A couple we met at a refugee shelter in Berlin. Photo by Alexander Cogin from 'Refugees Tell Us What Their Lives Are Like After They Make it to Germany.'
This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.
They travel 2,000 miles for a chance at a better life, only to arrive at their destination and realize that everything works almost exactly the same way it did at home: Coming out as a homosexual refugee in Germany is out of the question. They're still the targets of the same exact people they feared in their own country.
I got in touch with a Syrian refugee living in Germany who calls himself Alex. Online, when chatting or setting up dates, he keeps his real name a secret because even in Germany, where he is supposedly safe, Alex doesn't have the courage to come out.
It took me several weeks to get his cell phone number and organize a meeting, but we eventually met in Bochum in western Germany. He's a burly guy in his early 30s with brown hair and a meticulous haircut. He's wearing simple jeans and a dark jacket. He has the stature of a bouncer, yet he comes across as timid, even shy.
"The problem now is that a lot of people from my country have also made it to Germany." —Alex
Alex fled Syria because of the war, but also because his colleagues accidentally found out he's gay, which is illegal in Syria, with offenders facing at least three years in prison. Alex says the problem now is that a lot of people from his country have also made it to Germany and brought their views about gay people with them. "They still reject us," he says.
Alex sits on the edge of the sofa—he speaks quietly but he is also open and thorough. He continually asks that his real name not be used in this article. His siblings also live in Germany, and it's imperative that they don't find out about his orientation because his family would disown him immediately.
Asylum seekers reach Europe by means of the Balkan route or the Mediterranean, and they sometimes carry the objectionable convictions of their home countries with them. According to Alex, most Arabs are conservative: "They're disgusted by gays. They say we need to rid society of these 'germs.'"
The situation is particularly bad in refugee shelters, where complete strangers are jammed together in tiny places. As recently reported in Berlin and in Dresden, gay men and women face daily discrimination even in those spaces. However, when it comes to episodes of violence, most of the cases go unreported, according to representatives from the various LGBT groups I spoke to. Still, Berlin is the first German state to do something in reaction to these attacks. According to Berliner Morgenpost, there are plans for a separate shelter that will exclusively house homosexual and transexual refugees.
At the moment, Alex is living in his own apartment in western Germany—he prefers it that way as it affords him a certain level of freedom. Most of the people he hangs out with, both Germans and refugees, don't have a clue that he's homosexual.
He socializes with other gay refugees at the Rosa Strippe counseling center in Bochum, where a weekly meeting is held. Nicole Ulrich, a professional counselor, is always present. One of her responsibilities is to make sure everyone is aware of the norms in his or her new home—in Germany you can be open about your sexuality, for instance, and you can hold your partner's hand in public. "People need to learn about the freedom Germany offers," Ulrich says.
She also advises Alex and the others on another delicate point—their asylum applications. According to EU law, facing persecution for being homosexual is a reason to be granted asylum, in the same way you can be persecuted for your political beliefs. However, it's often much harder to see this through in practice because the central question becomes: 'How do I prove that I'm homosexual?'
Those who are persecuted for their sexuality are not only afraid but also often ashamed. They are likely to appear hesitant during the asylum interviews and then get entangled in contradictions, which often affects the result of their asylum request. —Claus Jetz from Cologne
It all comes down to the individual interviews conducted by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, which is part of each asylum seeker's process. The result of the application is largely based on whether the administrator finds each story believable.
Political refugees often carry official files that prove they were persecuted in their country of origin—and many of them are proud of this proof. People who flee their homes because of their sexuality, on the other hand, officially fall into a different category—a persecuted social group. This means that their human rights have been infringed on and that they've been discriminated against.
"Those who are persecuted for their sexuality are not only afraid but also often ashamed," says Claus Jetz from Cologne's Gay and Lesbian Association. "That means that they are likely to appear hesitant during the asylum interviews and then get entangled in contradictions. That is partly because most of them have had bad experiences with administrators, police, and interpreters back home. They will hem and haw around and think up other reasons to apply for asylum. Sadly, the result is that often they don't come across as believable and are therefore threatened with deportation."
To the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, "believable" means "a concrete and convincing submission of facts with exact details." Additionally, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs points out that human dignity must always be considered.
Evidence, such as videos and pictures, was forbidden by the European Union in 2014. Before that, the Czech Republic used phallometric tests to determine whether someone was gay. Now even intimate questions are forbidden—at least in theory. According to Nicole Ulrich, these are still quite common: "The methods of questioning are in fact rather questionable. To my knowledge, applicants have been asked to explain how their sexuality works under repugnant conditions." For that reason, LGBT organizations are demanding better education for both the interviewers as well as the interpreters.
The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees does not register how many people apply for asylum citing their sexuality as the reason they faced persecution back home. But they do observe countries of origin. In Iran, for example, the situation is clear—homosexuals face a death sentence. But the situation gets more complicated with other countries. For instance, the criteria on which the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs judges a country as safe or unsafe is unclear. They consider both Ghana and Senegal to be "safe countries of origin," even though homosexuality is illegal in both. I did reach out to the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a comment but did not get a response.
Alex from Syria has just had his asylum application interview, during which he says he didn't tell the whole truth. He talked about the Syrian civil war and only made vague references to being part of a "persecuted social group." He said no word about being gay—which means that he could be sent back as soon as the civil war ends.