TJay Wothaya and her girlfriend could live with the harassing emails and threatening notes shoved under their door in Kenya. But when they were each attacked by anti-gay mobs — Wothaya's partner almost raped on her way home one night — they knew they had to get out fast.
"There was nothing left for us to do at that point. We needed to flee for safety," Wothaya, a long-time LGBT rights activist, told VICE News. And so they arrived in Toronto earlier this year on visas they already had for work, and applied for refugee status in hopes of getting a fresh start.
Wothaya is grateful, but worries that the Canadian immigration officials reviewing her case are too preoccupied with making her prove her sexuality, rather than on the persecution she faced back home.
It's this preoccupation with making LGBT asylum seekers prove their sexual identity, among other problems with Canadian refugee policies, that researchers from Toronto's York University are condemning in a new report released Tuesday.
"To be seen as though I might not be telling the truth, that is what has made it a negative process," Wothaya said. "My experiences of persecution were put far behind me proving that I am a lesbian."
In the 59-page report, Is Canada a Safe Haven for Refugees?, researchers documented the experiences of 92 LGBT refugee and asylum seekers from all over the world in Toronto from 2012 to 2014.
"In Canada, there are hoops and hurdles that only LGBT refugees, and not other refugees, have to jump through in order to get in and stay here," Nick Mulé, one of the report's authors, told VICE News. "Some of these people are coming from countries where they cannot be open and free about being gay or lesbian. And suddenly you have an immigration official asking them to reveal personal information that they might never have shared in public before. It's disrespectful and can cause even more trauma and harm."
Canada is one of 42 nations that grants asylum to people who have been persecuted in their home country because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. However, the report says that changes to Canada's refugee policy made in 2012 have hurt refugees and immigrants, especially those from the LGBT community.
"LGBT refugees who do arrive in Canada must navigate and negotiate a complex claims process within a limited time frame that severely limits a claimant's ability to produce the documentation necessary for their claim," the report states. It also points out that for many refugees who are resettled, there is a dearth of support services for LGBT refugees including safe housing, and access to healthcare and counselling.
According to the report, 75 countries continue to make same-sex relationships and behavior a crime, and eight countries, including Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, implement the death penalty as punishment for being part of the LGBT community. Just last year, the government in Kenya was considering a new law that would stone gays and lesbians to death or imprison them for life as punishment for their sexuality.
Last year, the European Court of Justice ruled that refugees claiming asylum in member states based on persecution back home because of their sexual orientation should not be tested to find out if they're telling the truth.
"On the one hand, Canada is a safe haven because we are one of a handful of countries that will recognize sexual orientation as a claim for refugees seeking status," said Mulé. "But even so, restrictive and troubling policies means Canada has become insensitive to the very people that we've opened our doors to."
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