This LGBT+ History Month, Aydan Greatrick, ESRC-funded PhD Candidate at UCL, explores the challenges queer refugees and support organisations have faced in Germany since 2015.
Queer asylum has become a prominent feature of Germany’s response to refugees since 2015. Queer communities have mobilised material and political support in cities like Berlin and Cologne to address the diverse needs of queer refugees in the asylum system, and to challenge homophobia, transphobia and anti-refugee sentiments more generally. Queer refugees have also become key actors in building and facilitating support for other queer refugees and asylum seekers, establishing peer-led projects that seek to address the numerous challenges they face, on their own terms.
Queer refugee-led organisations such as SOFRA Cologne, founded in 2016, sprang up in the years following Angela Merkel’s “open door” policy, echoed by an expansion in the number of organisations, projects and funding directed at supporting queer refugees.
One of my interlocutors, who has been working in support of queer refugees since the 1990s, noted that 2015 was a watershed moment: “It changed the numbers amazingly. Before, […] it was just much easier to handle.” Support networks that had long been assisting queer refugees from countries like Iran and Russia found themselves rapidly adapting, upscaling their work and filling gaps in services, including material, psychological, social, legal and accommodation support, for new arrivals from Syria and other countries. However, the growing challenges faced by queer refugees in Germany meant support was not always available when it was needed.
This was further exacerbated by the restrictions placed on the internal movement of asylum seekers between the different federal states. Support organisations working in Berlin, Cologne, Frankfurt and Munich frequently discussed the challenges of assisting asylum seekers whose residency restricted them to more rural areas, or to states where LGBTQ+-specific support was limited. Indeed, even in Berlin, described as a “queer haven” by one of my interlocutors, the material challenges placed on support groups, refugees and asylum seekers meant demand for assistance far out-stripped capacity.
Institutional and state-level responses designed to support refugees arriving to Germany in 2015 also indirectly exposed queer asylum seekers to further forms of harm. Cases of homophobic discrimination at various refugee camps were often reported. LSVD found that between August and December 2015 that there were 95 cases of violence against LGBT refugees living in accommodation centres. Such instances prompted Berlin-based Schwulenberatung to open a refugee accommodation shelter specifically for LGBTQ+ refugees, a novel response that reflected the growing needs of queer refugees in the city.
However, such evidence has also fuelled anti-refugee sentiments. In 2017, CDU politician Jens Spahn argued that homophobic abuse in refugee accommodation centres demonstrated that the moral values of refugees differ significantly to those of Germans. Whilst no evidence exists to suggest homophobia in accommodation centres is more or less prevalent than in German society at large, such arguments instrumentalise queer victimhood to further dog-whistle, anti-refugee sentiments.
Confronting new challenges
Despite these various challenges, queer refugee support groups began to establish new mechanisms of cooperation and collaboration, driven in part by the demands and campaigns of queer refugees themselves. One of my interlocutors reported feeling that “nobody talks about us”, a sentiment shared by Ibrahim Willeke, a gay refugee from Lebanon, and founder of the organisation SOFRA Cologne. He recalled the challenges he faced in accessing support as a gay asylum seeker in 2015. During the process, he was moved between accommodation centres, and at one point was housed in a refugee camp in “the middle of nowhere”, in a small village in North Rhine-Westphalia. The homophobic discrimination he encountered in this context, made worse by an inability to escape the confines of the camp, prompted him to seek help.
“I tried to look online for such and such organisations that help LGBTIQ refugees. I contacted a local organisation in Cologne, and they informed me that they are overwhelmed since 2015. […] They don’t know what to do. Sorry we cannot help you.”
In response, Ibrahim sought to address the challenges he faced directly, working to document instances of discrimination before establishing SOFRA Cologne, a queer refugee support group run by and for refugees, in 2016.
Responses to queer refugees have also formalised at the federal level. Since 2017/18, the Federal Ministry of Migration and Integration has funded Queer Refugees Deutschland, an LSVD project which aims to connect and support LGBTQ+ refugees, and the organisations that work with them. The increasing scale of support for queer refugees is not without its problems, however: the diversity of formal, informal, state and federal level projects and organisations has created a complex and sometimes fraught environment, where multiple projects are left to vie for limited funding, and where differing strategic priorities may create tensions within and between groups.
LGBTQ+ Asylum in a time of hostility
Since 2015, new initiatives and projects have developed that directly address the challenges LGBTQ+ asylum seekers face. These have ranged from informal acts of hospitality, toward substantial interventions at the state and federal level.
However, queer asylum has also intersected with the complex and divisive debates about Germany and its relationship to secularism, multiculturalism and difference. LGBTQ+ rights have become synonymous with a certain articulation of Germany as tolerant, in contrast to an intolerant, homophobic ‘other’. This instrumentalisation of LGBTQ+ rights, often by those on the right of German politics, highlights how a rhetoric of inclusion and diversity can also manifest itself in exclusionary politics. This is echoed by the expectations of the German asylum system too: the claims of queer asylum seekers are often only recognised if they conform to stereotypes of the ‘good’ and ‘worthy’ gay refugee. Similarly, this idealisation of a specific type of gay refugee often sits in opposition to a representation of other refugees as intrinsically homophobic and misogynistic, and therefore not appropriately ‘German’.
For one of my interlocutors, this has created a contradiction. Speaking anecdotally, he recalls how he is now inundated with requests for advice from queer people stuck in countries like Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan and Algeria, who see Germany as a safe haven free from persecution and discrimination. However, for my interlocutor, the situation for queer refugees in the country is getting “harder and harder and more and more difficult”, shaped by a context of waning hospitality, rising hostility, and an asylum system that can leave applicants in limbo for years and years.
Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.