FY 11: Invisible in the City: Protection Gaps Facing Sexual Minority Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Urban Ecuador, Ghana, Israel, and Kenya (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society)

Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
March 29, 2013


PRM funded the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) to complete a research project on best practices in protecting sexual minority refugees in urban areas with a focus on Ecuador, Ghana, Israel and Kenya. Sites were intentionally selected to investigate differences where same-sex relationships are legal – Ecuador and Israel – and where they are illegal – Ghana and Kenya. HIAS held interviews with key stakeholders, conducted surveys, and hosted focus group discussions with refugees, refugee protection professionals, and civil society organizations in each of the four countries.


The “invisibility” of urban sexual minority refugees and asylum seekers was found to be a major factor preventing effective protection. Living in urban environments, sexual minority refugees and asylum seekers are often forced to be invisible as a result of social exclusion, discrimination, and legal barriers, such as restricted laws for refugee rights and the legality of same-sex relationships. However, invisibility is also a survival mechanism, and many stay “in the closet” to “pass” as heterosexuals in order to avoid abuse, police harassment, and discrimination. This invisibility leads to a perceived lack of need for protection, which in turn limits access to services and resources, including legal support, psychosocial support, and health care. In Kenya and Ghana, sexual minority refugees face police harassment, potential “discovery” of their sexual orientation and/or practices, and harsh jail sentences. In Ecuador and Israel, same-sex relationships are legal, but refugees face limited protection rights, employment opportunities, and no health services. Disclosing sexual orientation is a risk for decreased protection and increased discrimination and abuse. For protection professionals, a lack of training in sexual minority protection methods, stigmatization from within protection organizations, and a lack of awareness of the identities of sexual minorities hinder effective protection services and outreach.


• Humanitarian actors should coordinate their efforts to train protection staff on the effective protection of LGBTI individuals and outreach to sexual minority advocacy groups and relevant governmental authorities;

• Outreach can be improved by working with sexual minority refugees in the neighborhoods where they live, making information available to them on protection services and including them in referral pathways;

• Protection efforts should prioritize assistance in securing safe shelter and non-discriminatory access to health and social services, physical security, and livelihood opportunities; and

• UNHCR and its partners should increase training of field staff on sexual minority sensitivity, protection risk, and preventing discrimination against LGBTI refugees.