Last updated on November 10, 2018, at 12:21 p.m. ET
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on November 10, 2018, at 9:32 a.m. ET
RIACE, Italy — Domenico Lucano just wants the world to leave him alone.
Lucano is the mayor of a tiny medieval village, near Italy’s southern tip, that he saved from extinction by welcoming hundreds of refugees. Today he’s in demand from progressives around the world, a symbol of the resistance to the global rise of the far right and anti-immigration sentiment. On Saturday, he was a star speaker at a rally of tens of thousands of people against anti-immigrant legislation in Rome.
But he's not enjoying the attention.
“Enough! Everybody wants my attention — I might as well kill myself at this point!” Lucano shouted through a scratchy apartment building intercom when BuzzFeed News tracked him down one evening last week. “Everyone is using me... Nobody ever cared about the refugees and now, here you are. I am bitter. About everything.”
Lucano’s town, Riace, started welcoming the refugees sailing to Italy more than 20 years ago. But he really grabbed international attention at the height of the refugee crisis in 2016. He was celebrated by Fortune magazine as one of the “World’s Greatest Leaders,” visited by countless reporters, and praised by the pope. More than 300 communities in Italy and beyond now run their own programs to integrate immigrants on what’s become known as the “Riace model.”
“Everyone is using me... Nobody ever cared about the refugees and now, here you are. I am bitter. About everything.”
But his life’s work is about to be erased by the star of Europe’s nationalist movements, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. Salvini became Italy’s dominant politician by using social media to turn the country’s politics into a constant shouting match over immigration, and has permanently cut off funding for Riace’s programs. He’s on the verge of passing sweeping anti-immigrant legislation that could gut similar initiatives across Italy and lead to thousands of deportations.
Salvini pounced on Riace in October, just after prosecutors presented charges against Lucano including mishandling town contracts and “facilitating illegal immigration.” Lucano’s allies say the prosecution is politically motivated and a judge tossed out the most serious allegations. But the court barred Lucano from entering Riace, using a provision usually reserved for cases of Mafia corruption or harassment.
“I wonder what … all the do-gooders who want to fill Italy with immigrants are thinking now,” Salvini said when posting the news on Twitter.
Italy’s left was shattered by the last election, and there are no credible politicians on the national stage who can take Salvini on. Many are looking to Lucano to fill that void. But Lucano doesn’t want to be a martyr for the left. And he couldn’t out-shout Salvini if he tried — the minister has more than 3.5 million followers on Facebook, while Lucano has scarcely posted to social media in the past three years.
When he finally sat down for an interview, the calls only stopped coming when his cellphone died. He lost his temper with one caller, who wanted him to attend a rally later this month 300 miles away.
“I am not angry with you — I am angry with myself,” he quickly apologized. “I am just sick of it all… I know everyone is trying to help, I understand who you are.
“I am called elsewhere, but Riace is failing.”
Lucano briefly slept in his car after being sent into exile, and is now staying in a bare-bones apartment in a nearby town.
His office is a kitchen lit by naked lightbulbs and his desk is a dining table covered by a cloth decorated with farm animals that seems to be straight out of the 1950s. The only food in sight when he spoke with BuzzFeed News was a partly eaten tray of cookies and a bottle of greenish-white citrus liqueur, which — ever the good host — he offered even as he vented his frustration in a mix of Italian and the local dialect.
“I am tired... You see how I live — my bedroom is a disgusting mess,” he said. “I am ashamed to show it to you. This is it, what you see. I have no means.”
“I am called elsewhere, but Riace is failing.”
Riace is in even worse shape. A crowdfunding campaign is underway that has raised almost $350,000 for the town, but it needs more than $2 million to avoid bankruptcy. And hundreds of immigrants relying on the program have no money for food or rent. Their children have stopped going to school because there is no gas for the school bus.
Lucano spoke to BuzzFeed News just after returning from a rally in Milan, an event he’d forgotten about until just hours before he had to be at the airport. The rally had left a sour taste in his mouth, even though he seemed moved that it had brought together factions that hadn’t come together for 20 years. He didn’t say what had upset him, but it might have been that Milan’s mayor, Giuseppe Sala of the center-left Democratic Party, hosted Lucano and then immediately posted an interview on the party’s website saying Italians become racist when “immigrants touch our needs and opportunities.”
He was missed while he was gone. One of Italy’s most respected anti-racism activists showed up in Riace after driving six hours from Sicily. He’d come to invite Lucano to the big protest against Salvini’s policies in Rome. A pair of vacationing environmental activists from Germany also wandered into town to offer their support. Even Lucano’s 92-year-old father, Roberto, said he couldn’t get his son on the phone after he abruptly canceled a lunch date when he remembered he had to fly out the day before.
Roberto is proud of his son, saying he’d always had a passion for social justice. As a teenager, Roberto remembered, the boy had turned down a soccer prize because he believed credit should go to his entire team.
When asked about this story, the mayor said that his morality was shaped even then by a feeling that “we were close to a global revolution.” He keenly remembered the US-backed coup that overthrew Chile’s socialist president in 1973, when he was just 15. Lucano said he is still guided by the words of Che Guevara, “We, unfortunately must feel on our own skin any injustice and humiliation that may happen to any other human being.”
He initially hesitated when asked whether he was so tired that he thought he could quit.
“I do not know — I don’t know anything,” he said, slumping over a pile of folders containing reports of the investigations against him. “I involuntarily became the symbol of the Italian left.”
But he soon recovered his energy and his composure, and his thoughts began to come out in long speeches that referenced radical priests, Malcolm X, and the Beatles. He explained that though Guevara’s words had given him his mission, he had always worried he might not be strong enough to bear the burdens of others.
“It was such a beautiful project and in the past two years it’s gone to shit,” he said. “I’m still trying to figure out what happened.”
Calabria, the region where Riace lies, has always taught people to treat migrants with empathy, Lucano said, in part due to the long tradition of Calabrians crossing oceans looking for work. The numbers who settled in the US helped popularize a regional dish, spaghetti with meatballs. Calabria is said to have been visited by Homer’s Odysseus and at various times sheltered wandering sailors from Greece, Africa, and the Middle East.
There was no grand plan when he decided to begin working with refugees, he said. “I did whatever came naturally to me.”
One of the newer arrivals now depending on Riace is Evelyn Samuel, a 28-year-old from Nigeria’s Delta State, part of a region that has seen decades of fighting over the region’s oil supplies. She spent six years working in Libya before it became too unstable and she decided to get on a boat for Italy with her months-old baby. She was settled in Riace 10 months ago after being rescued at sea by a boat operated by an NGO.
“I don’t know where to go,” Samuel said tearfully in English, calling Lucano by the Italian word for mayor, sindaco. “Salvini don’t like sindaco. Salvini don’t like black [people]. And sindaco like black [people]… Salvini now is chasing us away. ”
Confusion has spread as the program collapsed, and some of the immigrants believe Lucano is to blame for the funding being shut off. Many direct their anger at his partner, a refugee from Ethiopia, believing she manipulated Lucano into playing favorites among the refugees, putting the whole program in danger.
With Lucano in exile, “It’s kind of a desperate situation — no one can fill that void,” said Bahram Arcar, who arrived with the first group of refugees in Riace 20 years ago. He now works for the collective Lucano created to run refugee programs. But with the program out of money, he too will have to leave since he has no way to support his family.
“It was such a beautiful project and in the past two years it’s gone to shit,” he said. “I’m still trying to figure out what happened.”
Arcar arrived in Riace with a group of around 200 refugees in 1998, on a boat that landed on a nearby beach after a dangerous eight-day voyage from the southern coast of Turkey.
They were part of an exodus from Kurdistan, fleeing a civil war between Kurdish factions and efforts by Saddam Hussein to retake a region of northern Iraq that became independent after he was defeated in the Gulf War that ended in 1991. Their arrival in Europe sparked a crisis inside the EU that has many parallels with the one faced by the bloc today, but the players were reversed. Italy, with urging from the Catholic Church, championed the cause of the refugees, while Germany questioned whether a southern European country with such a porous border should be allowed into the EU’s newly created free travel zone.
Lucano, then a teacher in Riace’s school, said the geopolitics were far from his mind when he first heard about the Kurds’ arrival from the local bishop. When the Kurds lost their shelter at a local church, Lucano called his aunt in Argentina and other relatives overseas to ask for permission to put them up in the houses they’d left behind. He’d lined up shelter for 100 people within a few hours, sometimes in houses that had stood empty for 50 years. They sometimes had to break in — keys had disappeared from hiding places on rotted windowsills or crumbling walls — and they scrounged candles for light.
It felt like fate had brought them there, Lucano said. He recalled one of the Kurds telling him, “We are people without a home, and we arrived in a place made of houses without people.”
“We are people without a home, and we arrived in a place made of houses without people.”
Most of the Kurds eventually left to join family in Germany. But Lucano, Arcar, and a few others decided to create a collective, called Future City, to welcome other refugees. They planned to restore buildings, set up apprenticeships with artisans in local workshops, and run small hotels they hoped would draw visitors interested in “ethical tourism.” Soon they got the town involved in a national program called SPRAR focused on vulnerable refugees — like families with children, people with illnesses, and women at risk of being forced into sex work — that specializes in integrating them into communities.
“We wanted this project to become more famous,” Arcar said. “We thought it was important because it would attract tourism, too, because we wanted to make outside money come in. But I thought — and [Lucano] thought too — that it was going to cause problems.”
Images of Afghans, Ethiopians, and Nigerians saving Italy’s ancient heritage seemed to embody all the best of what immigration could be. Projects like Riace were a welcome alternative to Italy’s main refugee system, CARA, in which immigrants are warehoused in isolated camps and often exploited by organized crime.
It seemed to benefit the town’s original residents, too. The school was saved from closure by an influx of new students, historic buildings were restored, and restaurants and grocery stores reopened. Because state money came irregularly, they created a system of IOUs to circulate in town, printing up a town currency with the faces of Nelson Mandela, Guevara, and local activists killed by the Mafia.
Lucano was elected mayor in 2004 on a nonpartisan slate, and he was reelected in 2009 and 2014. Riace first attracted international attention in 2008, when a famous German director made a short film inspired by its immigrants, and in 2010 Lucano was included on a list of the world’s outstanding mayors.
But he became an international symbol at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015 and 2016, when stories began appearing about him in English. Lucano’s fans always mention his inclusion on Fortune’s 2016 list of the “World’s Greatest Leaders,” where is ranked in between a minister of Africa’s largest country and the philanthropist Melinda Gates.
As Lucano and his allies in the refugee rights community see it, this international publicity painted a target on Riace even before populists took power in Italy in 2018. Inspectors first arrived to audit the program in the summer of 2016, just as the then-ruling center-left Democratic Party was getting spooked by an anti-immigrant backlash. The national government soon moved to tighten restrictions on the NGOs rescuing people from leaky boats trying to reach Italy’s coasts, and it sealed a deal with Libya that it hoped would stop immigrants attempting the crossing.
The audit produced a vaguely worded report implying Lucano may have been playing favorites with government money, though it noted that open bidding was difficult in regions where many contractors are in league with the mob.
A follow-up report found no wrongdoing and praised the program as “a model of hospitality,” but the Interior Ministry kept that report secret while a criminal investigation was underway. It also froze payments to the program in 2016, forcing the town to go into debt to keep the program running.
Lucano told BuzzFeed News they had made mistakes as they expanded the program, allowing new groups to run projects that included “people taking advantage.” But Giovanni Maiolo, head of an alliance of communities modeled on Riace called the Network of Townships of Solidarity, told BuzzFeed News the government’s response was like giving someone who ran a red light a life sentence.
“I would have never imagined we would fall into barbaric racism as such only 80 years after the racial laws of the fascist dictatorship.”
By that time, a prosecutor had also brought sweeping charges against Lucano and 35 others for offenses ranging from corrupt contracting arrangements to “facilitating illegal immigration.” Wiretap recordings of his phone were leaked to the press in which he discussed arranging the equivalent of a green-card marriage for a young Nigerian woman, though full transcripts of the conversation also showed he rejected the idea when the proposed husband demanded she have sex with him.
Requests for comment about the investigation sent to Salvini's office and local investigators were not returned.
All this was hanging over Lucano’s head when Salvini entered office in June this year. Just after he took power of the Interior Ministry, Salvini posted a video saying Lucano is worth “zero.”
Alfonso Di Stefano of the Sicilian Anti-Racism Forum, an organizer of Saturday's protest against Salvini’s anti-immigrant legislation, told BuzzFeed News, “Everything is in danger now.”
Salvini is claiming there is a national emergency to bring the legislation to Parliament under special rules, though new arrivals are way down from their peak in 2016. It would dramatically restrict the grounds on which immigrants would be allowed to petition to stay in Italy, and includes a number of other measures to weaken Italy’s asylum laws. Sounding a lot like Donald Trump, Salvini at one point promised the bill would include a provision to impose a curfew on “ethnic stores,” which he called the “haunt of drug dealers and drunks.” He has also pushed legislation making it easier for Italians to buy guns.
“We [have] never reached such a low point,” Di Stefano said. “I would have never imagined we would fall into barbaric racism as such only 80 years after the racial laws of the fascist dictatorship.”
The legislation passed the Senate last week, and it will likely spell the end of programs like Riace by drastically restricting the number of new immigrants eligible for the SPRAR system. Instead of getting support to integrate into the community, even more refugees would be pushed into isolated holding camps. In southern Italy, Di Stefano said, this would be a gift to mobsters, who have embezzled money from camp administrators and profit by serving as brokers who arrange labor on the region’s commercial farms.
If there’s any silver lining, said the Network of Townships of Solidarity’s Maiolo, it’s that Lucano’s arrest has given civil society someone to rally around at “such a black time for human rights.” Though their efforts have only pulled in a fraction of what Riace needs, $350,000 is an unusually successful crowdfunding campaign by Italian standards. And there are other signs of grassroots support for immigrants in Italy. When Lodi, a small northern city, cut many immigrant children from a school lunch program, an online effort raised tens of thousands to feed them for the rest of the year.
“Their faces were different, but it didn’t matter — they were people,”
Lucano is grateful for the support, even though he hates being cast as a David taking on Salvini’s Goliath. But he recognizes that Riace does provide a counter to the “industry of fear for pure political gain” taking hold across the world.
At one point, Lucano broke into a gap-toothed smile and wondered whether Salvini had ever truly listened to John Lennon’s “Imagine.” “John Lennon was one of our heroes back then,” Lucano said, and reminisced about how easy everything was back when they first turned empty houses into shelters.
“Considering how Italy has become today, I would like to try and go back to that simplicity,” he said.
Back when the Kurds arrived in 1998, Lucano had just helped put on a play that imagined Riace down to its final residents in 2020. The town painted a mural of the sea along a road renamed “Utopia Street,” dreaming that those who’d left would one day sail home again. For Lucano, the Kurds appeared as if they were the long-lost residents of Riace who’d simply returned wearing different skins.
“Their faces were different, but it didn’t matter — they were people."
DENIZLI, Turkey — A group of 12 queer Iranians in hiding in Turkey had gathered for a small party on Tuesday night when someone spotted the report that President Donald Trump planned to stop resettling refugees in the United States.
Several of those there that night had been waiting for their US visas, their cases having been referred to the US by the United Nations. Some had already been turned away from other countries. Others were still waiting to find out if they would ever get a ticket out.
All felt their dreams crushed as they heard the news.
“I’m going to die here,” said Hamid, a 36-year-old gay man who fled his home in northern Iran in 2014 and was referred to the US for resettlement in August 2016. He is one of many queer Iranians who have camped out in Denizli, a small textile manufacturing city in southwestern Turkey, to endure the years-long wait for a ticket to the West where they hope to build a new life.
“We are all gonna end up in this fucking Turkey,” said Soheil, a teacher also from northern Iran whose case is under review with the US, in a text message after the news had sunk in the next day. “Trump is signing the law that literally prevents all Iranian asylum-seekers from entering states except religious minorities. It’s hell. It's fucking hell.”
News of the order was first reported by Reuters earlier in the week, but the full details were not clear until President Trump imposed the rule on Friday. He did it through an executive order — not a law — that froze refugee resettlements for 120 days and then will admit only people from countries where cabinet officials certify “sufficient safeguards are in place” to vet refugees. It also suspends resettling Syrian refugees indefinitely, requiring Trump to personally sign off on resuming the program. It also cuts the number of refugees allowed to be admitted to the US in 2017 to 50,000, less than half of the 110,000 allowed under a cap set by President Obama.
The new rules makes clear that Trump could bring an end to the international cooperation that helps refugees reach safety. The US is not just one among many countries that resettles refugees; it has a special role because it resettles far more refugees to its shores than any other country. In 2015, it accepted 60% of all refugees resettled worldwide, according to the UN. Other countries allow much greater numbers of people to remain within their borders who arrive under their own steam, but no country voluntarily resettles more people than the US through the international refugee process.
There had long been bipartisan support in the US for refugee relief until Republicans began objecting to resettling refugees from war-torn parts of the Middle East under President Obama. This backlash helped propel Trump into the White House. Now he is shaking the foundations of the international system that help people fleeing war and persecution reach safety.
“If the US turns its back on refugees, then other countries might cite this as an excuse to ... provide safety to asylum-seekers.”
And it comes as this system is already stressed to its breaking point, confronted with more people seeking shelter than ever before in human history. Almost 65 million people worldwide had fled their homes as of 2015, according to the latest numbers published by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Trump’s order also signals a major shakeup in priorities for the US refugee program if it does resume. Under Obama, the US made a priority of resettling people who were persecuted on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The order from Trump, however, makes a priority of resettling those claiming refugee status on the basis of “religious-based persecution.” This appears to prioritize Christians, allowing for the continued processing of religion-based refugee claims during the freeze on resettlements only in cases where “the religion of that individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.” In other words, a Muslim from Iran might not qualify even if their claim is related to their faith.
The news caused anxiety among refugees throughout Turkey, where around 3 million people are now living after fleeing their homelands. Many who spoke to BuzzFeed News — including some who were in the process to be resettled to the US — appeared to be in denial. It seemed unthinkable to them that one man could bring a process to a halt that had been in the works for years under the auspices of the UN. Many believed Trump would only take action against undocumented immigrants.
“Those things concern the illegal immigrants, not the refugees like us,” said Ana, a lesbian from northwest Iran who was forced to abandon her then 7-year-old son and flee after her brother discovered her in bed with her girlfriend in 2014.
(All of the refugees who spoke to BuzzFeed News asked to be identified only by their first names or nicknames because they feared violence for being identified as LGBT or because they worried about retaliation from migration officials for criticizing the process.)
Nienose, a 32-year-old gay Iraqi who came to Turkey in 2015 and is now in the final stages of being resettled to the US, said, “It seems [Trump] is doing something for which he doesn’t know the consequences.”
Nienose now lives in Sakarya, a city about 100 miles east of Istanbul. It’s the second place he’s sought shelter in Turkey; he said he had to leave Manisa, a city near the Aegean coast, after his Turkish neighbors discovered pictures on his Instagram revealing he was gay “and they attempted to kill me.”
“Maybe Trump would think I ran away because I’m a terrorist or want to do bad things in the USA,” said Nienose. “If I am here [in Turkey] any longer and the USA rejects my case, I believe I may kill myself.”
“Whatever I may do, however good a person I may be — a good citizen — the hosts still do not like me.”
Neil Grungras, executive director of ORAM, an NGO that assists LGBT asylum-seekers, said he believes threats of suicide are credible. There have already been instances of refugees harming themselves after losing hope during the confusing and bureaucratic process to qualify for resettlement. He’s especially worried about refugees like Nienose, who were approaching the end of the process and were expecting to leave for the US very soon and now have no idea about their future.
“Refugees who have just been hanging on waiting to be resettled ... are going to become absolutely despondent — I expect people will commit suicide,” Grungras said.
A major slowdown in resettlements to the US could also have much wider consequences, Grungras warned. Turkey and the EU have been working very hard to try to shut down the sea routes to Europe that have brought more than 1 million people into the EU without permission. In March 2016, Turkey reached an agreement that allows the EU to deport migrants to Turkey, in exchange for cash payments and a commitment to resettle qualified asylum-seekers through legal channels.
But this has increased tension over migrants inside Turkey, and would-be refugees need some level of faith in the legitimate asylum process in order not to attempt the increasingly difficult sea crossing. Even if someone doesn’t want to go to the US — and most LGBT refugees say they prefer Canada or Europe because they fear gun violence, think the US is not LGBT-friendly, and want easier access to health care — most know another refugee who’s gone or in the process of going there. These resettlements were proof the process could work; if that stops, it could cause asylum-seekers to lose faith in the system.
“Turkey is ready to explode, and the refugee program is the pressure release valve — and the US led the system,” Grungras said.
The system is already bursting at the seams, derailing the cases of even the refugees who had the greatest reason to believe in a reliable process.
Two of those in this situation are a couple in their mid-forties from Iran named Alireza and Saeed. They had a comfortable life in the capital, Tehran, living together for 10 years in the building where they ran a graphic design and printing business. Then, around October 2013, Saeed’s brother hacked Saeed’s cell phone and attempted to blackmail him with a private sex video.
They first tried to pay a smuggler who promised to get them British visas, but he skipped town with their money. They then tried to get a Greek visa, but were rejected by the consulate. Finally they decided they needed to take the route familiar to many LGBT Iranians. Most know someone — or at least know about someone — who’s gone to Turkey, claimed asylum on the basis of their sexual orientation, and been resettled in the West, usually to Canada. The whole process usually takes two years, and Alireza and Saeed came to Denizli to wait.
They registered with UNHCR in March 2014, and learned in April 2015 that they had been referred to Canada for resettlement. They heard nothing else for more than a year, though they sent hundreds of emails and called each week trying to get an update. Finally, Alireza said, a UNHCR worker called him in November to say Canada was “closed”; they would not accept their cases after all. Instead, their case would be forwarded to the US, where Trump had just been elected president.
Trump didn’t worry them, they said in an interview on Monday just before news of his planned refugee order broke. “We knew Trump was the new president but that did not do anything to us,” Alireza said. “We are legal immigrants — that does not concern us,” Saeed added.
They were shocked when they learned of the report on Wednesday.
“We've been waiting so long the only hope that if Canada is closed, there was US. What can we do?” said Alireza.
“We feel like unwanted guests,” said Saeed. “Whatever I may do, however good a person I may be — a good citizen — the hosts still do not like me.”
Alireza and Saeed are not the only ones in this situation. Saghi Ghahraman, director of the Iranian Queer Organization, a Toronto-based group that supports asylum-seekers in Turkey with the resettlement process, said she has received more than 30 reports from people whose cases were pending with Canada who were informed their cases would be referred to the US instead.
With Trump in office, Ghahraman warned, “I think they are trapped there in Turkey.”
Neither UNHCR nor Canada’s immigration agency responded to questions about these cases. But migration experts say the global scramble to find spots for the overwhelming population of Syrian refugees has meant it is becoming harder for non-Syrians to be resettled.
“I would not be surprised if Syrians were crowding out Iranians in 2016 as the government was clearly prioritizing Syrians over everyone,” said Howard Anglin, who was chief of staff to Canada’s immigration minister before Justin Trudeau was elected prime minister in 2015.
LGBT Syrians have actually had a relatively quick path to safety in recent months. Many countries have given priority to resettling Syrians in response to public outcry as refugees of a war that’s estimated to have claimed the lives of more than 400,000 people and displaced almost 5 million has reached European shores. And UNHCR considers LGBT Syrian refugees at particular risk of violence in Turkey, especially after a 23-year-old named Wisam Sankari was found decapitated in Istanbul in July.
Since then, ORAM says it has been able to help clients facing threats of violence access a small number of spots UNHCR reserves for “emergency” resettlement that can get them out of the country in less than a year, while the process for people who are not deemed high risk can take many years. Most of these fast-tracked cases go to European countries, because the US’s extensive legal and security reviews are generally considered too slow for urgent situations. The US already maintains some of the most extensive vetting procedures of any resettling country.
But even the European countries that resettle the largest number of refugees take far fewer than the US, which resettled 98,873 refugees from countries around the world in 2016, according to figures from the International Organization for Migration. The UK, which resettled the most refugees of any European nation that year, took just 5,213, and many European countries stopped accepting new cases in 2016, according to ORAM, while there are 1,500 self-identified LGBT refugees in Turkey registered for resettlement.
The best-case scenario for those awaiting resettlement under the Trump order is that the US fully resumes its resettlement program after the 120-day freeze. But even then, there will be 60,000 fewer slots to the United States at a time when millions of people are hoping to be resettled from conflict areas around the world. Canada, which resettled 44,741 refugees in 2016 making it second to the United States in the number of refugees it resettles, was already refusing new cases from Turkey in late 2016.
Australia was the recipient of the third-largest group of refugees in 2016, taking 11,388. The country’s internal politics make it unlikely for it to increase resettlements to pick up the hole left by the US. The issue of resettlement is highly controversial there as well, and the country is locked in a years-long battle over a couple thousand asylum-seekers who are confined to remote Pacific islands after attempting to reach the country by boat.
A US retreat on its refugee commitments could have a domino effect, worries Begüm Başdaş, who works on asylum issues for Amnesty International Turkey.
“If the US turns its back on refugees, then other countries might cite this as an excuse to shirk obligations under international law to provide safety to asylum-seekers," Başdaş said.
And if asylum-seekers lose hope in getting to safety through the official resettlement process, she believes more will risk their lives by crossing the sea in smugglers’ boats.
“If these [international] commitments [to shelter refugees] fail, the refugees who need a better life will do whatever it takes to reach areas where they think it will be safe and a future for their children,” she said. “People will die — that’s what it means in plain English.”
This story has been updated following President Trump signing the executive order on Friday.
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 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 November 11, 2014, at 11:44 a.m. ET
MEXICO CITY — Jefferson's face was covered in fake blood as he talked about leaving El Salvador for the United States after gangs beat him up for wearing women's clothes.
The 17-year-old was wearing a cadaver costume to go trick-or-treating with a group of teenagers on the south side of Mexico City, where U.S.-style Halloween mixes with Mexico's Día de los Muertos. He had also helped build an altar of offerings of food and flowers for the dead spirits believed to visit the living in the first days of November. More than 100 kids also staying in the shelter where he has lived for the past year and a half did the same. Jefferson wore a bright smile under his makeup, running between groups of friends in the auditorium as the offerings were judged.
The shelter was the most stable home the teen — who chose the pseudonym Jefferson to keep his real name private — had known. His mother kicked him out of their home in rural El Salvador when he was 11 because he had started wearing women's clothes. "She realized this is how I was and she beat me, saying, 'I'd rather have a crazy person in my house than a gay one,'" Jefferson said. Jefferson survived as a prostitute on the streets of the capital San Salvador for three months, until his mother got sick with an illness that paralyzed her face and forced him to return home to support her. As her situation deteriorated, his cross-dressing caught the attention of some of the gang members in his neighborhood. Gangs have grown into large organized crime syndicates in Central America over the past 20 years, thanks in large part to the U.S. policy of deporting immigrants who had been part of gangs like MS13 in Los Angeles. The gang members told him they didn't like seeing people like him "contaminating the neighborhood," beat him up, and pressured him into working for them, though he didn't say what work he did.
On Feb. 19, 2012, gang members beat him up yet again. The same night, his mother took herself to the hospital. That's when he decided to head to the United States.
"I decided it was better to get out," he said.
Jefferson decided to make the trip north around the same time more and more kids from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras were doing the same, sometimes at their parents' urging. These three countries alone make up 93% of the more than 60,000 children who attempted to enter the United States on their own in 2014. The explosion in the number of unaccompanied child migrants — rapidly rising from fewer than 20,000 in 2011 — has largely been driven by gang violence, political instability, and extreme poverty within their borders.
Human rights activists say these countries also have some of the highest rates of anti-LGBT violence in the Americas — especially targeting trans women — although comprehensive hate crime statistics are not readily available. The Salvadoran trans advocacy organization COMCAVIS has documented 14 murders of LGBT people this year; 12 were trans women and two were gay men. One survey of trans women in El Salvador found that 87% knew at least one trans woman who had been murdered, and not a single case in which the killers had been arrested.
LGBT kids head north in search of the same stability and security as other migrant children. But they also seek a kind of love and acceptance that seems unimaginable at home.
Jefferson remembered telling his mother as he left, "I am sick of my family. I want a better family."
Jefferson began walking toward Guatemala that night in February 2012 with almost no money in his pockets, "maybe 10 cents." He was vague about what happened before he reached Guatemala, but it took almost a year before he made it out of El Salvador. He said he walked and hitchhiked. Sometimes the truck drivers who gave him rides would also feed him, but he mostly slept on the street.
He had some luck when he entered Guatemala and found someone to take him all the way to the Mexican border in just one day. He slipped into Chiapas and stayed in a shelter for migrants while begging on the street to raise enough money to pay for a seat on the minibuses that transport migrants north to the U.S. He eventually made it on one — but the bus was promptly stopped by immigration police. They told Jefferson they were going to send him back to El Salvador.
Jefferson said he told the officers, "I can't go back to my country because I … faced death threats. ... After what I've done, they're not going to forgive me."
Jefferson had a strong claim against deportation: Both the U.S. and Mexico clearly recognize LGBT people as part of a social group that have grounds for political asylum, unlike people who are fleeing poverty or gang violence. Instead of being sent home, Jefferson's case was referred to the Mexican agency that grants humanitarian visas, known as COMAR, and he was taken to a detention facility in the city of Palenque to wait for their decision.
Advocates say most LGBT migrants don't petition for asylum in Mexico, largely because it doesn't promise the same work opportunities as the U.S., and Mexico also has high rates of anti-LGBT violence. (Advocates who work with LGBT people seeking asylum in the U.S. say that Mexico is among the most common countries their clients are fleeing.) But others simply don't know they have the right to petition or fail to navigate complicated legal processes that even many adults don't understand. Even in the U.S., where there are many programs to connect unaccompanied minors with immigration lawyers, only a relatively small number of asylum cases are filed — less than 3 percent of the children estimated to have entered the U.S. in the past year have petitioned for asylum, according to statistics from the Department of Homeland Security.
And law enforcement can pose special dangers for LGBT migrants. One 16-year-old trans girl from El Salvador who was deported earlier this year after being caught by Mexico City police reported to the El Salvadoran trans rights group COMCAVIS that she was gang raped by officers while in detention. Jefferson also said he was raped during his nearly three months in detention.
Though he was only 15, Jefferson was placed in a facility with adult men and says he was told there were no separate facilities for children. He says there were no guards inside the facility who could protect him; only the perimeter of the facility was guarded. So when he started being harassed, there was no one he could turn to.
"There were two," he said. "One closed the door, and the other…"
He said he tried to tell those in charge what was happening, but "they didn't do anything" except arrange for him to see a doctor and a psychologist and tried to broker a dialogue between him and his attacker. "They told me that he wanted to talk to me, but I didn't want to do it," he said.
Jefferson's story has a mostly happy ending — at least temporarily.
He was ultimately granted the right to stay in Mexico. After nearly three months, COMAR granted him a visa and he was taken to the airport. Those in charge wouldn't tell him where he was going — a technique to ensure that the men who had assaulted him inside the detention center would not be able to find him, he was later told. The flight to Mexico City was the first time he'd been on an airplane. The flight, he said, was "bone-chilling."
They took him to the shelter where he now lives, which houses both Mexican and migrant children who have no homes. It is affiliated with the global organization Covenant House International, but its management has asked that BuzzFeed News not publish its name for Jefferson's security.
Five boys he had met in the detention center were already living at the shelter, and being reunited with them was like coming home — but to a family that actually loved him. "I felt, like, even better than I did with my family, because my family never gave me even a hug or a toy," Jefferson said. Since the group of boys were reunited at the shelter, "we love each other as if we are brothers."
Life isn't perfect there — he has to wear boy's clothes and keep his hair short. A spokeswoman for the shelter said this was for his own safety because "unfortunately Mexican society faces some scenarios which are not LGBT-friendly."
But Jefferson said this "isn't a problem," especially since he's only a year away from being 18, when he will be able to live as he choses. He's been out to the other kids since the day he arrived and never had any problems, he said, and there is at least one other LGBT teen who lives there. Jefferson is finishing high school and studying how to cook, make clothes, and do makeup.
"Overall, I'm doing very well," he said.
When Jefferson becomes an adult in the eyes of the law, he plans to pick up where he left off and finish his journey to the U.S., even though he has a permit to stay in Mexico. If he makes it, he risks being put into a U.S. detention center, where harassment and violence targeting LGBT people has been such a serious problem that a civil rights group filed a mass civil rights complaint against the Department of Homeland Security in 2011. In addition to proving why he can't return to El Salvador, he'll also have to make a case for why he cannot stay in Mexico, because once a refugee is given safe harbor by another country, they're ineligible for asylum in the United States. And while there are many programs to get legal services to child immigrants, adults are not so lucky — they have to find a lawyer on their own, and there's no guarantee of legal representation for people facing deportation the way there is for defendants facing criminal charges.
Jefferson said too much of Mexico is just as dangerous as El Salvador. He also worries that he won't be able to earn enough money there. Despite his harsh words to his mother when he left, he says part of his reason for leaving is that he didn't want her to worry about his problems with the gangs as she struggled with her health. He's hoping that in the U.S., his diploma from the sewing school will let him find "better work [to pay for a] cure for my mother's disease."
But this time, he said, he would be determined to make the trip different than the one that brought him to Mexico City.
"I don't want to go back to what I came from, traveling in a trailer, hitchhiking," he said. "I endured hunger, cold, punches, humiliation from people. I've had enough of traveling by land."
He plans to fly.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on May 5, 2014, at 8:51 a.m. ET
KAMPALA, Uganda — With one of the world's most infamous anti-gay laws, Uganda seems like the last place on Earth an LGBTI person would go seeking safety. But almost 100 LGBTI refugees have sought help from an NGO in Uganda's capital to seek asylum in the country, and there may be many more in the country illegally without seeking formal permission to stay.
Many of them have come during the five years Uganda have been debating its Anti-Homosexuality Act, which originally proposed a death sentence for homosexuality. If they're crossing the border, you can be sure the situations in their home countries are "quite worse than Uganda," said David, who works for an NGO in Kampala that assists LGBTI asylum-seekers. David asked that his real name not be used out of fear for his safety; one of his colleagues was beaten in a supermarket last year over his LGBTI work. He also asked that the organization he works for not be identified out of concern that it could be shut down by the Ugandan government, since the version of the law enacted in February essentially bans LGBTI advocacy as well as imposing up to a lifetime prison sentence for homosexuality.
"There is a common saying, 'If you see a rat running from a bush into a hut that is burning, that means it could be hotter in the bush,'" David said. Some people in neighboring countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo or Burundi are fleeing situations that are so bad that they make Uganda seem safe.
One of these asylum-seekers is a trans man from Rwanda who asked to be identified as Green, because of his love of trees. "I like to be near trees," he said during an interview in Kampala. "They don't have hate, they don't reject me, and if I tell them [secrets], they won't tell everybody."
Green arrived in Kampala four years ago, still recovering from a police beating at his home in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, that was so severe he walks with a crutch to this day. Green grew up largely on the streets after his father turned his back on him when he was a very small child, but he managed to continue his education all the way through university, determined to be an activist for children's rights and the rights of the disabled.
According to Green's account, police showed up at his house a few months after he graduated, accompanied by a neighborhood official, who accused him of recruiting girls into homosexuality even though Rwanda has no law against same-sex intercourse.
"You're a lesbian," Green said the police asserted. "You are teaching people [lesbianism] since your childhood."
When Green denied the accusation, the police officers beat him until he lost consciousness. He ultimately escaped that day, but they hunted him down a few days later and brought him to jail. By twist of fate, one of his former schoolmates was a police officer at the jail, and she arranged for him to escape when he was let out of his cell to go to the bathroom. If he did not flee, the schoolmate warned, he would be sent to the main prison or, more likely, killed.
Green's relatives helped him sneak across the Ugandan border without papers. He made it to the capital, Kampala, and found a place to live. But then, in 2012, his neighbor began threatening to rape and kill him, he said. Green said he managed to fight off the neighbor the first few times he tried to deliver on his threat, but late one November night the neighbor forced his way into the apartment and raped him. As the neighbor left, he described his plan to to kill Green: The next time he would cover himself with HIV-infected blood before raping Green again so that he would contract the virus.
Going to the police was out of the question. Green's short-term asylum status had expired, and he had given up on seeking permanent refugee status because the process was too humiliating and risky — his masculine appearance was in conflict with his female legal name. He couldn't flee to another country because he had no papers and little money. He thought about killing himself.
"I was here in Uganda, but I was in a prison. ... I was not able to open my door at any time," Green said.
After a period of homelessness, he eventually managed to find a new place to stay, far from the rapist neighbor. But now, it is becoming less safe by the day. When he walks down the street, Green says people call him "Obama" — Obama has become a derogatory word for people who support LGBTI rights.
"I think every [day] I can be arrested again or killed," Green said. "There is no life" for him in Uganda, he said.
Surprisingly, LGBTI people could easily register as asylum-seekers with the Ugandan government before the law became law in February. David, the NGO employee, said he knew of at least four cases in the past year in which his clients had even declared they were seeking asylum because of sexual orientation-based persecution and had their petitions granted by the office of the prime minister's office, which reviews asylum claims.
Most of David's clients come from Congo, but also countries like Rwanda and Burundi. Many come from places where homosexuality isn't technically criminalized, but where they still sometimes face assault and police abuse under the authority of "morality" or "decency" laws. Before the end of 2013, David's organization handling 60 cases of LGBTI asylum-seekers and it added 30 more in the first months of 2014, mostly people who were already in the country but were now seeking legal help fearing the Anti-Homosexuality Act.
The new law has made the formal asylum process extremely risky for LGBTI people, even those who are applying for refugee status for other reasons. Under Ugandan law, asylum-seekers must begin the process of applying for permission to stay in the country by reporting to the Ugandan police. Walking into a police station "is like going into the lion's den" for LGBTI people, said David, because the Anti-Homosexuality Act seems to have given police carte blanche to arrest people suspected of being gay or "promoting homosexuality."
In March, police showed just how far they are prepared to take this authority. They raided an HIV center run by the United States Military HIV Program in partnership with Uganda's Makerere Univeristy, after an undercover investigation lasting several weeks into allegations that the initiative was "carrying out recruitment and training of young males in unnatural sexual acts." The undercover officers filed a report saying the center was collecting "sperms" from participants, and that men and boys between the ages of 15-25 were "a pornographic film as a teaching package for homosexual[s]." One staff member was arrested, and several patients in the clinic at the time of the raid reportedly were photographed by police.
Gay men and lesbians who feel they could conceal their sexual orientation might decide to chance it, David said, but it's a risk that's completely out of the question for transgender or intersex people whose status is harder to hide. "With the new law, it's something you just can't try," David said.
Most of the asylum-seekers who seek help from David's organization have gone underground since the law passed. A support group for the community has stopped meeting out of fear for participants' safety. At least one client was killed by a mob, David said, and others have been beaten. Some have just disappeared — they've stopped coming to the organization's office and their phones have stopped working. They now live with very little legal protection and almost no support network, leaving them especially vulnerable to anti-LGBTI harassment in daily life, which has increased for all LGBTI people in Uganda.
Not being able to safely petition for refugee status makes it very hard for LGBTI asylum-seekers to get somewhere safer. The United States, Australia, and some other Western countries will accept some refugees who can't safely stay in the country where they first take refuge, but only after they have been granted refugee status there. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees can sometimes use its powers to grant refugee status to individuals even if the country where they seek asylum doesn't accept their claims, but it ordinarily doesn't do that until after an asylum-seeker has been formally rejected by the government.
This leaves people like Green, the Rwandan trans man, feeling trapped.
Green was with a friend who had fled the Democratic Republic of Congo in February when he learned that Museveni had signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act. He turned to his friend and said, "Now we are going to die."
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on January 23, 2014, at 6:32 a.m. ET
Millions of gay Indians suddenly became criminals when the Indian Supreme Court restored the country's sodomy law in December. But the ruling actually helped set one couple free.
When the ruling was issued, two men from northwest India had spent more than six months in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in El Paso, Texas, waiting for a judge to decide on their petition for asylum. It was a bitter ending to their yearlong journey across more than 10 countries to reach the United States. They had left India after death threats from their family and being targeted for police abuse because of their sexual orientation, though at the time the law criminalizing same-sex relationships was suspended by a lower court ruling. And when they finally reached the country that they expected to protect their rights, they wound up in a facility that felt exactly like prison.
The whole experience had felt cruelly backward to the couple, so it was perhaps fitting that the U.S. released them from detention only when they formally became criminals at home.
A U.S. judge granted the pair asylum on Dec. 20 based on their experience of police abuse and threats from their families to kill them if they returned. But even now they don't feel that much safer than when they left India, which is why they only agreed to speak to BuzzFeed under names they chose for themselves, Manoj and Maninder, rather than their real names.
A cousin in a small city in the midwest paid their airfare to join him, but he kicked them out of his house once they'd worked off the cost of tickets at the restaurant where he works. They were then taken in by the owner of another Indian restaurant, where they now work full days without pay in exchange for shelter. They told the owner they are brothers; if he finds out the truth, they are certain he will kick them out. They could only speak by phone late in the evening, fearing discovery if their boss was around.
They also worried that speaking to the press could lead the U.S. government to retaliate by arresting or deporting them, though their lawyers have assured them this isn't possible. Their abuse in India and harassment while in detention makes it hard for them to believe their ordeal is over. Only Manoj speaks enough English to give a full interview; Maninder was too frightened to give an interview in Hindi.
Manoj and Maninder both group up in Sirsa, a small city about a four-hour drive to the northwest of Delhi. Manoj, who is now 28, is the son of a construction contractor, but as a boy he was drawn to dance and trained to be a choreographer, though his family disapproved. That's how he met Maninder, now 25, who also trained as a dancer.
Manoj knew from a young age that he was gay, but when his parents picked a bride for him at 16, he married her without argument. Two years earlier, he'd watched as his uncle — who was just a couple years older than him — was beaten so seriously that he wound up in the hospital after he tried to run away to escape an arranged marriage.
Manoj still had time to steel himself to consummate the marriage; under local custom, his wife didn't come to live with his family until a few years after they married. But he couldn't follow through when she finally came to live with him after he turned 19. His family said he was shaming them by not producing a child. His wife confided to her sister that they were not having sex; she believed he was instead running around with the girls who passed through his dance classes.
"I don't want to agree [to have sex with her] because I don't have any feeling [for her]," he said in idiosyncratic English. "I'm trying but I can't."
Word spread throughout his community and his family became violent. They "tortured" him, Manoj said, hitting and kicking him, and sometimes neighbors would assault him as well.
Yet in a sense he felt he was getting off easy, he said. Had they known he was gay, he said, "they would kill me at once."
While enduring the trouble at home, Manoj stayed away from Maninder, though they both knew they had feelings for each other. It was simply too dangerous for them to meet somewhere their families could find out.
Then, in 2010, when Manoj was around 25 and Maninder about 22, they found a chance to get away from Sirsa. Their escape came thanks to a reality television show called Dance Premier League, in which teams from across India compete under the tutelage of a celebrity choreographer. Manoj was going to audition in Jaipur, a city a six-hour drive to the south, and he persuaded Maninder to give it a shot as well.
Maninder didn't make the cut, but Manoj did, keeping them in Jaipur for around 10 days. But the prospect of being on television was far less important than the chance to be alone together in a hotel room.
Their time away was so wonderful that the return home was unbearable, Manoj said. "Oh my god, we are feeling … we cannot stay without each other," Manoj said. Back in Sirsa, "we cannot [even] talk openly, we cannot leave [the house], we cannot meet."
So after four months, Manoj came up with a plan to get them out of Sirsa for good. He would rent them an apartment in Chandigarh, a city four hours to the northwest, where they knew no one. To justify the move to their families, they both enrolled in a degree program in animation at a local university.
The freedom they found in Chandigarh was amazing at first; Manoj said they were not apart "even for one minute" while they lived there. They told everyone they were brothers, but their affection for each other was too obvious — their neighbors saw through their cover after a couple of months.
"We both [showed] a lot of love for each other," Manoj said. "People are thinking, Why are they always together like husband and wife?"
When they were discovered, Manoj said, they were "beaten many times," so "we are trying to change address many times in Chandigarh; first, two, three months in this address, then after three months other address." They also took many trips to other parts of India — Uttarakhand, Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh — to try to enjoy some time in a place where they were not known, but "everywhere is discrimination," Manoj said.
But they made do moving from place to place until 2011, when they endured an attack so bad that they lost hope.
Manoj said it was too painful to go into much detail about the incident, but he shared the outlines of what happened. A mob turned on them and held them until police came, who took them to a remote part of town where they "did sexual abuse." When it was over, an officer put a gun to their heads and threatened to execute them if they told anyone what happened.
"We thought we have only just one chance: only suicide," Manoj said. Such a step would not be uncommon; for the past several decades, stories have frequently appeared in Indian newspapers of same-sex couples committing double suicide.
But Manoj's best friend gave them another idea. "He told us suicide is not the last option. He gave us suggestion [to go to] the United States … because the United States has very good protection for homosexuals," Manoj said.
The friend, a businessman, even offered to help pay for their escape. He didn't have enough money to get them directly to the United States, but he could get them away from the reach of Indian police and their families, who they also feared could learn of their relationship at any moment.
"You have to leave India," his friend instructed. "If you will stay here, your family [will] know … you're a homosexual. For sure they will kill you, or the community will kill you, [or] the government will kill you. … You have to leave from here."
So they first went to Cyprus, because they could easily obtain student visas by enrolling in a business administration program in the city of Larnaca on the island's southern coast. The eight months or so that bought them would give them time to pull together the funds and work on getting U.S. visas. But they couldn't find any work. By the time their visas ran out, they still hadn't secured permission to come to the U.S.
They thought about returning to India, but when they spoke with their families on the phone, they threatened to kill them if they returned now that it was known they were gay. Without a U.S. visa, they worked out a long-shot plan with their friend's help: They bought a ticket to Ecuador (via connections in Dubai, Brazil, and Colombia) because the country required no visa. Then the friend would make arrangements for them to be smuggled to the United States.
They spent almost a month in the city of Guayaquil, near Ecuador's Pacific coast, a period in which they were almost totally isolated. Back in Cyprus, Manoj had combed Facebook to find gay English speakers in the city who might help them, and he made a friend who helped them secure a hotel room and get there from the airport. But they didn't see him after he dropped them off and they could hardly communicate with anyone they met.
They survived on potato chips for a few days until they found an Indian restaurant, Manoj said, because even the process of ordering a meal was more than they could manage.
They waited there while their friend negotiated with smugglers over the cost of their transport to the U.S., Manoj said. He didn't have enough money to pay for them to get all the way. Eventually, they worked out that the couple could fly to Nicaragua and go over land from there.
A smuggler met them at the Managua airport and deposited them in a house with others waiting for a ride north. They waited a week until word came from the smugglers' associates in Mexico that they could start making the trip. Manoj and Maninder were packed into the back of a truck. It looked just big enough to hold four or five people, but they crammed in about 20.
They were trapped in there for 30 hours, during which they did not eat or drink; the migrants passed around a plastic bottle when they needed to urinate. They thought they were on the verge of suffocating many times before the doors opened in Guatemala.
They were stashed along with three others at a house in Guatemala while they waited for the next stage of the trip. As the days wore on, they didn't know if anyone was even coming for them — the smugglers threatened to kill them when they tried to ask when they were leaving. They couldn't contact their friend because their phone had been stolen, along with the rest of the possessions taken by the smugglers or other migrants: their laptop, their socks — even their underwear.
And to make things worse, they felt they were to blame for their troubles, Manoj said. "We are just feeling guilty: 'Why we are homosexual, why we always have these kind of problems?' We are asking God, 'Why did you make us like that?'"
After 10 or 15 days — Manoj had lost track — a truck finally pulled up and took them to the bus station. They drove 40 hours across Honduras and El Salvador and into Mexico, where they waited two hours before being loaded onto a truck to Mexico City along with three men from El Salvador. They waited there for another 20 days or so, before they were piled onto a bus to Ciudad Juarez, across the river from El Paso.
When they arrived in Juarez, a woman climbed onto the bus and took them to another house, where they waited for five days waiting for instructions on how to cross the border. Then, Manoj said, she told them they would enter the United States by "going through the jungle and river."
But the couple said they didn't want to sneak across the border. They would walk right up to the border agents and ask for asylum.
"We already broke a lot of rules [to get to the border]," Manoj recalled. "Now we don't want to break rules, we go by bridge… Because we're going to stay in the United States, we do not want to do anything illegal."
As they walked across the bridge on June 8, 2013, a year after they had left India, they thought their ordeal was almost over. All the promises they'd heard about the United States' protections for LGBT people led them to believe they would be quickly ushered to safety.
Instead, it was just the beginning of another ordeal, which recalled their bad memories of dealings with the Indian police. When they told border agents they were seeking asylum because of their relationship, they said they were publicly mocked and outed to other detainees.
"They are using bad comment with each other," Manoj said, remarks like, "You are homosexuals — who's the husband and who's the wife?"
"We didn't expect that. We were thinking, [the U.S. will be] amazing," Manoj said. "But when we got in, oh my god … they [had] this fucking response."
They were separated for their asylum interviews and then taken to a detention center. Though Manoj said they had initially been promised they would be quickly reunited, several days passed before he knew whether Maninder was even in the same facility. For all Manoj knew, Maninder could have been sent back to India.
Finally, a sympathetic guard told him that Maninder was in another unit in the same facility, but said he couldn't be transferred so they could be together. Eleven days passed before they could arrange a meeting — they were allowed worship hours on Sunday, and a guard agreed to pass on the message that Maninder should meet Manoj at the chapel.
They began crying when they finally saw each other— but they didn't dare embrace. They were housed with other Indians, who they feared would attack them if it became known that they were a couple.
"We cannot hug each other because they will have very bad thinking," Manoj said. "I [was] saying to everybody, 'He's my brother.'"
They kept up this pretense as best they could; at first, just a handful of guards knew the truth of their relationship. But word eventually spread through the guards, Manoj said, and some started outing them to other detainees as a form of harassment.
In one incident, Manoj and Maninder were preparing documentation for their asylum case in the facility's library when the guard on duty told other prisoners they were a couple and instructed them to follow the pair to ensure they didn't have sex. For the next two months, Manoj said, he was followed so obsessively that one of the men stood behind him when he went to the urinal.
LGBT detainees frequently report harassment, say immigrant-rights advocates. And several have alleged far more brutal treatment than Manoj and Maninder. In 2011, the Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center filed a mass civil rights complaint on behalf of 13 LGBT detainees whose experience, the organization said, demonstrated that the Department of Homeland Security "is incapable of ensuring safe and non-punitive conditions for sexual minorities." These included allegations of sexual assault by guards and extended punitive periods in the equivalent of solitary confinement under the guise of protecting LGBT detainees from violence.
Manoj and Maninder were never assaulted, though Manoj described at least one three-day period in isolation, locked in "a small room like hell." He firmly believes homophobia motivated their being kept detention in the first place — "This is sure," he said. They were denied parole even after lawyers with Immigration Equality — a group that provides legal assistance to LGBT immigrants — appealed to Washington for their release. (The attorney working on the case, Clement Lee, declined to speculate on the reasons parole was denied, but said that they met all the requirements for parole yet were turned down on four separate occasions.)
Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said she could not comment on Manoj and Maninder's experience without knowing their real names. However, she said, much of the treatment they described would be "contrary to ICE policy … [and] counterproductive to the good order and discipline of operating an ICE detention facility." Allegations of harassment and abuse are investigated, and "appropriate action" is taken when corroborated, she said, adding that the agency has had an initiative to improve oversight of detention conditions since August 2009.
Maninder's case came before an immigration judge on Dec. 20, 2013, nine days after the Indian Supreme Court upheld the country's sodomy law. The judgment reversed a sweeping ruling defending LGBT rights by a lower court, shocking LGBT advocates in India and provoking outrage worldwide. They may have had a shot at asylum even without the ruling, but it certainly bolstered their case. They had to demonstrate they could not have found safety in another part of India — cities like Bangalore, Mumbai, or Delhi, hubs of LGBT organizing — to escape persecution.
At the hearing, the judge combined Manoj's case with Maninder's and granted them asylum. They were released the same day and boarded a plane to Wisconsin.
Now, after their 18-month ordeal, their life isn't so much different than it was in India — enmeshed in a small Indian community in the Midwest, the two men are still pretending to be brothers, fearing they will end up homeless or worse if their community finds out the truth.
"We are feeling like homosexuality is a crime everywhere," he told me. "Why [did] we come into the United States? There is not any protection here."
Though he sees the U.S. as a small step up from India, he now doubts there is anywhere in the world they would feel truly safe.
"We have wish to stay in the sky, not here. Not on Earth," he said.