soon after but could see each other only occasionally. When they couldn’t be together, Danial and Parsa traded text messages every night before bed.
“I could not go to sleep without those messages,” said Danial, whose high cheekbones make him look pixieish when he smiles. He suspects the messages were what tipped his family off to their relationship. “I kept every single one.”
So Parsa was alarmed when he hadn’t heard from Danial in the month after he left his mother’s house. Danial finally broke the silence with a short message telling Parsa to meet him the next day at a hospital in Tehran. Parsa was frantic when he arrived, convinced Danial had been in an accident.
But Danial looked perfectly healthy when he found him. Parsa was furious when he learned what he planned to do.
"For how much money did you put your life in danger?"
“For how much money did you put your life in danger?” he recalled shouting at Danial. He started arguing with the doctors: "With what authorization would you operate on someone who has no one with him and cut a part of his body — how could you let him decide to do such thing?"
Danial had known Parsa would react this way, which is why he kept the plan a secret until all the arrangements were made; he’d even rented a motel room for his recovery. Now it was too late to back out. The buyer had already invested around $350 for medical tests to confirm Danial’s kidney would match, and they had no way to repay it. The couple also felt for the child who was due to receive his kidney, whom they saw being wheeled into surgery.
“He was a very small boy who had so many scars all over his body — his kidneys were failing since he was born,” Parsa remembered.
Danial realized what a terrible mistake he’d made immediately after his surgery. His stitches became infected, and he burned through some of his profits to have them treated. Months flew by and he was still not well enough to travel; the bill for his room was beginning to add up even though he was paying just $14 per night.
After six months, he had just about $1,060 left, and he was still very weak.
“I had no way back to undo what I had done,” Danial said. “I realized I had even more problems.”
Many LGBT Iranians who seek asylum in Turkey simply fly to Ankara and go straight to the office that registers new refugees. Iranians make up the majority of the 700 LGBT people currently in the pipeline for resettlement who have identified themselves to the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). One NGO that supports queer Iranian refugees reports getting an average of 30 new requests for help every month.
Hundreds of LGBT Iranians have been resettled in the West — especially in Canada — over the past several years, and many arrive in Turkey with a good deal of information about how to navigate the process. It now generally takes about two years for them to get a ticket out of Turkey even though UNHCR considers LGBT people especially vulnerable and fast-tracks them for resettlement. Many LGBT Iranians have had friends who’ve already been resettled or at least know the general outline of the process; some save up for the wait before they come or even have support from their families, making the wait easier to bear.
But Danial had to travel before he was really ready. If he waited any longer to recover his strength, he wouldn’t be able to afford the smuggler’s fee. Parsa would have to meet him in Turkey. He was an Iranian citizen and so would be able to fly to Turkey legally, but it would take a little time for him to get his passport issued.
In early August 2014, two smugglers guided Danial and a few others on a four-day trek through mountains and forests from the Iranian town of Maku to Van in southeastern Turkey. At night they would sleep in clearings in the brush. Despite Danial's fragile condition, he had to run in places where they might encounter border patrols.
In Van, the smugglers put him on a bus to Ankara. As the bus left the station, he realized that he was now totally on his own and had very little idea about what would happen next. He could speak no Turkish. He didn’t even know that Turkey used a different currency than Iran and got cheated out of half his remaining cash when a money changer took advantage of his ignorance. He had a sheaf of papers documenting his kidney surgery, but nothing to prove his identity. He couldn’t even definitively tell refugee officials how old he was — his best guess was around 21 or 22 by that point — because his family never told him his birthdate.
“The only thing I knew was there is something called the ‘United Nations,’” he said. “I thought because we are gay and we are different, there is nothing to be scared of.”
Danial followed a group of other refugees from the bus station in Ankara to the office of the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants (ASAM), an NGO that registers refugees on behalf of UNHCR.
Others who passed through that ASAM office around the same time described it as an off-white building in a well-off residential neighborhood that appeared to have been built for the time before Turkey became one of the world’s top destinations for refugees. Iranians and Afghans waited alongside Syrians and people from a number of other Arab countries in chaotic lines that streamed out the front door. Refugees choked the narrow hallways inside, waiting to be summoned for processing. The walls echoed with the cries of screaming children and exuded the smell of the thousands who had passed through the building in a desperate search for shelter.
Danial wound up in line with a bunch of Afghans, who advised him to say he was Afghan when his turn came to explain his case. “They told me Afghans are being accepted easily [as refugees], compared to Iranians,” he said. “So I just said I was Afghan and gay — I had nothing else to say and I had no documents.”
"They told me Afghans are being accepted easily... So I just said I was Afghan and gay."
This proved to be a serious mistake, according to Saghi Ghahraman, director of the Toronto-based Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO), which assists Iranians with the refugee process and ultimately took up Danial's and Parsa’s cases. Most of her Iranian clients leave the ASAM office with a date for their first face-to-face meeting with a UNHCR official — called a pre-interview — but Danial left without any appointment at all.
It’s impossible to know for sure if Danial’s case would have progressed differently if he’d said he was Iranian. But a number of refugee advocates told BuzzFeed News that UNHCR appears to have generally put all Afghan cases “on hold,” largely because the countries that take refugees from Turkey allocate very few slots to people of Afghan origin.
Danial “didn't get a pre-interview date at that time because he said he was Afghan,” Ghahraman said.
Selin Unal, spokesperson for UNHCR-Turkey, did not comment directly on this case, but she denied that the agency is treating Afghan refugees differently than any others in an email to BuzzFeed News.
“UNHCR continues to process vulnerable Afghan asylum seekers and refugees, and provides protection assistance to those in need in collaboration with the Turkish government and NGOs,” she said. But, she said, “Resettlement opportunities depend on quotas [set] by resettlement countries.”
Parsa, who showed up at ASAM on Dec. 18 with an Iranian passport, sailed through the system compared to Danial. He had his first interview with UNHCR on Jan. 27, was granted refugee status by the agency in April, and his paperwork was with the Canadian government by the end of June to be considered for resettlement.
His case may have been accelerated because they enlisted the help of IRQO’s Ghahraman shortly before he registered. Danial said they learned about IRQO by chance when they struck up a conversation with some trans refugees they overheard speaking Farsi in a public park, and it took a couple of tries before they convinced Ghahraman about the urgency of their case. Her intervention also nudged Danial’s case forward — UNHCR brought him in for his pre-interview in January, after she described his case to an agency contact.
But in the months after Parsa learned he might go to Canada, no call came telling Danial he was going too.
They had spent much of their year in Turkey on the edge of homelessness. Danial had followed other refugees he met at the ASAM office in Ankara to the city of Denizli, a fast-growing city of about 600,000 people nestled at the feet of dramatic mountains in southeastern Turkey. Turkey bars refugees from most countries from living in major cities like Istanbul, and Denizli had become a major hub for Iranians — especially LGBT Iranians — awaiting resettlement. Denizli's downtown is clean and new, but its economy is built on textile manufacturing — allowing refugees who are prohibited from working legally to eke out a living under the table in sweatshops.
The work was hard on Danial, whose urine sometimes turned red from internal bleeding at the end of 12-hour days hauling bolts of fabric that could weigh more than he did. Sometimes the bosses wouldn’t pay the wages they owed, and Danial and Parsa were thrown out of one apartment after another.
Danial became convinced he would never be freed from this purgatory and worried Parsa would give up his chance to go to Canada in order to stay with him. He grew so weak that his dark black hair began falling out in patches, making his scalp look almost leopard-spotted. UNHCR referred him to a psychiatrist, who said he couldn’t do anything to advance his case and instead offered him a prescription for anti-anxiety pills.
“My case will not end up anywhere and [Parsa] is stuck because of me,” Danial remembered thinking to himself one night when Parsa went out to buy bread. “I knew that if I have to stay here, he will stay with me and not leave.”
“I wanted him to go and live free,” Danial said, “so I took all of those pills.”
Danial was unconscious when Parsa found him. Parsa frantically searched for a neighbor who knew the number to call for an ambulance and spoke enough Turkish to give them the address. The paramedics would not let him ride with Danial in the ambulance, and he had to be careful about how he showed his feelings because they lived in a building filled with other Iranian refugees who they were terrified would figure out they were a couple.
“It was like a nightmare,” Parsa said. The doctor said that Danial could die anytime within the next three days — but if he survived that period he would live.
Danial survived, but when the couple spoke to BuzzFeed News two weeks after his suicide attempt, he was feeling more alone than ever.
“No one can ever help us,” Danial said. “What does U.N. believe in? Why does U.N. exist? ... When they don't help me, who are they helping?”
"What does U.N. believe in? Why does U.N. exist?"
On Oct. 12, Danial finally got a piece of good news: He would also be considered by Canada for resettlement.
Their problems aren’t over yet; it often takes about another year from this step in the process before a refugee actually boards a plane. But at least the end is in sight.
But their story shows just how easily the most vulnerable refugees can fall through the cracks in the system that should be trying to help them most, said Ghahraman. If they hadn’t found an advocate with contacts inside UNHCR, Danial might never have even learned that it was a mistake to say he was Afghan, let alone had a chance to correct it.
Many of the people who work in UNHCR are doing it for all the right reasons, Ghahraman said, and she has seen individuals leap into action when they learn of a refugee who needs extra help. But the system as a whole is set up to comply with “the policy and the rules and laws —nobody helps somebody out just based on humanity,” she said.
Danial is still painting while he waits — mostly pictures of flowers — though he was using up the last of canvases and had no money for more. Other than his medical records, just about the only other things he brought with him from Iran were 12 small tubes of oil paint.
“It's more than a year that I am waiting in Turkey; for someone who is in good situation, this might not feel like [even] a month, but for me it feels like years — I cannot take it anymore,” Danial said. “My art is painting and I really can't do anything else.”
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on October 22, 2015, at 1:22 p.m. ET
ISTANBUL — M was standing at a bus stop on the outskirts of Damascus when a group of armed men pulled up in a car and ordered her to get in.
M wears thick-framed glasses and her black hair cut just above the ear. She stood out in a largely devout neighborhood where most women wore headscarves, making her a target that day in July 2014.
“You are not covered — and why is your hair short?” she remembered her captors asking, slapping her across the face and striking her on the back of her head. They demanded she recite a verse from the Qur'an to prove she was a Muslim, and she was lucky they picked one that she had learned as a child.
“Why are you imitating men?” they demanded. “All this entitles you to execution.”
They held her blindfolded for two days; she kept time by counting the calls to prayer from a nearby mosque.
The 46-year-old M lived in an area that was a battleground that summer as government forces attempted to push the rebels back from the Syrian capital, and many of her neighbors had been wounded when the area was under siege. She practiced alternative medicine for a living, caring for the wounded regardless of which side they supported, without accepting payment.
This charity is what ultimately saved her life. At the end of the second day, a leader who her captors called “the sheikh” said an order had been issued for her execution for being a “mistarjili” — literally, a woman who acts like a man. But, she said he told her: “Listen, I will not impose the ruling … I asked all the people in the area and they told us that you are a person who helps all people.”
The group released her with nothing but her ID card and a warning that the reprieve was only temporary.
“At any moment you might be killed,” the sheikh warned her. “You should leave the area immediately."
“Why are you imitating men?”
Her neighborhood was being shelled, so she never went back to the small home where she lived for 15 years. Instead, M borrowed money from a friend and headed to Turkey later that summer as soon as she could get a passport.
For seven months, she was barely scraping by working a series of black-market jobs that required her to work 12-hour days. But she felt a surge of hope in April when she learned that she was eligible to be considered for resettlement to someplace like the United States or Europe by the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). She went to an office of the NGO that takes new cases, told them about what had happened to her in Syria, and waited for someone to call her with good news.
Six months passed. The phone never rang.
“My dream was to live in a country that respects a queer woman like me as a human being,” she told BuzzFeed News in Istanbul last month. “I felt that finally my problems will be solved ... but it turned out to be an illusion.”
If she had the money, she would do what her roommate did earlier this summer: hire a smuggler to carry her to Europe on a boat. But that costs about $2,500, more money than she can even dream about. In Istanbul she hasn’t been able to find work for several months even washing dishes. She is on the verge of being thrown out of her tiny room, which smells of sewage and has drug dealers conducting business just outside her window.
The people who met her when she arrived say her time here has aged her at least a decade. Deep worry lines cut into her sunken face, and her clothes sagged off her withered frame.
Finally, she decided to do something she describes as a way to commit suicide: She bought a ticket back to Syria.
“I’m returning to my death, but what choice do I have?” M said.
UNHCR actually fast-tracks LGBT refugees for resettlement because it considers them especially vulnerable. But the process still leaves many in despair, showing that the system wasn’t really built to rescue large numbers of people in immediate danger. The fates of refugees who are desperately seeking security are in the hands of a bureaucracy that spans multiple governments, agencies, and NGOs. These institutions generally don’t have nearly enough staff to keep up with the workload created by the influx of Syrians since the war began.
LGBT refugees will usually have to wait about two years for a ticket out of Turkey, said Selin Unal, spokesman for UNHCR's Turkey office: one year for UNHCR to decide if they’re eligible and a second for another country to grant them a visa and fly them over.
“We are trying our best to shorten waiting periods,” Unal said, but given the numbers seeking resettlement, “this period is not really too long.”
Those who “have been resettled are probably very grateful to UNHCR for having helped them and given a chance to build their life in a new environment,” she added. “We acknowledge the difficulties of a daily life for refugees during a waiting period … [and] we do not spare any efforts in order to support and assist [them].”
The two-year wait is far shorter than the one faced by refugees not considered vulnerable — advocates who work with other categories of refugees report that UNHCR is telling their clients they won’t even have their first meeting with an agency caseworker until 2022 or 2023.
But to an individual, those two years can feel like an eternity. Refugees are generally barred from working and often survive doing back-breaking black-market labor or sex work. One sign of how at risk they feel is that all of those who spoke to BuzzFeed News for this story asked to be identified by their first names or nicknames. Many — especially trans people who stand out on the street — will be victims of hate crimes from Turks or other refugees who come from the very countries they are fleeing, according to the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration (ORAM), which advocates on behalf of LGBT people.
UNHCR-Turkey now reports 700 LGBT people in its system, but ORAM believes there are many more who don’t know they can seek asylum on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity or are too afraid to out themselves. In 2014, UNHCR asked the governments that resettle refugees from Turkey to consider the cases of 227 LGBT people, most of whom were from Iran.
The process for resettlement is well known to Iranian LGBT people because most have friends who have gone through it in the past several years. But it’s newer for Syrians, who just began to seek asylum in large numbers since the start of the war. Before the conflict began, the Assad regime was brutal with political opponents, but it was secular and didn’t seek out LGBT people for harassment the way authorities do in places like Iran. What primarily makes Syria dangerous for the LGBT people now arriving in Turkey is Assad’s loss of control in much of the country to the Islamist rebels trying to overthrow him.
LGBT Syrians arrive along with millions of other Syrians — from both sides — fleeing the fighting. Their vulnerability gives LGBT refugees a path to resettlement that most other Syrians won’t be able to access, but they must go through a process that often feels incomprehensible and capricious.
Refugees bound for the U.S. — which takes the lion’s share of refugees resettled from Turkey — will generally pass through five different stages each requiring a new interview. Months can pass between each step without word on the real status of their cases, and there is little support if they can’t find somewhere to sleep, face a medical emergency, or are assaulted. There are precious few resettlement slots: The U.S. resettled just 5,162 refugees from Turkey in the last year. (Fewer than 100 of all refugees resettled in the U.S. in that period identified themselves as LGBT.)
Many advocates who work on LGBT asylum issues say they believe UNHCR’s staff is genuinely committed to getting these refugees out as fast as possible. But, said ORAM’s Neil Grungras, the system itself is “bureaucratic and inefficient from the get-go” — and now the agency’s 330 staff members in the country are completely overwhelmed as the total numbers seeking asylum in Turkey climb past 2 million.
“The system is failing them,” Grungras said. “The people who are truly vulnerable aren’t being whisked out of harm’s way soon enough.”
This is what that failure looks like.
Istanbul has become an increasingly important safe haven in recent years as other cities — like Cairo and Beirut — have become ever more dangerous for LGBT people.
Back in June, Nader, a bushy-bearded 26-year-old Syrian, helped organize about 100 Arab refugees to turn out for the city’s 13th annual pride march, exhilarated at the chance to celebrate with tens of thousands of people. They carried signs like "Stop the persecution of gays in the Arab world" and "Your life isn't worth more than mine."
So it felt like a deep betrayal when local officials banned the march at the last minute and police turned tear gas, plastic bullets, and water cannons on participants. (Turkish LGBT activists are not sure why the event was shut down after years without incident, but it fell during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and came in the wake of a defeat at the ballot box for the party of Turkey’s Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.)
“I thought we were safe, but the police were attacking us and the people just watching,” said Nader. “That was my last straw with being here.”
Nader had worked hard to build a life in Istanbul since arriving in June 2014. He had started a weekly support group for Arabic-speaking LGBT refugees called Tea and Talk, drawing people from as far apart as Morocco to Iraq. He had also fallen in love with a sweet-faced 21-year-old from Damascus named Omar, moving in with him a couple months after they first met in one of Istanbul’s best-known gay clubs in December. They set up house just before Valentine's Day.
Istanbul was the last stop for Nader on a four-year exodus since he left his native city of Homs, Syria, for good in August 2011, five months after the uprising against Assad began. He grew up in a Sunni family in the Bab al-Sibah neighborhood, which was the frontline in sectarian fighting with members of the city’s Alawite community before the conflict became a full-fledged civil war. The city was wracked by a cycle of killings between the two communities, and many of Nader’s childhood friends gravitated to Sunni militias.
One day, a close friend took Nader to see a house in Homs where a massacre had taken place and showed him the remains of a group of Alawites. “We’re taking our revenge,” he said. Horrified at what his friends were becoming, and scared they would come for him because of his sexuality, Nader moved to Damascus immediately.
“I used to have a wild sex life in our neighborhood.”
Nader had actually fooled around with some of those friends now fighting with groups morphing into the Islamist rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra. “I used to have a wild sex life in our neighborhood,” he said, and he never really hid that he was gay as he became an adult.
Once behind the lines of President Assad’s forces in Damascus, he even told an old hookup buddy turned rebel fighter on the phone that he was “gay for sure.” A few days later he learned that the friend reported the conversation to his group’s imam, who proclaimed it debauchery and said “the Islamic rule for it is throw him from off of the high building.”
So when anti-Assad fighters successfully attacked the Al-Midan neighborhood in the heart of the Damascus in January 2012, Nader made plans to go to Cairo.
But Cairo proved not to be very welcoming either, and he said he was twice beaten up in the streets during his year there, caught up in the unrest amid mass protests that gripped the city during the one-year presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi. Next he tried Amman, Jordan, but discovered the city was awash in Syrian rebels fleeing Assad’s forces, including some who looked familiar from Homs.
In June 2014, one of them recognized him and tried to grab him on a street in the city center.
“You are the faggot — we captured you!” Nader remembered the man shouting. “You escaped from Syria so you think you are safe right now. [But] we will fuck you, we will kill you!”
The yelling drew a crowd, and Nader managed to shake him off in the commotion. Two days later he bought a ticket to Istanbul, and went to the NGO registering new cases for resettlement to North America or Europe, the Association for Solidarity with Asylum-Seekers and Migrants (ASAM).
Earlier this month, Nader finally got a call from UNHCR that Norway had agreed to take him. He will probably be moving within six months. There was only one problem: It would mean leaving his boyfriend almost entirely alone.
Omar’s resettlement petition appeared to have gotten stuck in a personnel shake-up at ASAM. Though he’d registered in June, he had to essentially re-do his first interview with a caseworker three months later because the official he spoke to the first time had left the job without forwarding his paperwork to UNHCR. (ASAM did not respond to messages seeking comment for this story.)
The pair spoke to BuzzFeed News hours after they learned Nader would be going to Norway, and Omar’s eyes were visibly red from crying. They had thought about sending Omar on the boats but they were afraid he would be detained by authorities before reaching Norway. They even had a long-shot idea about going to Brazil — the only country they said they had found that performs same-sex marriages and grants visas to Syrians — to get married in order to enable Nader to bring Omar as a spouse.
“He’s leaving and we don’t know when we will meet again,” Omar said.
They were basically considering anything they could think of so they wouldn’t have to rely on UNHCR.
“I don’t trust them,” Nader said.
This is the bureaucratic maze that generally awaits refugees seeking resettlement from Turkey — if they don’t run into any problems:
Most start by giving a basic outline of their story to ASAM. They’re also supposed to register with the Turkish government, which will assign those in UNHCR’s resettlement process to remote “satellite cities” where they must regularly appear at a police station to prove they haven’t left. (Generally only Syrians, to whom the Turkish government have given special status, can choose to live in large cities like Istanbul.)
ASAM refers eligible cases to UNHCR, and refugees can wait months or years to be summoned for a “pre-interview,” where they’ll give the in-depth version of their stories and submit any corroborating documents: medical records of assault, threatening messages from family members, arrest records. Next they have the UNHCR “interview,” where they tell their story in yet more detail — the appointment can take a full day or require a second interview.
If UNHCR decides to grant them refugee status and refer them for resettlement, the agency will have a short conversation with each of them about where they want to be resettled, though the decision depends almost entirely on which countries have open slots at the time and not on their preference.
Most will go to the U.S., so they will next be interviewed by the International Catholic Migration Commission, the contractor processing refugee cases for the U.S. Then they are interviewed again by a “circuit rider” from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on one of their periodic visits to Istanbul — that person goes over their story again from beginning to end primarily to check that they are eligible to be resettled under U.S. law. Then their personal information is sent to other U.S. security agencies to look for red flags like service in a hostile military or support for blacklisted groups, which would disqualify them for a visa. Advocates say cases can wind up on long holds even if relatively minor questions about their record are raised.
If they get final approval, they wait for an agency in the U.S. to agree to handle their resettlement and wait to be given a spot on flights purchased by the International Organization for Migration. They are forbidden from flying on their own if they find an earlier flight, and are required to start repaying the full fare in installments six months after arriving in the U.S. Before their flight date, they also must secure an exit permit from the Turkish government.
"It is truly a challenge," said Veysel Essiz, senior program officer at Refugee Rights Turkey. "You flee your own country to find at least some safety, but the feeling that the overwhelming majority of refugees in Turkey have is that they will be in limbo for eternity."
The wait in Turkey can be dangerous, especially for those who don’t manage to learn Turkish and so wind up more dependent on other refugees to share housing and navigate day-to-day life. And those who are visibly queer often worry about being assaulted.
Reza, a 34-year-old gay Iranian who wears makeup and has feminine mannerisms, told BuzzFeed News he was head-butted by a man on the street in the southeastern Turkish city of Denizli where he is living while waiting for resettlement. He said he came to Turkey after being beaten, sexually assaulted, and detained by police on several occasions, and now is too afraid to leave his apartment in Turkey alone.
“He beat me because I had red lipstick on,” he said of the December 2014 attack.
Refugees who find themselves living in enclaves with others from their home country — often the only way they can find housing — regularly find the same kind of threats they fled have followed them.
But even those who could pass as straight put themselves in danger when they try to live a relatively normal life. Ahmad, a slight, 23-year-old Syrian who wears a fedora and smokes a Sherlock Holmes pipe, told BuzzFeed News he was forced to share an apartment with Syrians who had fought for al-Nusra and would make jokes about ISIS executing gays — a situation several gay Syrians in Istanbul have encountered.
He arrived in Istanbul in April and said he was assaulted for the first time in June. He got jumped by a group of Syrians outside his apartment building — they had apparently seen him hanging out with some gay friends in the central shopping district.
“You gays put us all to shame.”
“Did you finish hooking up with your friend?” he remembered them saying before they jumped on him. “You gays put us all to shame.” Photos from the incident, which he submitted to ASAM to demonstrate the danger he is in in Istanbul, show his face purple and swollen.
He was attacked again about a month later — this time by a friend of a friend he thought he was meeting for a date — and he said that if it happens again, it would be “the next level” and he would be killed. If he had the money, he would be on a boat to Europe despite the risk of drowning and rumors he’s heard about smugglers killing refugees and selling their organs.
“It is dangerous, but it’s better than me staying here,” he said.
It’s been six months since he registered and he’s heard nothing from UNHCR. He is also worried that he’ll be sent to the U.S. while he is desperate to get to Germany.
That’s where he believes he will “find the first love of my life,” a man named Mohammed.
They had dated for four months in Damascus six years ago, when Ahmad was around 17. Ahmad came to Turkey carrying dried flowers — which now have withered to just a stick and bundle of grass — that Mohammed had given him on the day they first had sex. But not long after, Ahmad lost his cell phone when he was mugged, and he hadn’t memorized Mohammed’s phone number nor even knew his last name — it was not uncommon for people who were afraid of being outed to keep their family names secret from each other when they began dating.
“After that, I didn’t know anything about Mohammed,” Ahmad said.
But he knew Mohammed had a brother in Germany, and they had fantasized about traveling there at a time “when there was no war or anything called a refugee.”
“My inner feeling is that [Mohammed] is in Germany, and I’m going to find him,” Ahmad said.
Ezeddin Fadel contributed to this report.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on August 25, 2015, at 5:36 p.m. ET
After more than six months in prison, several rounds of torture, and two hospitalizations for his injuries, Alieu Sarr fled his country by boat under cover of night late last month.
Sarr was arrested last fall, alongside at least 15 others, by security forces controlled by Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, one of the world’s most ruthless dictators. Jammeh had launched a new witch hunt in the months following the August adoption of a law that would punish “aggravated homosexuality” with life in prison.
Most of those with whom he was arrested were released after short detentions, but Sarr and two other men were held to face charges. They were paraded before the media by security officials as Jammeh repeatedly made public pledges to execute LGBT people, including promising in a May speech to slit the throats of homosexuals. “No one will ever set eyes on you again, and no white person can do anything about it,” Jammeh vowed.
In a phone interview from Senegal’s capital, Dakar, Sarr told BuzzFeed News he was sure he would die, as dozens reportedly have while detained by the National Intelligence Agency. But in a final court hearing on July 28, the man he says tortured him and then fabricated a confession denied any knowledge of the investigation. Sarr and another were released; the third is out on bail and still facing charges.
Sarr said his acquittal felt like God had directly answered the prayers he would recite every time he went to court. But his tale — from mysterious arrest to arbitrary acquittal — is a parable of just how tenuous life is for the roughly 2 million people who have lived under Jammeh’s capricious and iron-fisted rule since 1994.
It also shows how lives are ruined even when people like Sarr survive police brutality and a corrupt judiciary. Sarr arrived in Dakar, the nearby capital of Senegal, just as eight people were sentenced there for homosexuality, including one well-known journalist. Sarr, who is sheltering with a friend who fled as soon as he learned Sarr had been arrested, is afraid to even go outside.
“Senegal and Dakar are the very same” as in the Gambia, he said. “My life is not safe in the whole of Africa.”
Sarr was in a taxi heading home from dinner with a friend on the night of Nov. 9 when two officers pulled him out of the vehicle. He didn’t know why he had been detained until he arrived at the headquarters of the National Intelligence Agency, the security force that reports directly to Jammeh.
“My life is not safe in the whole of Africa.”
“We know you are homosexual — everyone told us about you,” he remembered the agents telling him. He said they gave him a choice: “If you want [us] to deal with you easily, you will call the names of homosexuals, because you know their names and we want to get them all.”
This was not the first time Sarr had been arrested. He was taken into custody back in 2012, the last time there was a mass arrest of people alleged to be LGBT, which began with a raid on a party. Sarr faced harassment — including from his family and people on the street — so relentless in the years since that he was forced to shut down his small business selling shrimp from a bucket in a local market.
Sarr’s lawyer told BuzzFeed News that a security agent who testified at Sarr’s trial said he was arrested under “directives that certain people were engaged in homosexual activity,” but declined to say where the directive had come from.
“Anybody who knows me in Gambia, they know that I am homosexual,” Sarr said. “Everyone [is] against me [because] they say that this is a Muslim country. It’s very hard for me.”
After he was arrested, Sarr said he was tortured between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. every night for the next eight days. He described how officers would pin him to a table and beat him with a fan belt from a car, or beat his hands with a ruler. Exhausted from the ordeal, he said he finally told the officers “about my story,” but he refused to give them names of other gay people. He believed the stakes were life or death — there were rumors that anyone the security services caught “making the homosexual act” would be fed to crocodiles, Sarr said.
“They were trying to get it by my mouth. I told them I don’t know any homosexuals in the Gambia,” he said.
So the officers turned to his phone and his Facebook account, Sarr said. They claimed some of his contacts were boyfriends. They also found he was connected with Gambian dissidents now in exile, and they claimed he was giving information to Jammeh’s political enemies.
On Nov. 17, the interrogations ceased and he was transferred to a high-security wing at Mile 2 prison, which houses the most dangerous prisoners as well as prisoners in cases of special interest to the regime. Sarr was held in isolation most of the time, while continuing to bleed from internal injuries inflicted during his torture. When he was hospitalized for his injuries in January, he was held under heavy guard at the private block of the Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital, where other prisoners had died under mysterious circumstances while in custody.
A witness, who asked not to be named out of fear of retribution from the Jammeh regime, told BuzzFeed News at the time about seeing Sarr coughing up blood in the hospital while repeating, “‘I know I’m going to die.”
Three weeks later, Sarr was sent back to prison, and then to the hospital again in April, where he stayed for two months. “I was bleeding in my mouth, in my nose. I was bleeding seriously,” Sarr said.
Sarr’s account is backed up by his lawyer, but it could not be independently verified. The Jammeh regime keeps a tight grip on information in the country — including arresting and allegedly assassinating journalists — and it has intensified security since a failed coup attempt this winter.
But human rights groups have documented similar cases.
Amnesty International first told BuzzFeed News in mid-November that it had received reports that police were running a “well organized operation” attempting to identify and arrest LGBT people. Fatou Camara, Jammeh’s former press secretary who became a human rights activist when forced into exile in 2013, said at the time that she had spoken to a source in the intelligence service who said the agency had compiled a list of 200 people targeted for arrest. According to one lesbian who fled to Senegal as the arrests began, in some cases police visited their homes in the company of a 17-year-old boy, the youngest arrested in the sweep, who they believe was tortured into naming others.
Even in a country where the regime has arbitrarily detained — or killed — scores of people, this wave of arrests was unusual. Since seizing power in 1994, Jammeh generally targeted political opponents, not specific minority groups. Also unusual was the fact that forces known as “Junglers” or “Black-blacks” (because they dress all in black and cover their faces), which are essentially Jammeh’s personal secret police feared for their role in tortures and disappearances, were involved directly in the roundup.
But as the United States and European powers pressed countries like Uganda to drop sweeping new laws criminalizing homosexuality, Jammeh appeared to see a political opportunity to curry favor internally by burnishing his Muslim bonafides and justify the Gambia’s increasing status as an international pariah. Just weeks after Uganda’s Constitutional Court struck down the newly adopted Anti-Homosexuality Act in August 2014, the Gambia adopted a law closely modeled on Uganda’s which included a life sentence for “aggravated homosexuality,” defined as including cases like when someone repeatedly has same-sex intercourse, when the accused is HIV positive, or when the accused has sex with a minor.
In December, Sarr and two others were formally charged with full media coverage, the apparent show trial that would be the culmination of Jammeh’s growing anti-LGBT campaign.
Nearly eight months after he was first arrested, Sarr’s case had its final hearing on July 28. By then he’d developed a special prayer he would recite before each hearing: “God, help me when Seedy Camara comes.” Camara was the officer Sarr said interrogated and beat him, and his testimony could put him away.
Sarr’s lawyer, Aji Kombeh Gaye, is still mystified about what happened when Camara took the stand that day. She told BuzzFeed News that Camara “refused to have anything to do” with the “confession” that prosecutors had submitted as evidence, which bore Camara’s signature as the officer who wrote it down.
“We don’t know why he turned around and denied it,” Gaye said.
Sarr and another person charged in the case, Morr Sowe, were immediately released. The case of a third person still facing charges from the sweep last fall, Modou Lamin Bittaye, is still pending. His family had been able to secure bail for him, and so his case was not moving with the same urgency of Sarr and Sowe, whose lawyers were trying to them get out of prison.
Sarr had been unable to work since his first arrest in 2012 and survived largely on gifts from human rights activists living in exile. This time, he could see no way to stay in the Gambia, and three days after he was released by the court in the capital of Banjul, he began his journey to Senegal. He posed as a fisherman and took a small boat out on the Atlantic Ocean, crossed into Senegalese waters, and then slipped ashore. He finally made it to Dakar, about 100 miles north of Banjul, two days after leaving the Gambia.
Once there, he was taken in by Amadou Jallow, another Gambian who had been arrested alongside Sarr in the 2012 sweep and fled to Senegal by car in November 2014 when he learned Sarr had been rearrested. Jallow was surviving by washing dishes at a neighborhood restaurant, even saving a little bit of money.
Jallow has since spent those savings on Sarr’s medical costs, he told BuzzFeed News. Sarr still has coughing and internal pain from the beatings, as well as some kind of rash that Jallow says look like chicken pox. Fatou Camara, the Gambian activist now living in the United States, has set up a fundraising campaign to help Sarr get treatment.
Jallow’s meager salary, just under $2 per day, now supports them both. With the recent arrests in Senegal of alleged homosexuals, they agree that it’s too dangerous for Sarr to be in public. “He’s too feminine,” Jallow said. “Whenever he goes out people know he’s gay.”
They are petitioning for asylum through the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees with the hope that they will eventually be resettled someplace like the U.S. or Europe. But they have very little hope that will happen soon — they have heard rumors that some people wait 20 years in Senegal before being resettled.
“I want to do my life how I want to do my life … to be happy,” Sarr said. He hasn’t been happy since his first arrest in 2012, and now he feels imprisoned in the small compound where Jallow lives in Dakar.
“If I go outside, they say that this is [a] homosexual. That’s why I hide here, in one compound, till God comes to help me,” Sarr said.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on June 29, 2015, at 8:58 a.m. ET
SEOUL — The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that same-sex marriage is a question of basic equality before the law is not only the end of the long political battle in the U.S., but is also a tipping point in the global conversation over whether LGBT rights are human rights.
This is not because the United States has raised the bar of what LGBT equality means — it is well behind more than 20 countries in Europe and Latin America in crossing the marriage equality finish line. Nor is it because now that the U.S. has accepted marriage equality, the rest of the world will follow — the wave of anti-LGBT legislation adopted in countries like Uganda and Nigeria in 2014 were in part a reaction to marriage wins in the West, and some countries may intensify their anti-LGBT rhetoric in response to this decision.
But once its full implications are understood, the decision will push the global debate over what it means for countries to fully protect the human rights of gays and lesbians into a new phase. Before the Obergefell decision, even many campaigners trying to get international human rights institutions to treat LGBT rights kept marriage at an arm's length out of fear that asserting it as a fundamental right would intensify opposition to any LGBT rights protections in many parts of the world. After Obergefell’s statement that this is a clear question of equality for gays and lesbians, it seems impossible to exclude partnership rights from the list of fundamental rights that same-sex couples are entitled to regardless of what country they live in.
You won’t hear many LGBT rights organizations saying this, at least not yet — the reality of the decision is still sinking in, and those organizations based in the U.S. and Europe that work globally have treaded carefully or steered clear on this issue for years. But the U.S.’s own trajectory on marriage equality — and the personal trajectories on the issue of President Barack Obama and his first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton — make it clear why it seems impossible for it to stay on the margins.
Obama and Clinton were the essential figures for making LGBT rights a serious part of the global human rights discussion. Before Obama took office in 2009, the U.S. was one of the most important opponents in blocking an LGBT rights push at the United Nations. In 2011, the U.N. Human Rights Council passed its first resolution addressing LGBT rights with U.S. support, and Clinton gave what was considered a groundbreaking speech in which she declared, “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”
But at the time, Clinton herself was on record as opposing marriage equality. So was President Obama, who announced his support for marriage equality only six months before the 2012 election. It would be hard for the U.S. to endorse anything that suggested marriage was a universal right in 2011 — far more U.S. states banned recognizing same-sex couples’ marriages than established marriage equality.
So when the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released its first global survey of LGBT rights — a report ordered by the 2011 resolution — it barely considered partnership rights, focusing instead on the criminalization of same-sex relationships, free speech rights for LGBT activists, and hate crimes.
This sometimes put U.S. diplomats in awkward situations as the global battles over marriage equality intensified at a breakneck speed. Ahead of a 2013 vote on a marriage equality ban in Croatia, for example, the State Department’s then-top officer for human rights, Uzra Zeya, said in a press conference at Europe’s largest annual gathering of LGBT activists that “the U.S. government does not advocate for or against same-sex marriage in other countries.” Instead, she said, it limits its promotion of “rights for LGBT persons” to countering criminalization of “LGBT status,” combating hate crimes, and “other core issues.”
When asked by BuzzFeed News why she said marriage was not a “core issue” for LGBT rights, she said, “I’m not saying it’s not a core issue. I’m just telling you what our focus is.”
In less than two years, the State Department went from the confused position Zeya presented to a strong statement from Secretary of State John Kerry, thanks to the clarifying effect of Obergefell.
“The Court’s decision also sends a clear message to every corner of the globe: no law that rests on a foundation of discrimination can withstand the tide of justice,” Kerry said in a statement released following the judgement’s announcement. He also noted that he’d recently appointed “the first-ever Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons, Randy Berry” — himself a married gay man with two children — “who is fighting every single day so that people all over the world have the rights they deserve.”
The U.S.’s symbolic status and soft-power clout has given its steps toward marriage equality huge weight even though it has never been at the vanguard. The first European nation to establish marriage equality, the Netherlands, passed its law in 2000, and today the only two major EU members in Western Europe without marriage equality are Germany and Italy. In the Americas, marriage equality has been the law in Canada since 2005, in Argentina since 2010, and in Brazil since 2013. Mexico’s Supreme Court has been ruling state bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional since 2012, taking an additional important step toward establishing universal marriage equality earlier this month.
And the global impact of Obergefell is so significant in part because the conversation has already progressed so far in other corners of the globe. In some ways, the symbolism of Ireland becoming the first nation in the world to enact marriage equality by popular vote in May was more powerful than Obergfell in countries like Australia or Italy — the lopsided vote refuted the argument from conservatives that marriage was being imposed by ruling elites over the will of the people. And the shift at U.N. was detectable weeks before Obergefell — in his 2015 version of the LGBT human rights report, the high commissioner for human rights said partnership protections were necessary to protect gays and lesbians’ human rights.
More countries could very well enact marriage equality before 2015 is over. Opposition parties in Australia began making a serious push for a vote on a marriage equality law following the Irish vote, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott has shown signs that he might allow members of his ruling coalition to vote for it despite his personal opposition. The proposal’s sponsors are expecting a vote to happen this fall.
The U.S. Supreme Court decision may have its most direct impact in Colombia, which has a marriage equality case currently pending before its constitutional court. Colombia and the U.S. are joined under the human rights system of the Organization of American States, and the Colombian court takes into consideration foreign rulings (even though the United States explicitly does not follow foreign precedent).
Mauricio Albarracín, head of the Colombian LGBT rights group Colombia Diversa and an attorney who has worked on the litigation, told BuzzFeed News that, just as the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1955 ruling on racial discrimination in Brown v. Kansas Board of Education has influenced law throughout Latin America, Obergefell “is a beacon for our national debates [on marriage equality]."
Of course, the number of countries that have marriage equality are still a small minority — just over 20, as compared to the around 80 countries that criminalize homosexuality. They are overwhelmingly concentrated in the Americas and Western Europe, lending ammunition to LGBT rights opponents in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe who say they’re standing up for national customs against “cultural imperialism” from the West. The celebrations in Ireland and the United States feel very far away in countries like Morocco, where two men were sentenced to jail on charges of embracing in public, or Turkey, where police shut down a pride march on Sunday with tear gas and water cannons.
“Maybe Korea will follow the U.S. ruling, but never in our time,” a 22 year-old student named Jang Hyun-joon told BuzzFeed News on Sunday at a pride march in the South Korean capital Seoul, which was almost banned in the face of opposition from Christian groups.
But the ground for the debate has shifted, and it could change faster than even people like Jang expect. A BuzzFeed News/Ipsos poll conducted this spring found 53% of South Koreans support legal protections for same-sex couples. And the country’s best known politician, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon — who polls show would easily be elected if he decided to run for president of South Korea in 2017 — sounded an awful lot like John Kerry when he spoke about the Obergefell decision on Friday.
The ruling “marks a great step forward for human rights in the United States,” Ban said during a ceremony in which he was presented a medal for his work promoting LGBT rights. “When the time comes to look back on my tenure, I will feel enormous pride in the fact that I have been the first U.N. secretary-general to push hard for equal rights and respect for LGBT people around the world.”
Obergefell is a turning point for the LGBT movement, not only because the United States has crossed what many now view as the clearest litmus test over whether LGBT people are equal citizens. It will change how LGBT rights campaigners talk about their own agenda on the global stage.
It’s hard to imagine any politician — or government — maintain that marriage equality is not a “core issue” while maintaining that “gay rights are human rights” ever again.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on June 4, 2015, at 12:24 p.m. ET
Around the world, being close to someone who has had an abortion makes people substantially more likely to support unrestricted abortion.
That's among the findings about abortion in a new BuzzFeed News/Ipsos poll of 23 nations. We looked at the marriage equality results from the survey in a post last week. In at least 10 of these countries, people who are close to someone who has had an abortion were over 50% more likely to support abortion without restriction.
The survey was conducted online over a two-week period ending May 8. We have the clearest picture of attitudes in 16 countries where the internet is widely accessible because it is possible to get an online sample that is representative of the country as a whole. These are concentrated heavily in Europe and North America. There are obviously large parts of the world that aren't represented in this survey, but unfortunately data collected online in these countries simply wouldn't give us an accurate look at the overall feel of a country because so many people lack internet access or local laws make it hard to poll on social issues.
But we included some data from seven additional countries — Mexico, Brazil, China, South Africa, India, Turkey, and Russia — because they appear to reflect broader public opinion based on comparisons with other public opinion surveys. They're marked with an asterisk as a reminder that these figures may not be truly representative.
This is what we found.
Several countries that we surveyed in Western Europe had widespread support for allowing abortion “whenever a woman decides she wants one” — essentially unrestricted abortion. In other parts of the world, we found widespread support for allowing abortion with restrictions, like in cases of rape or when pregnancy could cause the death of the mother.
Even in countries where opposition to abortion was strongest, a majority still favored allowing abortion in at least some circumstances. Total opposition to abortion was strongest in Brazil*, but even there we only found roughly 18% of our sample saying they believe the procedure should be illegal without exception.
Pollsters have long found that people who know someone who is gay or lesbian makes them much more likely to support same-sex marriage. To test whether there was a similar effect on opinions about abortion, we asked respondents if they had ever had an abortion or if they were “close to someone who has had an abortion.” We found a substantial impact in every country we surveyed — sometimes dramatic ones.
In Russia*, for example, people close to someone who has had an abortion were nearly three times more supportive of unrestricted abortion. In Ireland, Poland and Australia, they were around twice as supportive.
Russia* appears to top this list, probably a reflection of the fact that abortion was used essentially as a form of birth control under communist rule. High numbers in China* are possibly due to the country’s one-child policy, a 1979 law which prohibited families from having a second child. Mothers who became pregnant again were often forced by the government to abort their pregnancy. (The policy was relaxed in 2013 to allow for two children in most households.)
That last chart doesn’t simply reflect how common abortion is in each country — it also hints that in some countries, it’s much more common for women who have had abortions to talk about it.
Compare China* and and the United States, for example: Data from the United Nations shows that about the same percentage of women have had abortions in both countries, around 2% of women of childbearing age as of 2010.
Support for unrestricted abortion is highest in Sweden, France, and Great Britain, ranging from 78% to 66%. But these three countries fall solidly in the middle of the pack when we rank how common it is for people to be close to someone who has had an abortion, ranging from 38% to 31%. This puts them alongside — or even well below — several countries with far more conservative views on abortion where more people report being close to someone who has an abortion.
There may be other factors that explain this — like different ways people interpret the question — but it's notable that these measures don't line up. Mexico* is a particularly interesting example: 39% of people reported being close to someone who has had an abortion, giving it the fourth-highest figure on that question. But it appears to be the second-most anti-abortion country in our study, where more people said they favored a total ban on abortion (16%) than supported unrestricted abortion (14%).
Take a look at South Africa*, where only 21% of people in our survey said they support unrestricted abortion — even though South Africa has one of the most liberal abortion laws in the world. First-trimester abortion has been unrestricted in South Africa since 1996, and second-trimester abortion restrictions are seen as very liberal because they include concerns like mental or socioeconomic harm to the mother from her pregnancy.
Roughly 90,000 women in South Africa had abortions in government clinics in 2012–2013, according to the most recent years of data available from South African health officials, but experts estimate that the real total could be even higher: Around 50% of the abortions performed in South Africa are done illegally, because of backlogs in service at public hospitals.
Ireland’s social policy is in the spotlight after it became the first country in the world to establish marriage equality by popular vote last month. While our poll does not show that Ireland is also moving rapidly to the left on abortion — only 37% of the population currently supports unrestricted abortion — there is a solid majority in favor of allowing abortion in circumstances now prohibited under Irish law.
Ireland had a total ban on abortion before two years ago, when the law was changed to allow abortion only when a mother’s life is in danger. This was the result of a court ruling following the death of an Indian woman named Savita Halappanavar who miscarried and then died in an Irish hospital after being refused an abortion.
In addition to the 37% of people who favor no restrictions on abortion, our survey found 38% of Irish voters said “abortion should be permitted in certain circumstances, such as if a woman has been raped.” Only a total of 15% said they favor the existing life exemption or support a total ban on abortion.
We took a look at this chart in our story last week on global attitudes on marriage equality, but it’s worth another glance. While Catholic countries in the Americas and Europe either have majorities supporting marriage equality or are heading in that direction — with the notable exception of Poland — support for unrestricted abortion remains very low in many of them, especially outside Western Europe. And a couple of countries that appear liberal on abortion — Turkey* and Hungary — don’t show any signs of embracing marriage equality anytime soon.
*The seven countries asterisked throughout this post have too many people without internet access for us to be sure that our online survey was truly representative of the country as a whole. We only included ones where we believe our findings appear likely to still reflect broader public opinion based on data from other sources, but we can’t be 100% sure that the data for these countries are truly representative.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on May 12, 2015, at 9:00 a.m. ET
DUBLIN — In less than two weeks, the Republic of Ireland could become the first country in the world to allow same-sex couples to marry thanks to a popular vote, boosting the marriage-equality movement, which has swept across western Europe.
The latest poll shows 78% of voters in favor of passing the amendment on May 22. That is a staggering number, considering that Irish voters only approved divorce in 1995, and with a margin of less than 1%. It also reflects how diminished the power of the Catholic Church has become over the past 20 years, thanks in large part to devastating sexual abuse scandals that have undermined its moral authority. Catholic bishops have come under fire from some conservative laypeople for not doing enough to stop the referendum, while a few priests have even come out in support of it.
After 20 years of fights in the U.S. and around the world, this is the first time LGBT rights activists have locked horns with conservatives in a battle for the direct support of an entire nation. Several eastern European countries have held referendums to bar same-sex couples from marrying, but Ireland is the first country to ask its electorate to vote on whether to establish marriage equality. A win would counter the criticism from conservatives that marriage equality has been imposed by elites over the will of the people. But a defeat could embolden a growing movement in eastern Europe that wants to enact constitutional bans against marriage rights for same-sex couples.
Paradoxically, the high poll numbers are making Yes campaigners even more nervous. Irish voters have a history of abandoning proposed constitutional changes in the final days of the campaign. And the shadow of California’s Proposition 8 — when voters rejected marriage equality in the state in 2008 after a win seemed likely — looms large.
“Look at how Prop 8 happened — Prop 8 was a slam dunk [for LGBT rights supporters] until the result came in and it turned out it wasn’t,” said Brian Sheehan, co-director of Yes Equality, the campaign group created to get out the Yes vote. The fact that pollsters comprehensively failed to predict the outcome of last week’s general election in the United Kingdom hasn’t boosted their confidence either.
Lampposts across Ireland are plastered with posters representing both sides. The No side says it's printed around 10,000 posters in pink and blue with pictures of babies alongside slogans like “children deserve a mother and father.” Brightly colored signs from the Yes campaign urge people to vote Yes for “a more equal Ireland” and “because marriage matters.” The version in Gaelic translates to “lend me your hand,” a phrase that can both mean asking for help and someone’s hand in marriage.
The Yes campaign has had the upper hand in the debate for months. Backed by every one of Ireland’s political parties, it has been running a bus tour to generate support for the referendum that was recently joined by Ireland’s head of government, Taoiseach Enda Kenny. The Yes campaign has also racked up an impressive list of endorsements from celebrities and athletes, including actors Colin Farrell and Chris O'Dowd, the musician Hozier, and the former captain of the country's rugby team Brian O'Driscoll. Yes Equality is also running a canvassing operation that hopes to knock on all 1.8 million doors in Ireland.
Until recently, the leaders of Ireland’s Catholic Church had done little more than pass a formal declaration in December opposing the referendum. The archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, took a more forceful tone early last week, which he said was in response to criticism from the conservative Catholic press that he “had ‘confused’ the press" with his "attitude to the referendum and had given constant solace to the Yes campaign.” This was followed by a round of statements condemning the referendum from Ireland’s top bishop, Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin, and several other senior bishops in their dioceses over the weekend.
This is quite a reversal for an institution that long dominated family policy. Condoms were not widely available without a prescription in Ireland until 1985, so it was common for women to travel across the border to Northern Ireland — part of the U.K. — to purchase contraception. Sodomy wasn’t decriminalized until 1993, 26 years after it was legalized in England. Voters rejected a referendum to allow divorce in 1986, and it took almost another 10 years before it was finally approved by the narrowest of margins.
The No campaign has mostly been led by a small Catholic think tank, the Iona Institute, and an ad hoc group of conservative newspaper columnists and individuals with little political experience who’ve come together under the name Mothers and Fathers Matter. In addition to organizing the poster campaign, Mothers and Fathers Matter is a clearing house for spokespeople against the referendum for the debates that broadcasters are organizing almost daily.
The tactics of the No campaign — which is built around the argument that children will be harmed if same-sex couples are allowed to wed — look disturbingly familiar for American LGBT rights advocates, who are watching the Irish vote carefully. This is exactly the kind of messaging that ate away at support for marriage equality in the Proposition 8 campaign, and they believe it has the fingerprints of the conservative group that pulled off that upset victory, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM).
“When the other side filed [to name their group] as Mothers and Fathers Matter, that was an instant signal to me that their messaging is 100% from the playbook of NOM and the U.S.,” said Thalia Zepatos, director of research and messaging for Freedom to Marry, an organization established in 2003 to counter the wave of ballot measures in U.S. states to ban marriage equality. Like NOM, she said, Mothers and Fathers Matter was using a “drumbeat of fear-based messaging [about children by the No campaign that] brings the numbers lower and lower and lower.”
The Irish campaign “reminds me more of Prop 8 than any other campaign I’ve seen since then,” said Zepatos.
The No side denies that it is borrowing tactics from California, saying it's learned more from campaigns in eastern European countries like Slovenia in 2012 or Croatia in 2013, where referendums were passed curtailing partnership rights for same-sex couples.
“We wouldn’t be taking too many more lessons from Prop 8 than from elsewhere,” said David Quinn, head of the Iona Institute and adviser to Mothers and Fathers Matter. Quinn, who also writes a regular column in the Irish Independent newspaper, is widely regarded as the savviest campaigner on the No side.
“Obviously the only way two men or two women can found a family is by violating a child’s right to have a mother and a father.”
But the No camp has gotten some input from veterans of the California campaign and other marriage fights abroad. Frank Schubert, the conservative political consultant credited with the Proposition 8 victory, told BuzzFeed News before an NOM rally in Washington earlier this month that he has sent private polling, focus-group work, and other messaging guidance to activists on the No side. NOM President Brian Brown also said he had “talked a lot” to Quinn periodically over the past few years, though they hadn’t communicated in over a year.
They’ve also sought advice from opponents of same-sex marriage in the U.K., Keith Mills, a spokesperson for Mothers and Fathers Matter, told BuzzFeed News last Tuesday. The next day, he said, the group was due to meet with a representative from La Manif Pour Tous, an organization formed in opposition to France’s 2013 marriage equality law that has established itself as an engine for movements opposed to marriage equality across Europe.
“We would take most succor from what happened in Slovenia,” Quinn said, referring to the 2012 referendum that reversed a law passed by parliament extending legal protections to same-sex couples. Opponents have also consulted the leaders of the 2013 campaign that blocked marriage equality in Croatia.
They hear the same advice from campaigners in every country, Quinn said. “The message that comes back all the time, loud and clear … [is] keep talking about the children.” Marriage is inherently bound up with the right to found a family, Quinn argued: “Obviously the only way two men or two women can found a family is by violating a child’s right to have a mother and a father.”
Yes campaigners call this argument a “red herring.” The Oireachtas, the Irish parliament. passed a law last month to expand adoption rights to same-sex couples; a Yes vote in this referendum would do nothing to change that, and they say it would leave existing law on surrogacy unchanged. The country's major children's charities have also endorsed a Yes vote.
Mills and Quinn both said the No campaign had not received any funding from international donors, however. Quinn said the Iona Institute's only substantial international funding has been €24,000 over the past few years from an Italian foundation headed by a former member of the European Parliament, Luca Volonté, who sits on the board of the conservative online campaign platform CitizenGo along with NOM’s Brian Brown. But none of that money has gone to the referendum campaign, Quinn said.
By contrast, the No campaign has been making an issue out of the millions of dollars that have been given to Ireland’s leading LGBT rights organization by the New York-based Atlantic Philanthropies. Atlantic was created by Irish-American billionaire Chuck Feeney in 1982 and has contributed to a range of sectors in Ireland and to LGBT rights causes around the globe. Though Yes Equality says all its funding has been raised from Irish citizens, the No side has been arguing that the vote will be a test of whether “American money [can] buy an Irish referendum.”
Marriage equality campaigners did consult the U.S.’s Freedom to Marry as they were thinking about formulating their campaign, however. Noel Whelan, strategic adviser to Yes Equality, said American advice was especially helpful in learning how to engage people outside the gay and lesbian community about the importance of marriage to same-sex couples.
That hasn’t “directly translated” into an Irish context, Sheehan said, in part because Ireland “never had a culture war” about LGBT rights the way the U.S. did. Most advances for LGBT rights — from decriminalizing sodomy in 1993 to establishing civil partnerships in 2010 — were made in single votes in Dublin and not in a series of state-by-state battles or judicial wins. And this unfolded as economic change transformed Ireland from a society dominated by the church to one that shifted more toward Europe and the U.S. during an economic revolution in the late 1990s.
“Ireland has been on such an extraordinary journey,” Sheehan said. “We want this campaign to be different than any other campaign.”
“I think this is a campaign that we can win, but this is a campaign that we can lose.”
Last week, Ireland’s first openly gay elected official, Sen. David Norris, appeared on one of the constant stream of broadcast debates, which are the primary battleground during Irish campaigns since direct advertising is banned. Norris, a well-known politician who ran for president in 2011, was a leader of the push to decriminalize sodomy in the 1980s.
“This is all about equality — equality and nothing else,” he began, recounting how voting to approve marriage equality would finish the work begun by repealing the sodomy law.
“We cannot win this on our own,” he said. “We are relying on the goodwill, the decency, and the sense of compassion from our heterosexual friends, families, and neighbors ... I want my participation in the Irish family to be recognized once and for all in the constitution.”
Tom Finnegan, an anti-abortion activist representing Mothers and Fathers Matter, countered that existing civil partnerships guaranteed equal rights to same-sex couples. “If we pass this referendum, it will be constitutionally impossible for any Oireachtas ever again to give preference in law for [a child to have] a mother and a father.”
Spokespeople for the Yes campaign spent a great deal of time rebutting these points in the first major round of debates held last week. From their point of view, every second they spend addressing these questions could potentially cost them votes. They believe the No campaign has an easier job than they do — voters don’t have to be against same-sex marriage to vote No; all they need to do is feel unsure to choose to stick with the status quo.
“All [the No campaigners] have to do is confuse,” Tiernan Brady, policy director for the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, told BuzzFeed News at the Yes Equality headquarters last week. The consensus in the Yes campaign office was that their side had been drawn into a shouting match with their opponents in an important television debate the night before.
Nearby, Yes Equality co-director Brian Sheehan was talking on the phone: “I think they can taste a victory after last night.”
It is hard to gauge what impact these debates are having; the poll that found support at 78% was the first released since the formal campaign period began, and pollsters found that 9% of people said they made up their minds only in the past seven days. These voters were split evenly between Yes and No.
But this is so out of sync with the experience of past referendums — where support for an amendment would already be dropping two weeks before the vote — that the Yes supporters think they must just not be picking up what's actually going on in the electorate.
On a canvas the following evening in an upscale neighborhood in southern Dublin, volunteers for the Yes campaign routinely heard the arguments about parenting No campaigners had been making on television from people who said they were leaning against the referendum.
“We’re listening to the debate on the television and on the radio,” said one undecided voter. “Personally, I have problems around the whole surrogacy and the unintended consequences around things that haven’t happened yet.”
He’s exactly the kind of voter the Yes campaign is worried about. It fears more like him could begin having reservations now that the campaign is entering the key period when Irish voters typically decide their vote.
"I think this is a campaign that we can win, but this is a campaign that we can lose," said Kieran Rose, who founded the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network in 1988 to work on repealing the sodomy law and is now campaigning for marriage equality. "We're keenly aware of that."
May 15, 2015, at 1:12 p.m.
The Gay and Lesbian Equality Network was founded in 1988. A previous version of this article misstated the date.