The UN Security Council held its first ever session devoted to discrimination facing the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community on Monday, with a focus on the plight of LGBT individuals in Islamic State controlled territory in Iraq and Syria. But advocates say that despite the increased attention, basic steps in the resettlement process for individuals persecuted for their sexual and gender identity are still arduous, and too few spots are open for those fleeing conflict in the two countries.
Syrian Subhi Nahas and an Iraqi man who used the pseudonym Adnan testified before Council members at a closed-door, informal "Arria-Formula" meeting organized by the US and Chile. While Nahas was able to flee his native Syria last year, Adnan spoke from an undisclosed location, out of concern for his safety.
By Nahas' own account, IS is only the latest — and most extreme — group in Syria to target the LGBT community. He told Council members that the government began a media campaign to frame opponents of the regime as homosexuals at the start of country's civil war in 2011.
"Soon after, authorities waged systematic raids on locals where gay people met," said Nahas. "Many were arrested and tortured."
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In 2012, Nahas was apprehended by government soldiers, who took him to a house where he was beaten.
"They noticed my effeminacy and they mocked me, called me a faggot, sissy and other profanities," he said.
Nahas, who was outed by his psychologist at 15 and was forced into the closet by his parents, said there were no open spaces for gays and lesbians in Syria prior to 2011. The only LGBT-friendly gatherings he was aware of involved members of the government of Bashar al-Assad.
"They noticed my effeminacy and they mocked me, called me a faggot, sissy and other profanities."
"They were held by high position people in the government, that's the only reason nobody raided them," Nahas told VICE News after the meeting. "But they were very rare, very secretive."
Speaking before the Council members, Nahas described the encroaching presence of Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda's branch in Syria, in his home province in Idlib, in 2012.
"After arresting and torturing one effeminate man, they announced at a mosque they would cleanse the town of those involved in sodomy," he said. "More arrests followed, and many more men were tortured to confess their sins. Some were killed. They and other Islamist groups executed more accused homosexuals that year."
Nahas hid in his home, where his own father threatened and beat him for being gay. In 2014, IS became more prominent in Idlib.
"It stepped up the violent attacks on suspected LGBT people, publishing images of their exploits… if a victim did not die after being hurled off a building, the townspeople stoned him to death," he said. "This was to be my fate too."
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That year he fled to Turkey, but an old friend who had join IS continued to threaten murder.
"He then called me from inside Turkey threatening that 'I would see his face soon," Nahas recounted to the Council.
Adnan, who was outed in 2013, said he too was attacked and beaten before IS took control of the area he lived in Iraq.
"For the past few years it's been really, really hard," Adnan told the Council. "There were militiamen or security men who — if they found out someone was gay — would arrest him, rape him, torture him. There were lots of murders supervised by the Iraqi Army."
"Some people had their rectums glued up and were then left to die in the desert," he said.
While a university student, IS captured the city where he lived, and one of his classmates who had joined the group began threatening him by phone. Like Nahas, Adnan was aware of IS' preferred method of murdering accused homosexuals: throwing them off buildings and, if they survived, stoning them to death.
"A short time later, ISIS fighters showed up at my house and announced my homosexuality to my family," he told the Council by video conference. "They told them that they wanted to carry out God's punishment against me."
"My own family turned against me when ISIS was after me," he said. "I had to leave, or else I would have been killed."
But for LGBT people in Iraq, fleeing offers little respite. Powerful Iranian-backed Shia militias that have been employed by Baghdad's US-supported government to fight IS have also murdered homosexuals, watchdog groups say. In 2012, militias killed dozens of men accused of being gay in the vicinity of Baghdad. Last year, the Asa'ib al-Haq militia posted "wanted" notices for 23 individuals it said had committed homosexual acts. Similar documents have been distributed in recent years.
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While Adnana remains on the run, Nahas was one of the few Syrians that have been allowed to resettle in the United States.
According to the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, out of an estimated 4 million refugees from Syria's civil war, the United States has until now taken in only 1,300. Speaking to reporters after the Arria meeting, US ambassador Samantha Power said more had to be done for Syrians, including those who identify as LGBT.
"When we're talking about a particular country, we often each of us talk about human rights or the crisis — let's say faced by women and girls in conflict — we need to look and make sure our embassies and the United Nations are looking to see also how LGBT persons are treated," said Power.
But Officials at US Citizen and Immigration Services say they have no idea how many — if any — LGBT Syrians are among the 1,300 that have arrived since 2011.
"We don't have any information that would allow us to say definitively how many folks have been resettled that have been self-identified as LGTB," Christopher Bentley, spokesperson for the agency, told VICE News.
On Tuesday, US officials said they would take in between 5,000 and 8,000 Syrian refugees next year — still a minuscule portion of the 2.2 million Syrian refugees that have registered with UNHCR, through which most refugees are recommended to US immigration authorities.
For LGBT refugees fleeing Syria, the discrimination they face at home could assist them to be resettled abroad, but few are willing to publicly identify as such, Neil Grungas, executive director of the Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration (ORAM), told VICE News.
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Though UNHCR does not keep data on those who have identified themselves as LGBT, out of some 100,000 refugees worldwide that are estimated to be resettled in 2014 and 2015 — 70,000 of them in the US — Grungas estimates that fewer than 200 have identified themselves as LGBT to officials handling their cases.
"They are terrified to self-identity," he said. "What often happens is the real basis for their claim, the most imminent, urgent need to escape is because they are LGBT, but they actually hide it."
Grungas said LGBT individuals commonly hide the fact that they are escaping because they are LGBT and they invent another claim.
"And they are denied because they are lying," he said
UNHCR does not tally the number of individuals who have sought resettlement in part or wholly on the basis of their sexual or gender identity.
Nahas, who currently works with ORAM in San Francisco, said identifying as LGBT to refugee officials is a gamble.
"To say you are gay or lesbian in their office, that might grant you refugee status or not," he told VICE News. "If you say you are not an LGBT and you are an LGBT, it is highly likely that your case will be denied."
"When you go to the office of UNHCR or other agencies, the waiting room is full of [local] people, so some of them might have prejudice or homophobia, so they attack them verbally if not physically," added Nahas.
Grungas said UNHCR officials and recipient governments have improved their handling of LGBT refugee claims since the start of the Syrian civil war. But he added that the problem remains that few refugees from Syria are allowed to resettle anywhere, most of all the United States. He said it would be significant if governments were to set aside allotments for LGBT refugees, something no state currently does.
"Everybody has to do more," he said.
Attendance and silence from some states at the Council session, however, conveyed that not all members were wholly behind the messaging from the US and Chile. Of the Council's 15 members, Chad and Angola failed to send a representative, while China, Russia, Nigeria and Malaysia did not utter a word.
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