Amir S. M.’s story is very similar to the ones of many other gay Iranian refugees in Turkey, who have been waiting for years to be transferred to safer countries; his applied to be relocated back in 2016, but nothing has happened on that front, and the US, Canada and Spain, considered to be the most secure countries for Iranian LGBTQIA+, are getting further and further away.
Before 10 September 2018, the UNHCR was responsible for refugees’ cases, interviewes and registrations; since the end of 2018, this has passed under the jurisdiction of the Turkish immigration office and the situation has worsened. Hundreds of LGBTQIA+ people, mainly refugees from Iran (where having a different sexual orientation is a crime), are living in a state of uncertainty, amongst discriminations, difficulty having access to the Turkish healthcare system, job and housing insecurity.
In order to be relocated to another country, LGBTQIA+ refugees have to wait between 5 and 7 years, during which they cannot work or have access to the healthcare system, and they have to put up with xenophobia and homophobia. Although they have been in Turkey for several years, many Iranians haven’t had a chance to talk with the people responsible for their relocations.
We were able to reach and interview Amir S. M. through the association “Pink Refugees” that has been fighting first hand to defend the rights of all LGBTQIA+ migrants, and to support their self-determination.
MP: Amir, can you tell us what the life of an Iranian gay person is like in Turkey?
A: The life of a gay person in Turkey is the same as in Iran. The only difference is that you don’t get executed, but there is extreme homophobia and there are many complaints of violence against the LGBTQ community. You can be beaten up very badly, abused, sexually assaulted and harassed, and all this can happen to any LGBTQIA+ person; as a LGBTQIA+ refugee, you could face much worse and there’s nothing you can do about it. The LGBTQ associations here in Turkey face the same problems and are under a lot of pressure.
Why did you run away from Iran and when did you arrive in Turkey?
I fled Iran because I’m part of the LGBTQ community, my sexual orientation was revealed and my life was at risk, because in Iran homosexuality is punishable by death and by execution according to the Islamic Iranian penal code. I arrived in Turkey, in Ankara, in 2016, and I signed up as a refugee at the UNHCR.
What are the difficulties you are experiencing in Turkey? Are you working? Do you have a home?
Living in Turkey as a refugee, especially being gay, is a nightmare and a constant struggle. As a refugee, you are alone and you have no one to support or help you, you can only work illegally and the only jobs you can find are extremely hard ones, without a proper timetable and in dangerous working places; you have to look for a job like this for a long time, because as a refugee you have a “preferential” treatment and you have no protection. The employer can basically do whatever he wants, he can easily fire you when he wants, without giving you the money you’re owed, and so if you have worked for them and you ask them for your money they are going to humiliate you, or they could beat you and you cannot say or do anything about it, because the job you had was illegal, and therefore you could be expelled and sent back to your country.
Since I don’t have any family or support, I had no choice other than to work in those dangerous environments; since I’ve been in Turkey, I’ve been badly hurt at work; having no legal rights, they can treat you however they want to, they make you do the hardest and most dangerous jobs, give you less food at lunchtime, they abuse you verbally or physically and you can do nothing about it.
The situation can get even worse once they realise that you are part of the LGBT community: you can get fired, sexually harassed or even beaten. I have been sexually and physically harassed while I was working on one of these jobs and I couldn’t do anything about it, because if I had complained they would have fired me. I needed the money to pay for my bills and to survive, so I said nothing; sometimes I couldn’t believe how much I was suffering and how much I was being humiliated, it made me feel like I didn’t exist, when I actually did. No one really cared about what I was going through, and when I though about this I got extremely emotional, and I had to hide in the restroom in the middle of my shifts because I couldn’t let anyone at work know that I was crying. Moreover, in Turkey you cannot submit a complaint about being harassed for being gay, because the authorities aren’t going to take you seriously and they do not care what you are going through.
I have now been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease (FMF, familial Mediterranean fever), and because of it my body is attacking its own organs. It is very painful and it cannot be cured, but only treated. The medicine I’m taking is making me very weak and because of my disease I’m not able to work.
Housing is another problem, because recently there has been an increase in xenophobia and landlords are refusing to rent their houses to refugees. After looking for a place to stay for months, I managed to rent an apartment, but having no financial support I don’t know what is going to happen; I’m looking for a job that doesn’t require hard physical work, which I cannot do because of my medical condition.
Why haven’t you been transferred to a safer country yet?
I do not know the reasons, or why it takes so long, but it is devastating.
Who is helping you with your situation? Is the UNHCR still following your case?
I imagine that the UNHCR is still responsible for my case. Apart from the UNHCR or other organizations with ties to them, I don’t know of other ways to be transferred to a safe country, but it might be possible to do that through humanitarian visas and other countries’ NGOs.
What do you want to ask the international community on your behalf and that of other gay people who are stuck in Turkey?
I ask the international organizations that are listening to me to help me get to a safe country where my rights, as a human being and a gay person, are respected and I can live a normal and free life; the situation in Turkey is incredibly difficult and inhumane, especially for the LGBTQ community, there is no certainty and we have no fondamental human rights. Apparently the outside world has no idea of what is going on here, and I hope they hear our voices!