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Canada Should Be Doing More To Help LGBTQ+ Refugees

Why are we so reluctant to work with organizations like Rainbow Railroad?

By Adam Zivo

Canada is often more than willing to open its doors to refugees. However, is the federal government doing enough to help LGBTQ+ refugees who, in virtue of their orientation, experience exceptional danger? To answer that question, I had a chat with Kimahli Powell, executive director of Rainbow Railroad, an international organization based in Canada and the U.S. that helps LGBTQ+ people escape violence and persecution in their home countries. It is the leading voice in Canada on LGBTQ+ refugees, and is perhaps one of the most prominent organizations in the world that works with this population.

After speaking with Powell, it seemed fairly clear to me that, although Canada often positions itself as a global leader on LGBTQ+ rights, the federal government has been dragging its feet when it comes to queer refugees. As a result, bureaucratic inertia and red tape keeps refugees trapped in countries where their lives and safety are threatened.

Powell says, “One of the things we’ve been calling for, even before Afghanistan, was the need for a crisis response plan. How can Canada quickly support LGBTQI+ people when a crisis emerges – whether it’s a state-sponsored crackdown or a conflict that disproportionately affects the community? The Government of Canada needs more tools to deal with these situations, which it currently does not have.”

Because Canada lacks a proactive response plan, its humanitarianism tends to be reactive and ad hoc. In a sense, the federal government needs to reinvent the wheel with every new conflict because it simply does not have a blueprint on hand to help it quickly and efficiently assist refugees.

Not only does this slow down humanitarian aid initiatives, it also creates inconsistent responses to different crises – something that has been very noticeable when contrasting the aid provided to Afghan and Ukrainian refugees. These inconsistencies open up the government to accusations of racism, and, unfortunately, pit various communities against one another.

Personally, I believe that this infighting ultimately undermines refugee aid efforts, as political energy that could be spent on evacuating vulnerable people is instead spent on relitigating racial justice issues. While racial justice is indispensable, humanitarian crises predispose people towards unproductive conversations that are unlikely to advance racial equity – because emotions run high and information about decision-making processes is scarce. Conversations tend to turn adversarial rather than co-operative.

One can see that in the Ukrainian refugee crisis today, where racial justice has been occasionally abused by people who, for whatever reason, hold a grudge against Ukraine and feel compelled to undermine Ukrainian relief efforts. In this situation, the search for racial justice becomes a tit-for-tat battle focused on vengefully withholding aid from those who need it – as though a race to the bottom would somehow benefit refugees who have unfairly been denied assistance because of their skin tone.

A crisis response plan would provide some degree of standardization and accountability to Canada’s humanitarian aid, which would not only reduce actual racial disparities, but would also, relatedly, ensure that more focus stays on helping vulnerable people.

Though the absence of a crisis response plan disproportionately harms LGBTQ+ refugees – because those refugees are always disproportionately impacted by gaps in refugee policy – it is more of a system-wide problem. When it comes to challenges that are more specific to the LGBTQI+ community, Powell points to problems with Canada’s refugee referral program.

Individuals who want to apply to be a refugee in Canada first need to be “referred” to the Canadian government by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHRC). The UNHRC acts as a screening mechanism – it verifies that people are actually refugees before admitting them into the first steps of Canada’s refugee system. This process makes sense in theory, because it reduces fraud and allows Canada to use its finite resources to process legitimate refugee applications more quickly. However, the process can often be messy, with complicated paperwork and bureaucratic confusion leaving many applicants in an extended limbo.

All of this may seem a little abstract, but these barriers are visceral for refugees who find themselves trapped in unsafe places because of the UNHRC bottleneck. To illustrate: a few weeks before speaking with Powell, I had an extended conversation with a Christian Iraqi refugee. His frustration was palpable as he recalled dealing with the UNHRC, which he characterized as “useless.” Processing his referral paperwork was so slow that he ultimately ended up hiding in the Kurdish mountains for three months, lest he be harassed or killed by insurgents. He had the capacity to leave his country, but was trapped by the shambolic and faceless bureaucracy of an international super-agency.

As of now, the UNHRC is the only referring partner Canada will work with – and that’s a problem. This is where Rainbow Railroad would like to make a difference. The organization has extensive networks within global LGBTQ+ communities, and, in 2021, it fielded 7,000 requests for aid. Rainbow Railroad’s history of effectively providing humanitarian aid across the globe means that it is uniquely equipped not only to evaluate the legitimacy of LGBTQ+ refugee claims, but to even transport claimants to Canada. In fact, in this particular niche, Rainbow Railroad would arguably be a better assessor than the UNHRC itself.

For this reason, Rainbow Railroad has been asking the Canadian government to give it the authority to make refugee referrals – after all, why should referrals be monopolized by the UNHCR?

One might wonder: if Canada has historically relied exclusively on the UNHRC for referrals, is it even possible for it to rely on other partners? Powell says yes to this, pointing out that there is recent precedent for expanding the referral process. In 2019, the Minister of Immigration’s mandate letter (a letter provided to ministers that outlines the objectives they should accomplish) called for the creation of a new refugee stream to resettle 250 humanitarian workers, journalists and human rights defenders.

“The government chose a referring partner outside of the country which had experience working with human rights defenders but which was not Canadian. What this shows is that Canada can have referring partners outside of the UNHCR. What we’re doing is calling for Canada to work with a Canadian NGO [non-governmental organization],” says Powell.

Powell’s suggestion makes sense: if Canada can work with foreign NGOs to make refugee referrals, what is stopping it from working with a Canadian NGO that has hyper-specialized expertise within a niche group of refugees? However, there hasn’t been much headway with getting the Canadian government to change its policies. Rainbow Railroad has managed to form partnerships with provincial governments, and although these partnerships do not involve refugee referrals specifically, at the very least they show that some governments can –and do – see Rainbow Railroad as a viable partner for formal co-operation on refugee aid.

Powell notes that Rainbow Railroad operates in the United States as well, where it has made headway with the Biden administration on working together on LGBTQ+ refugee referrals. If the United States is willing to work with Rainbow Railroad, why is Canada so reluctant?

Referrals aren’t the only area where refugee policy could be improved. As with many other countries, Canada only accepts refugee applications from individuals who have fled their home country for another country. If someone is experiencing persecution in Afghanistan, for example, they cannot make a refugee claim from there. They must first travel to a neighbouring country, such as Iran or Pakistan, and make a claim from there.

This widely used system is used out of concern for violating other countries’ sovereignty. If a country such as Canada evacuates citizens directly from another state, such as Ghana, it might be interpreted as luring away or stealing citizens from a sovereign state – which is bad. Though this argument is not a particularly strong one, the world of international relations can be quite fraught and policy-makers tend to err on the side of caution, preferring to accept a weak argument that minimizes the risk of international conflict.

During the 2021 federal election, the Conservative platform uniquely included a pledge to expand the definition of “refugee” to include internally displaced persons, which would allow people to make refugee claims from within their home country. Since the election, there has been no public evidence that the government is pursuing a similar expansion of the definition of “refugee.”

Although the narrow definition of “refugee” is a problem that affects all people seeking asylum, Powell emphasizes that it has an outsized impact on LGBTQ+ communities.

“You can look at sub-Saharan Africa as an example. Kenya is the only East African country that allows refugees to make a claim based on sexual or gender identity. So you have that country receiving refugees from all across the region. You also have Ugandan refugees going to Kenya to file for refugee status, despite the fact that Kenya also criminalizes same-sex intimacy.”

It’s an odd conundrum when you have a country that recognizes homophobia and transphobia as a legitimate basis for refugee claims, but then criminalizes being LGBTQ+. However, this is the reality that many LGBTQ+ refugees face. Not only do they have fewer options when it comes to possible host countries, they must also seek refuge in countries that see their very existence as a legal and moral abomination. This discrimination then bleeds into the very support systems that ought to be helping them.

“In some countries, the UNHCR blatantly refuses to accept registrations from LGBTQ people. Or, if they are registered, they are discriminated against in the refugee camps. We see this in Kenya, because they have to work with the Kenyan government.”

Powell notes that this is partially why so many refugee organizations were initially deeply concerned about the Ukrainian refugee crisis.

“One of the reasons why there was a lot of fear about what would happen to LGBTQ Ukrainian people was not just persecution within Ukraine, but knowing that people would be going to Hungary and Poland – countries which are adopting regressive laws against the LGBTQ community.”

All these factors taken together, Powell says, show that there is a need to reform and improve Canada’s refugee policies – to take a more proactive stance on planning for crises, so humanitarian aid can be more equitable and efficient. He argues that Canada should be open to working with domestic NGOs, such as Rainbow Railroad, to fix existing bottlenecks with refugee referrals. He argues that the current definition of “refugee” is too narrow and unfairly excludes internally displaced persons. These reforms are not particularly revolutionary, and would vastly improve outcomes for LGBTQ+ refugees who view Canada as a safe haven.

Yet, despite Rainbow Railroad advocating for these common-sense reforms, and seeing traction from its international partners, the Canadian government remains strangely slow to act. It’s a shame.

ADAM ZIVO is IN Magazine’s politics and culture columnist. He is a Toronto-based social entrepreneur, photographer and analyst best known for founding the LoveisLoveisLove campaign.

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1 Comment

    Frank Vetere / 02 June 2022

    Excellent analysis. RE internal country referrals, if a refugee were to make their way to a Canadian embassy or consulate and issued temporary visitor visas would this not be another means of assistance, since once they are in our embassy, they are on Canadian soil as per international law


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