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LGBTQ Policy Journal

Topic / Gender, Race and Identity

The Protection of LGBTI Migrants in Camp Settings

This paper examines the dangers presented to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender or Intersex (LGBTI) persons who find themselves among the 2.6 million forcibly displaced persons living in camp settings. While some LGBTI individuals flee due to the persecution of their sexual orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression (SOGIE), others are forcibly displaced by a political, economic or social crisis. After briefly outlining the grounds for formal protection such as international human rights law and the 1951 Convention, I identify challenges to individual safety and well-being in camp settings, including barriers within the humanitarian process itself. A series of concrete recommendations are accompanied by best practices from the United Nations and community-based organizations to showcase how future efforts can enhance protection at the individual, programmatic and global levels.


As of 2018, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there are 68.5 million forcibly displaced people globally.[1] Many of these individuals identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex (LGBTI) persons who have fled their home countries due to persecutory laws and practices. Around 80 countries criminalize same-sex activity,[2] often carrying the death penalty. Where activity is not illegal, violence and discrimination are woven into societal norms, presenting barriers in accessing housing, employment, education, and health care. Often, LGBTI individuals face restrictions in their rights to free speech and privacy and are arbitrarily arrested, imprisoned, and tortured.

Left with no other option, LGBTI persons are forced to flee and seek shelter either within or outside of their home countries. Due to these threats, an unknown number of LGBTI persons find themselves among the 2.6 million[3] forcibly displaced persons living in camp settings, either from the persecution of their real or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression (SOGIE) or other political, economic, and social crises. Although designed to provide temporary shelter and protection, migrants increasingly find themselves living in camps for extensive periods,[4] presenting specific risks to the lives of LGBTI persons.

This paper, which reviews documents from the United Nations, NGOs, nonprofits, and news sources, further examines the dangers presented to LGBTI persons living in camp settings. After briefly outlining the grounds for the formal protection, I identify challenges to individual safety and well-being, including barriers within the humanitarian process itself. A series of recommendations are accompanied by best practices to showcase how future initiatives and policies can assist in the protection of LGBTI persons in camp settings.

The Grounds for Protection 

All individuals, regardless of SOGIE, are entitled to enjoy the protections established by international human rights law, such as Articles 1 and 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).[5] Additional human rights instruments include the Yogyakarta Principles, which specifically outline the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution related to SOGIE.[6] Under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, individuals can obtain refugee status due to an actual or well-founded fear of persecution on the grounds of race, nationality, and membership of a particular social group or political opinion,[7] an often problematic definition. As the only United Nations agency with a mandate to protect this population, the UNHCR has sought to strengthen the link between the definition of “social group” [8] and one’s SOGIE. Additionally, the work of UNHCR includes internal policies on age, gender, and diversity[9] and disseminating guidelines[10] on the protection of LGBTI persons. Despite international and organizations’ protections, LGBTI persons in camp settings continue to be at serious risk of human rights violations.

The Threat to Physical and Mental Security

Camp settings pose serious threats to LGBTI persons, including physical violence, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), and the threat to life as well as verbal harassment and marginalization. These acts of hate can be committed by members of the asylum-seeker and refugee community, family members, humanitarian actors, and local populations.[11] LGBTI migrants face additional barriers in navigating routine parts of camp operations, including safe housing, documentation, and sanitation. It is important to note the unique challenges faced within each subgroup of the LGBTI community. For example, transgender individuals are at increased risk of SGBV when placed in a housing option that contradicts their current gender identity and/or expression. LGBTI refugees also face what is known as “double marginality,”[12] for instance, the compound effect of being both LGBTI and an ethnic, religious, or gender minority.

The attacks against LGBTI refugees in Kenya’s Kakuma Camp serve as an example of the dangerous conditions posted by camps. In December 2018, 20 LGBTI refugees were beaten by locals and other camp members in response to protesting for greater protections outside of an UNHCR office.[13] Refugee Flag Kakuma (RFK), a grassroots organization that works to empower LGBTI refugees, highlighted these attacks and the population’s subsequent relocation to a safehouse in Nairobi through their social media account.[14]

In addition to physical violence, LGBTI migrants face mental health challenges during all phases of their journey. The process of migration itself can cause severe trauma on an LGBTI individual, who has already fled their home area due to a real or well-founded fear of persecution. Upon arrival in camps, the experience of homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and other discriminatory attitudes can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, suicidal ideation, and a heightened sense of anxiety from the fear of being outed. Others may experience cultural bereavement[15] or the loss of familiar social structures, language, and other customs. Together, the psychological impact of living in camps leads to isolation[16] and the withdrawal from critical social support networks, further underscoring the need for psychosocial services.

Barriers and Discrimination in the Humanitarian Process

LGBTI persons face additional risks and barriers when interacting with all aspects of the humanitarian process, including registration, access to services, and the process of refugee status determination (RSD). Due to issues of safety and confidentiality, LGBTI individuals are often hesitant to share their status when registering for or requesting services. Humanitarian personnel may not be able to respectfully and effectively conduct interviews or make appropriate referrals for psychosocial, medical, legal, and other services. When accessed, providers may deliver services in a way that is prejudicial or may lack training on the specific needs of LGBTI persons, including transition-related care or HIV prevention and treatment.[17] Systems meant to gather feedback on camp operations often lack confidentiality or are unresponsive, often not worth the potential risk of exposure for LGBTI persons.  

The RSD, or the legal method determining grounds for formal refugee recognition, can be carried out by UNHCR staff or government officials. This process is especially problematic when conducted by government representatives in countries where diverse SOGIE is criminalized. Barriers exist around submitting the required documentation, such as when one’s noted biological sex is incongruent with their current gender identity or expression.[18] During the interview, LGBTI persons may be forced to recount their survival of persecution or prove their LGBTI status, leading to trauma and further marginalization.

Policy Recommendations

1. Prioritize the Safety and Security of LGBTI Persons in Camps

Issues surrounding safety and security, including the right to life, should be the priority of any initiative, guidance, or policy aimed at the protection of LGBTI migrants in camps. A combined approach should be utilized that includes preventing and responding to violence while reducing the amount of time spent in camps.

To the extent possible, LGBTI migrants should be consulted on important decisions surrounding their daily life in camps, such as the decision to be housed with same-sex partners or in a location matching their gender identity or expression. Any acts of violence, when witnessed or reported, should prompt quick response from appropriate UNHCR officials and/or security forces. In no instance should personnel participate in these attacks or otherwise limit a person’s right to submit a complaint or document abuse.

When appropriate, LGBTI persons should be relocated from high-risk situations in camps to pre-existing LGBTI networks in local cities. While relocation to an urban environment presents its own set of challenges, many LGBTI refugees feel cities are far safer places for them, allowing for a greater sense of anonymity and control over social interactions.[19] Efforts should be made to shorten the overall time of LGBTI persons in camps by fast-tracking applications for resettlement. The RSD process should be carried out in a non-discriminatory manner in accordance with mandated protection under the 1951 Convention.

Best Practice: Outside Support from NGOs in Nairobi

In Nairobi, Kenya, NGOs provide services that mitigate the physical and mental consequences of living in camps. One NGO addresses the immediate safety needs of LGBTI refugees by providing scattered housing for those who face heightened risk while waiting for resettlement. A scattered-housing program allows LGBTI refugees to identify a safe place to stay and covers the associated costs for a temporary period, overall reducing the risk of an attack being carried out in a single location.[20] Another NGO addresses the mental health of LGBTI persons by providing refugee-run counseling services and organizing community events, counteracting trauma and isolation, and re-establishing social support networks.

2. Generate Confidential and LGBTI-Sensitive Referral Networks

In order to alleviate barriers in accessing legal, medical, psychosocial, and other critical services, a referral network of LGBTI-sensitive providers and partner organizations that can be accessed safely and confidentially should be generated. This should be led by a dedicated protection officer responsible for overseeing operations in each camp setting. Outreach initiatives should be conducted, in order to identify and build relationships with existing local LGBTI organizations that may not yet be involved with supporting LGBTI refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants in camps. The perspectives of LGBTI partner organizations and migrants should be collected and incorporated into the design, implementation, and evaluation of these referral systems.

Best Practice: UNHCR Jordan

The operations of the UNHCR Jordan office provide a clear example of addressing the safety of LGBTI individuals in both camp operations and referral networks. As a result of a joint workshop with the Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration (ORAM) in 2013,[21] UNHCR established an internal group of LGBTI-sensitive staff members. Each of these staff members serve as a focal point, wearing a rainbow button signifying the safe approach for LGBTI persons. Safe-space posters and brochures are available in each office and translated into the local language. Feedback and complaints can be channeled through boxes at registration sites or by providing direct feedback to focal points. Additionally, focal points match each LGBTI person with a case worker either in the camp or at a partner organization who then oversees the referral process. Cumulatively, focal points collect information on the risks, needs and priorities of LGBTI persons and incorporate them into the office’s standard operating procedures and practices.

3. Facilitate Outcome-Driven Sensitization Trainings for Staff and Other Personnel

To enable further protection regarding the safety and security of LGBTI persons, mandatory sensitivity trainings should be implemented with humanitarian staff and third-party consultants involved with camp operations, including security officers. Trainings should focus on methods for assessing the risks and needs of LGBTI persons across the humanitarian process. To navigate around the additional barriers presented by the criminalization of SOGIE, discussions should avoid cultural and religious debate and instead focus on the delivery of humanitarian assistance. As a result, trainings should produce a series of concrete actions backed by guidance and policies. Identified risks, needs, and priorities should be incorporated into organizational-level codes of conduct to address attitudes and policy toward LGBTI persons from within the organization, as modeled by UNHCR’s Code of Conduct.[22] Key progress indicators should be established to monitor the impact of trainings on both increased levels of staff sensitivity and the protection of LGBTI persons in camps.

Best Practice: UNHCR/IOM LGBTI Training Package

In 2016, UNHCR together with the IOM developed and piloted a comprehensive LGBTI training package for humanitarian actors. The training consists of five modules administered annually to help humanitarian actors understand risk factors for LGBTI persons in camp and refugee settings. The content itself reviews both foundational knowledge on terminology and assumptions as well as operational protection, including conducting interviews and the RSD process. Anticipated long-term outcomes of the training include transforming UNHCR and IOM offices into safe and welcoming spaces, generating awareness on the responsibility to protect LGBTI persons of concern, and increasing the capacity of RSD adjudicators to assess claims per UNHCR policies and guidelines.[23]

4. Advocate for Protection at the National and Global Levels

Until we solve the core issue of the criminalization of SOGIE, we cannot effectively ensure the protection of LGBTI individuals in camps. Protection and other personnel working with camp populations need to develop a direct tie to human rights mechanisms and channel perspectives into larger advocacy mechanisms. Public awareness campaigns and global advocacy should be a result of combined efforts from UN organizations such as UNHCR and the Office of the Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR), NGOs, and grassroots organizations as well as LGBTI persons. Messaging should be tailored to local customs, ideas, and languages in order to address the systematic discrimination infused within societies, even in regions where LGBTI status has been decriminalized.

Best Practice: The Concerted Efforts of the United Nations and Local Organizations

Lessons can be learned from the participation of both UN and local organizations in advocating for the rights of LGBTI persons in formal human rights mechanisms. In its 2015 survey, UNHCR found that 36 percent of its 106 offices reported the situation of LGBTI individuals to national, regional, or international human rights mechanisms such as the Universal Periodic Review, Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and national human rights institutions (NHRIs).[24] Key findings include the usefulness of creating templates for writing reports and assisting LGBTI persons in submitting individual complaints. In another example, Helem, a nonprofit, continues to submit reports to the Human Rights Committee (HRC) regarding the protection of LGBTI persons in Lebanon. Their 2017 report to the HRC asserted a series of recommendations specific to Lebanon, including the abolition of the country’s penal code, greater dialogue between the government and human rights defenders, and the launch of a national anti-bullying campaign within educational institutions.[25]

Final Remarks

Due to the dangers outlined in this paper, many migrants will ultimately choose to hide their SOGIE status, creating a major challenge in accurately monitoring the ongoing human rights situation in camp settings. When humanitarian programs are expanded to track the situation of LGBTI persons, they should be careful not to do so for the sake of checking off a box. While UNHCR should be commended for its progress in protecting LGBTI persons, further collaboration is needed across other United Nations agencies, such as OHCHR and the Joint United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS, as well as amongst local NGOs and members of civil society.

Addressing the protection of LGBTI persons in camps is only a cross-sectional glance of the journey to safety. Future initiatives and policies need to analyze the situation of LGBTI persons across all pathways and stages of migration. Often, the most ideal locations for resettlement, including New York and San Francisco, are also the most expensive. Once resettled, either as a refugee or on the grounds of asylum, LGBTI persons continue to face isolation, abuse and discrimination, finding themselves facing the same persecution that prompted their initial flight.


[1] “Figures at a Glance,” UNHCR, n.d.,

[2] Living Free & Equal: What States Are Doing to Tackle Violence and Discrimination against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex People (New York: United Nations, 2016) [PDF file].

[3] “What is a Refugee Camp?” USA for UNHCR, n.d.,

[4] “Protracted Refugee Situations,” U.S. Department of State, n.d.,

[5] Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 2015) [PDF file].

[6] “The Yogyakarta Principles,” ARC International, n.d.,

[7] Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (Geneva: UNHCR, 1951),

[8] Working with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & Intersex Persons in Forced Displacement (Geneva: UNHCR, 2011) [PDF file].

[9] UNHCR Policy on Age, Gender and Diversity (UNHCR, March 2018),

[10] Guidelines on International Protection No. 9: Claims to Refugee Status based on Sexual Orientation and/or Gender Identity within the context of Article 1A(2)  of the 1951 Convention and/or its 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees (UNHCR, 23 October 2012) [PDF file].

[11] Nishin Nathwani, Protecting Persons with Diverse Sexual Orientations and Gender Identities (Division of International Protection, UNHCR, December 2015) [PDF file].

[12] Dale Buscher, “Unequal in Exile: Gender Equality, Sexual Identity and Refugee Status,” Amsterdam Law Forum 3, no. 2 (2011): 92–102.

[13] Nita Bhalla, “U.N. moves LGBT+ refugees to safe houses after Kenya camp attacks,” Reuters (blog), 13 December 2018,

[14] Refugee Flag Kenya, Facebook,

[15] Mark Messih, “Mental Health in LGBT Refugee Populations,” American Journal of Psychiatry 11, no. 7 (2016): 5–7.

[16] Kyle Knight, “The plight of LGBTI asylum seekers, refugees,” New Humanitarian (blog), 7 May 2013,

[17] Siobhan McGuirk et al., Stronger Together: A Guide to Supporting LGBT Asylum Seekers (Washington, DC: LGBT Freedom and Asylum Network, October 2015) [PDF file].

[18] Resettlement Assessment Tool: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Refugees (Division of International Protection, UNHCR, April 2013) [PDF file].

[19] Jennifer Rosenberg and Anne Meyers, Mean Streets: Identifying and Responding to Urban Refugees’ Risk of Gender-Based Violence (New York: Women’s Refugee Commission, February 2016) [PDF file].

[20] Sexual orientation and gender identity and the protection of forced migrations (Oxford: Forced Migration Review, no. 42, April 2013) [PDF file].

[21] Building Capacity for Protection of LGBTI Persons Of Concern – Jordan (Geneva: UNHCR, n.d.) [PDF file].

[22] Code of Conduct & Explanatory Notes (UNHCR, June 2004) [PDF file].

[23] Jennifer Rumbach, Working with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) Persons in Forced Displacement and the Humanitarian Context, Module 01 Facilitation Guide (UNHCR, IMO, January 2017) [PDF file].

[24] Nathwani, Protecting Persons with Diverse Sexual Orientations and Gender Identities.

[25] Helem – Lebanese protection for LGBTQ, Human Rights Violations against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) individuals in Lebanon (Helem – Lebanese protection for LGBTQ,  April 2017) [PDF file].