LGBTQ+ Refugees in Egypt: Hopes and Aspirations
By: Muddaththir Mohamed Al Tayb Ali
LGBTQ+ individuals who were forced to flee their home countries and seek refuge in Egypt face numerous challenges. With an increasing number of refugees in the country, this critical segment of the LGBTQ+ community is gaining attention. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Egypt hosts over 270,000 refugees from 65 different countries, mainly from Syria, followed by Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Yemen, and Somalia. These individuals have fled their countries for various reasons, including conflicts, wars, violence, climate change threats, and persecution due to their sexual and gender identity.
The UNHCR office in Egypt provides protection services in partnership with local organizations. Services include healthcare, legal protection, gender-based violence prevention, child protection, and protection against detention and deportation. Any person crossing the Egyptian border can apply for asylum-seeker status at the UNHCR office. Upon application and verification, a yellow card is issued, which can be used to obtain renewable residence from the Egyptian authorities. After a period, the UNHCR conducts a refugee status determination interview to evaluate eligibility for asylum. The UNHCR has a booklet that is updated routinely to include all services available for refugees in Egypt.
Refugees and asylum seekers live in an urban environment in Egypt, primarily concentrated in Greater Cairo, Alexandria, Damietta, and various cities along the northern coast. However, in recent years, Egypt’s challenging economic conditions have significantly increased the needs of refugees in general and LGBTQ+ individuals in particular and the host community. With many refugees lacking a steady income source and facing rising inflation, basic needs are barely met. Other challenges include limited livelihood opportunities, language and cultural barriers faced by non-Arabic-speaking refugees, and limited access to sustainable formal education that could support their development and integration. Moreover, many refugees and asylum seekers rely on humanitarian assistance to meet their basic needs and access medical or psychosocial support, which has become increasingly urgent due to the accumulation and complexity of challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ community in Egypt. These challenges include legal and social obstacles that their non-LGBTQ+ counterparts do not face.
Although there is no clear legal text criminalizing homosexual relationships, authorities employ vague legal provisions to persecute queer individuals, such as those found in the law on debauchery and immorality. LGBTQ+ people in Egypt face social stigma. According to a 2013 American Pew Research Center survey, 95% of Egyptian society strongly rejected homosexuality, while only 3% accepted it. Given these statistics, it is clear that LGBTQ+ refugees in Egypt face significant challenges. When examining the experiences of individuals who have gone through forced displacement, we consistently find proactive and engaged people striving to help their communities. This is evident in the community-led initiatives for refugees, through which social services are provided, safe spaces are created, and support networks are formed, all backed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Refugees have always relied on mutual inspiration, demonstrating a community characterized by solidarity, unity, and mutual assistance through these initiatives or individually.
One of the active organizations in the Refugee LGBTQ+ community is Al-Qos, founded by individuals forced to flee their countries due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. The association focuses primarily on providing support, guidance, counseling, and referrals for mistreated people, reducing the risks threatening their lives or freedom through various activities. Al-Qos emphasizes sexual health education and establishing support sessions for those living with HIV. The association’s Secretary-General (M.A) stated, “We are committed to inspiring our community and clarified that they follow a human rights-based approach focusing on equality, welcoming all refugees, including those with diverse sexual orientations, to provide services and education.” However, the LGBTQ+ community still requires greater efforts from the UNHCR, related organizations, and entities to achieve convergence and assistance in finding a permanent solution, especially as they work diligently to survive safely. It is noticeable that LGBTQ+ refugees in Egypt exercise a high degree of caution and restraint in a desperate attempt to achieve social integration and avoid crossing societal boundaries openly, adhering to values of respecting the community, and not engaging in confrontations with the authorities or the host society. This commitment reveals its negative personal impacts in the short and medium term, resulting in living with a false identity and high levels of depression affecting the LGBTQ+ community members, putting organizations and institutions under greater responsibility to help them overcome these issues. We cannot ignore the cases of sexual assault that individuals from the LGBTQ+ community, especially refugees, are subjected to, often exploited through dating apps specifically for the LGBTQ+ community, such as Grindr. These apps are known to be unsafe for everyone. As a result of their lack of awareness about the dangers associated with these apps, refugees often fall victim to sexual exploitation. Dozens of reported assault cases occur monthly in related organizations. With the growth of these complex and dangerous problems, several activists in LGBTQ+ rights organizations have launched awareness campaigns to educate the community about personal and digital safety, achieving the highest degree of self-protection. This activity has extended to include small, emerging initiatives and associations.
Despite individual and collective initiatives and the enthusiasm of LGBTQ+ refugees to achieve safety and stability for their communities, they often find themselves in a vicious cycle, facing challenges they consider beyond their capacity. Herein lies the need to consider achieving a permanent solution for them through the UNHCR or working on what is known as complementary pathways, which involve all efforts made by refugees to find their way out to a safer place without risk and the refugee’s ability to help themselves primarily. The organization makes significant efforts in permanent solutions, and resettlement is carried out for individuals exposed to severe life-threatening danger. The UNHCR defines resettlement as the process of transferring refugees from their country of asylum to another country that agrees to admit them and eventually grant them permanent residence. Although this option exists within the UNHCR, referral procedures for resettlement consideration undergo difficult stages and complications, taking a long time. Many refugees complain about the slow procedures and the limited opportunities for this process, as only 1% of refugees worldwide are resettled. The UNHCR follows a system of equality and non-discrimination among those eligible for resettlement; therefore, the UNHCR establishes clear conditions and criteria to reach the resettlement stage, which include the following:
- To obtain a refugee recognition document.
- The individual must be over 18 years old.
- Exposure to threats in the second country of asylum or imminent danger.
- The person must be in urgent need of protection and have no local integration options.
- The person must not pose a threat to the country of asylum.
Once these conditions are met, the UNHCR refers the files of eligible individuals to a number of countries. Once the file is approved by the designated country, the individual is informed and referred to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to complete travel procedures to the third country of asylum.
Many organizations and associations continue to call for positive discrimination for the LGBTQ+ community, prioritizing them in resettlement options due to their unique situation, challenges, and risks that exceed their capacities. The UNHCR’s demands on countries to increase the number of refugees accepted through resettlement are ongoing. Canada is one of the most welcoming countries for LGBTQ+ refugees, and its immigration ministry has established partnerships with the Rainbow Refugee Association, which helps refugees reach Canada and simplifies complicated migration procedures. The Rainbow Railroad organization is also active in assisting individuals from the LGBTQ+ community facing life-threatening risks in unsafe countries to reach safer places. In addition, the organization is designing innovative programs to achieve stability and empowerment for refugees who have already arrived in Canada. Despite the existence of these and other programs that assist refugees, obstacles prevent the majority from accessing these channels, forcing many to wait for UNHCR resettlement procedures, which can take many long months and years.
LGBTQ+ refugees in Egypt are in a highly complex situation, but despite all of this, they serve as an example of determination and resilience, inspiring everyone, including the host Egyptian society. Activities of associations and initiatives exemplify this. However, the UNHCR needs to take additional measures to protect them from exposure to risks and double efforts to find permanent solutions for them, granting more seats to LGBTQ+ community members. It is essential to remove restrictions preventing access to complementary pathways. Other international organizations also have a vital role in pressuring countries to take the necessary measures to increase resettlement opportunities and pressuring the United Nations refugee agency to give LGBTQ+ community members privileged access to permanent solutions so they are not exposed to risks in their second countries.