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Nicole LaViolette, associate professor of law at the University of Ottawa
Nicole LaViolette, associate professor of law at the University of Ottawa

Nicole LaViolette

Canada's queer community needs to help persecuted sexual minorities Add to ...

On a recent tour of the country to promote reforms to the refugee system, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney took the lesbian and gay community to task, urging them to "step up to the plate" and help resettle refugees facing persecution based on sexual orientation. Meantime, the usually conservative Supreme Court of the United Kingdom issued a landmark decision refusing to deport two gay men to countries with records of persecuting sexual minorities.

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It might seem incongruous that a conservative politician and cautious judges are providing remarkable leadership on an issue largely neglected by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Canadians. But while Mr. Kenney promotes the sponsorship of LGBT refugees and staid judicial Lords argue that gay men should be free to live openly without fear, most Canadians attending Pride festivals this summer will be paying little attention to the plight of sexual minorities in other countries.

To be sure, both the Canadian and British governments have spotty records on LGBT refugee rights. In 2009, Mr. Kenney appointed Doug Cryer, a long-time Conservative who opposes same-sex marriage, to the tribunal that decides whether gays get refugee status in Canada. More recently, the minister was accused of blocking any reference to lesbian and gay rights in a new Canadian citizenship study guide for immigrants. And in the spring, the Conservative government's initial refugee-reform proposals were denounced as unfair for people facing homophobic persecution.

In Britain, many refugee claimants are detained in prison-like facilities where homophobia is often prevalent. And LGBT refugees have been returned to unsafe situations in Jamaica, Iran and Uganda, because authorities believe they can avoid persecution by changing their names, moving to a different part of the country and refraining from having same-sex relationships.

Many countries maintain severe criminal penalties for consensual sex between persons of the same sex. Witness Uganda, where legislators are considering imposing the death penalty for anyone who engages in homosexual relations. In Malawi, a gay couple was arrested last December and charged with "gross public indecency" for getting married. Other countries ban meetings and publications, or deem homosexuality and transexuality as Western or anti-revolutionary, crimes against religion, sexually deviant and immoral, unacceptable challenges to gender-specific roles or mental disorders.

Such egregious human-rights violations have compelled lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to seek refuge in countries with better human-rights protection. This move has led some states, including Canada, to interpret international law to extend refugee protection to women and men fleeing persecution based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

But LGBT refugees are rarely able to reach the borders of asylum-granting countries. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 80 per cent of the world's refugees are languishing in developing countries, where most are not safe and have no possibility of integration. The UNHCR further estimates that, over the next three to five years, more than 800,000 refugees will need to be resettled.

LGBT refugees form a fraction of those numbers, and when they flee to countries such as Turkey and Egypt, their temporary place of "asylum" is often as homophobic and dangerous as the country from which they fled.

Canada provides protection to refugees in two main ways. Since 1991, thousands of sexual minorities have made claims through the in-Canada refugee determination program, achieving similar success rates as other refugees who apply. In addition, Canada annually resettles 10,000 to 12,000 through government-assisted and privately sponsored refugee programs.

Mr. Kenney is right to suggest that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Canadians have yet to demonstrate tangible solidarity with persecuted sexual minorities around the world.

While a small number of Canadian LGBT groups such as the Rainbow Committee in Vancouver, AGIR in Montreal and Egale at the national level have called for a better in-Canada refugee-determination process, there has been an almost complete absence of interest in the resettlement programs that could actually allow LGBT groups or individuals to sponsor a queer refugee. Although resettlement programs require time, effort and financial contributions, LGBT Canadians have attained one of the most privileged legal, social and political stations in the world. Toronto Pride Week alone contributes $135-million to the city's economy every year.

Clearly, many members of the LGBT community have the capacity to sponsor a lesbian from Iran or a gay man from Cameroon. The failure to embrace refugee resettlement as a way of providing modest, but tangible, support to persecuted sexual minorities is both unfathomable and inexcusable.

Nicole LaViolette is an associate professor of law at the University of Ottawa.

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