Alaa Ammar fled Syria to escape not just civil war but also the threat of persecution as a gay man. Yet when he arrived in The Netherlands last spring, he did not find the safe haven he craved.
He and four other gay travelers had to face newly arrived asylum seekers at a migrant center in the remote northern town of Ter Apel.
“After five minutes, they started looking. After 10 minutes, they started to talk. After one hour, they came to us,” said Ammar, a slender 28-year-old in tight jeans and with a diamond-like stud in each ear. “After three hours, they started fighting with us.”
Across Europe, gay, lesbian and transgender migrants say they suffer from verbal, physical and sexual abuse in refugee shelters, and some have been forced to move out. The AP found out about scores of documented cases in The Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Sweden and Finland, with the abuse usually coming from fellow refugees and sometimes security staff and translators.
The cases suggest a possible cultural clash: Many migrants are coming from conservative Muslim countries where homosexuality is taboo into European societies that are more open to it. In Syria, for example, homosexuality is illegal, and the militant Islamic State group has killed more than 30 gays in Syria and Iraq over the past two years, activists say.
A similar debate, this time over cultural attitudes toward gender, was sparked after young men assaulted and robbed hundreds of women in several German cities on New Year’s Eve. Police described the men as of North African and Arabic origin.
The number of migrants accused of gay abuse are just a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming into Europe. However, most abuse is likely not reported because of European privacy laws and the stigma felt by gay migrants, and there is no official tally across the continent.
In Germany, the Lesbian and Gay Federation counted 106 cases of violence against homosexual and transgender refugees in the Berlin region from August through the end of January. Most of the cases came from refugee centres, and 13 included sexual abuse.
Joerg Steinert, head of the federation in Berlin-Brandenburg, said refugees have been asking gay groups for help all over the country, reluctant to approach police for fear of jeopardising their asylum applications. Last year, the federation placed 50 people in private homes because the migrant centres were too dangerous.
“These asylum shelters are law-free areas,” he said. “When I come to our office on Monday morning, there’s usually a bunch of refugees waiting outside in the hallway who need help immediately.”
Charities and private shelter operators say they’ve simply been too overwhelmed by the huge influx of migrants to attend to some refugees’ special needs. Swarms of people often live in one big hall, without lockable rooms or gender-separated washrooms.
In Berlin, where four hangars at the former Tempelhof airport were turned into a reception centre for 2,100 people, four cases of gay abuse were reported. Maria Antonia Kipp, spokeswoman for private centre operator Tamaja, said it’s very difficult to create safe spaces for homosexuals when hundreds of bunk beds are separated only by thin wooden boards.
“When we see a dangerous situation or people tell us about it, we’ll get the people out and transfer them to smaller shelters,” she said.
The German Red Cross said it had a code of conduct banning violence at its shelters. And the Arbeiterwohlfahrt, or Worker’s Welfare charity group, said it is trying to create safe spaces in new centres but cannot implement the highest standards it would like.
“We’ve been somewhat overrun by reality,” said spokeswoman Mona Finder.
Some critics say it is up to the German government to protect migrants. But last month, a proposal to increase the security of asylum shelters was taken out of a government bill, despite official reprimands from the European Commission that Germany is not implementing EU safety guidelines.
Without the government, the protection of gay migrants has largely fallen to rights groups and local communities. On Tuesday, gay rights group Schwulenberatung Berlin will open a new home with 122 beds for gay refugees in cooperation with the city of Berlin and another shelter with 10 beds was recently opened in Nuremberg. Berlin has also appointed a counsellor as contact person for the registration of gay and transgender migrants.
Schwulenberatung Berlin’s Mahmoud Hassino said the new Berlin shelter would be a big improvement for gay, transgender and lesbian refugees.
AP Photo/Markus Schreiber, file)