LGBT Refugees who turn to sex work need support

By Junior Mayema,

Once again i am reiterating the vulnerability and lack of protection of LGBT asylum seekers, most for them are forced into selling their bodies as a mean of survival.

LGBT refugees and asylum seekers in transit countries such as South Africa, Kenya, Turkey etc… are dying in miseries, silence and dire poverty, they don’t have the resources to sustain themselves, including us who are now in  so called safe havens for LGBT people, we still face many terrible situations that makes it very hard for us to even find durable housings and start rebuilding our lives.

please read more about the true reality of being LGBT refugees and asylum seekers below:

Finding work can be difficult. In many countries, asylum seekers are prohibited from formal employment. Women and gay refugees in particular face hiring discrimination regardless of a country’s refugee employment laws. In Beirut, for example, poor refugees are given three months’ rent, after which they’re expected to be self-sufficient. Many LGBTI refugees, facing discrimination, can’t secure a job and after those three months turn to sex work.

Sex work at times can be safer than other jobs in which refugees are subjected to sexual harassment and abuse from employers and co-workers. Some refugees may feel that sex work is their best option because the pay is better or more reliable. After trying and failing to obtain other jobs, Daniela, a 19-year-old Afro-Colombian trans refugee in Quito, said, “We are allowed to do only two jobs here — in a hair salon or on the street [selling sex], and I can make a lot more money on the street.”

To date, however, the UNHCR has not articulated policies or protocols to meet the concerns of refugees engaged in sex work. “It’s an unknown world,” one UNHCR field officer in Quito told me. “We really don’t know what types of services should be given to them.”

The UNHCR’s silence has created a haphazard approach among its field staff. But access to health and information services should not be at the mercy of personal opinions.

In this vacuum, some refugee sex workers in Quito are referred to a local anti-trafficking organization that takes an explicit anti-prostitution position: Everyone who engages in sex work is presumed to be a victim of trafficking to some degree. The organization teaches them alternative ways to generate income, such as making luxury soap and chocolate to sell at markets. For those looking to leave sex work, such classes may be exactly what they need. But for those not looking to exit sex work, what they won’t receive is information about how to do sex work safely and what health and legal services are available to them.

There are, of course, a number of social and professional networks in Quito for people engaged in commercial sex. RedTrabSex — referring to trabajadoras sexuales, or sex workers — does routine street outreach, distributing packets with condoms, the names of friendly health centers and information on sex worker rights in Ecuador. Marcha de las Putas has created a legal patrol that helps sex workers pool safety knowledge about risky clients, say, or incidents of police harassment.

But such organizations are largely unknown by humanitarian actors all over the world, especially in cities like Kampala and Quito in which refugees and sex work economies converge. The UNHCR and its local partnering organizations, which provide refugee services such as legal assistance and job and housing referrals, can be particularly helpful because they are often the first and main point of contact for displaced people without resources or knowledge of their local rights. It is part of the UNHCR’s mandate to help urban refugees acquire the information and services they need to survive and protect themselves in their new environment. This means not only providing immediate assistance like food coupons and temporary housing but also helping refugees harness and access local resources that will help them stay safe in the long term.

Giving sex workers a say

Other U.N. agencies, such as U.N. Women, the U.N. Development Program, UNAIDS and the World Health Organization, have voiced explicit support for sex workers’ rights. These agencies have endorsed giving sex workers a say in programs that affect them and have sought to ensure their access to the same services provided to others, from comprehensive health care to banking to police protection.

Meanwhile, the UNHCR’s silence has created a haphazard approach among its field staff. “For me, sex work is not dignified work,” another UNHCR staffer in Ecuador told me, adding that she tries to persuade refugees to leave commercial sex work. But access to health and information services should not be at the mercy of personal opinions.

The organization could look to its recent history for a solution. In 2011 the UNHCR issued guidelines on how to work with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex refugees. These guidelines (PDF) instructed staffers to learn about the particular vulnerabilities of LGBTI refugees — such as abuse they often face from family members and fellow refugees and their often systemic exclusion from access to basic health and education services — and to “make themselves aware of their own preconceptions or discriminatory attitudes towards” LGBTI individuals.

The UNHCR should issue similar guidelines for sex workers and leave no room for personal bias. Its staff should be directed to assess their needs, a process that begins by giving them the floor. Because it won’t know how to best offer support until it starts asking.

Jennifer S. Rosenberg is a senior program officer at the Women’s Refugee Commission.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America’s editorial policy.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s