On October 1, the clock restarts on the United States’ annual admission of refugees. The U.S. refugee program’s goal is to resettle 75,000 refugees in America during the 2016 Fiscal Year. President Barack Obama announced earlier this month that of that 75,000, 10,000 slots would be set-aside specifically for Syrians.
According to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, in the past year only about 100 known lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) refugees were resettled in the U.S. — a dismal number considering how many LGBTI refugees are running for their lives. Power unveiled that number during last month’s historic, first-ever LGBT “Arria”—an informal session–before the U.N. Security Council.
The meeting, hosted by Power and Chile U.N. Ambassador Christian Barros Melet, was attended by 11 of the 15 ambassadors of Security Council member states, who heard from a key witness, gay Syrian refugee Subhi Nahas.
Nahas told members his personal story of abuse and of the growing number of murders of LGBTI people in his country. He said he feared for his life, fled to Turkey and ultimately resettled safely in the U.S.
Nahas, who is an advocate for LGBTI refugees at my organization, ORAM, was one of the lucky 100 refugees to be admitted to the U.S. this year. He is now safe on American soil, but hears daily from LGBTI friends in Turkey, who tell of the constant threats and attacks they endure.
The truth is, there are thousands more LGBTI refugees we don’t know about because they are too terrified to ask for help. They live deeply in the closet, fearing for their lives.
Most of the ones in the countries surrounding Syria have fled from the Islamic State and the Levant (ISIL), also known as ISIS. Activists say ISIS has hunted down and brutally and very publicly executed at least 30 alleged gay men, according to Jessica Stern, executive director of OutRight Action International (formerly the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission), who added that lesbians and transgender individuals have also been targeted.
If this weren’t enough, other extremist militias in Syria are joining the call to execute suspected LGBTI people.
LGBTI people aren’t safe in their hometowns or even their own homes. As Nahas told the United Nations, he bears a scar on his chin from an attack by his father that sent him to the hospital. Fleeing is a dangerous journey for many refugees. But for LGBTI refugees, it can be lethal because other refugees can be their most dangerous foes.
LGBTI refugees must hide from their countrymen, who threaten them in the refugee camps and cities where they struggle to survive. In most countries of passage, local citizens and authorities often also harbor deeply homophobic values.
Working on the front lines of this refugee crisis, I’ve witnessed the tragic homophobia first hand in Turkey, where many LGBTI refugees, like Nahas, have increasingly been under attack. In July, a gay activist reported that he had been raped at home.
Every day, ORAM continues to hear from dozens of LGBTI refugees from around the world, but especially in the Middle East, who beg us to help them get to a safer place. For these refugees, the 11th hour has passed. Now is the time for the U.S. to act — and to act boldly.
LGBTI refugees, among the world’s most vulnerable populations, need the U.S. to welcome them. They need Americans to stand up for them and for the U.S. to be the place they call home. This is why it is imperative for the U.S. State Department and President Obama to reserve 500 slots for LGBTI refugees in 2016.
Those who succeed in escaping the inferno of Syria and Iraq still face the direst circumstances in surrounding countries. The 500 slots, about one-half of one percent of the overall U.S. resettlement quota for 2016, would have an enormous impact on the lives of LGBTI refugees — especially Syrians — desperately attempting to, against all odds, be resettled to safety.
Neil Grungras is the founder and executive director of the Organization for Refuge, Asylum, and Migration (ORAM), an international organization advocating for the world’s most vulnerable refugees, which recently launched a petition calling on the U.S. to reserve 500 slots for LGBTI refugees.