Legally Unrecognized but Bureaucratically Tolerated: Queer Iranian Refugees Living in Turkey

Shouleh[i], a lesbian refugee from Iran, told me, “We (Iranian queer refugees living in Turkey) want only three things: resettlement, financial help, and parties!”. She started the sentence with a serious face and ended it with warm laughter. With her strong but very approachable personality, Shouleh has been a well-known person – a community leader – in the city where she has been living since 2015. She was already a fluent English speaker, and within a short time she picked up Turkish. Soon other queer refugees contacted her whenever they had a problem, especially about communicating with Turkish officials or workers of non-governmental organizations that provide vital social and economic assistance to queer refugees. She has also been a key figure in my PhD fieldwork[ii] since February 2018, when we had our first interview. Ever since, we have maintained a friendship as well as a professional relationship. She has acted as the interpreter for many interviews I conducted with Iranian queer refugees.

Shouleh’s short list of demands summarizes the complicated problems Iranian queer refugees face while they wait in Turkey.

Resettlement – relocating from the country of asylum to a third country – is their only legally viable option in the long term. Turkey’s geographical limitation on its ratification of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees dictates that only individuals escaping from events happening in Europe can be granted refugee status there. While individuals escaping from Syria can apply for temporary protection, those coming from any other countries are only eligible for international protection. International protection explicitly blocks any road to permanent settlement in Turkey. It only allows individuals to remain in Turkey until the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) resettles them to a third country. One may be tempted to think that this waiting period might be short and easy. It is anything but.

The UNHCR explicitly states that resettlement is not a right but a protection mechanism.[iii] In other words, only those who are deemed the most vulnerable benefit from resettlement. As a result, although resettlement is the only long-term solution for Iranian queer refugees in Turkey, it is not guaranteed, leaving them in an in-between space of neither settling in nor leaving Turkey. Moreover, resettlement is a scarce resource. Only 1% of refugees in the world are resettled in a year. The percentage is even lower for Turkey. In 2017, 0.88% of refugees under international protection were resettled from Turkey. In 2018, it dropped to 0.26%.[iv] Finally, resettlement entirely depends on the quotas provided by the Global North countries[v] which conduct their own interviews with Iranian queer refugees within the borders of Turkey (usually in their embassies or via their I/NGO partners) to decide whether they deserve to be resettled. All combined, resettlement acts as a gatekeeper of the borders of Global North countries. Further mobility of refugees into the borders of Global North countries is curtailed while they get to pick and choose the refugees they deem deserving.

The waiting period is also riddled with the unknown. Iranian queer refugees must first navigate refugee status determination (RSD) procedures in a country where no national law mentions sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) as a ground for seeking asylum. This ostensible contradiction has been possible because up until September 2018, UNHCR conducted RSD interviews in Turkey. In what is known as a parallel-track system[vi], asylum seekers applying for international protection were interviewed and granted refugee status by the UNHCR, while national authorities validated the results. Deviating from its usual role of mediation, the UNHCR in Turkey had a chance to actualize its views on SOGI as a ground for asylum-seeking on a bureaucratic level. That is, while Turkey did not legally recognize asylum seekers basing their application on SOGI, it bureaucratically tolerated their existence as a result of its peculiar history with the UNHCR.

Without the robust protections that legal recognition may provide, Iranian queer refugees also have to deal with daily bureaucratic procedures which facilitate their access to financial help. Local and national actors such as Ministry of Family, Labor and Social Services, Red Crescent of Turkey and municipalities distribute financial help to refugees by prioritizing those who are in the category of “people with special needs”: unaccompanied children, disabled people, the elderly, pregnant women, single women, single mothers or single fathers with child(ren), and people who have been subjected to torture, rape or other serious psychological, physical or sexual violence.[vii] Economic vulnerability based on SOGI, as always, is not covered, preventing queer refugees from receiving any financial help from Turkish authorities. Iranian transwomen applied to such financial help schemes multiple times. However, they were rejected every time because local and national authorities employ a strictly cisnormative conceptualization of single women based on legal documents. Iranian transwomen who are registered with their passports or identity cards that have their birth name and “sex marker” (such as F/M letters on ID cards, or blue ID card/pink ID card) were considered as “male”, and thus undeserving of financial aid.

It was again the UNHCR that recognized the economic vulnerabilities of transgender refugees and introduced a financial help scheme targeting them. The UNHCR pointed out the fact that transgender refugees are having a tough time finding jobs, be it in the formal or informal sector since they are discriminated against because of their gender identity. As a result, they undertake sex work for their survival, which makes them more vulnerable to harassment, physical violence and deportation.

As for the last of Shouleh’s list of demands, “parties” indicate a deeper problem of discrimination against refugees within queer communities of Turkey. Socialization spaces for queer refugees are already extremely limited because of the double discrimination based on SOGI and being a refugee. In the summer of 2018, a group of Iranian transwomen and I went to a restaurant for lunch in Yalova. They said they usually do not dine together as it attracts too much attention. And indeed, it did. After a short while of taking our seats, other diners started to openly point their fingers to our table, whispering, laughing and finally taking photos with their phones. Feeling on display and violated, the group decided to divide and disperse to have coffee at different coffee shops.

Moreover, the limited “queer spaces” can be unwelcoming to refugees sometimes. In various social events that brought queer refugees and queer “citizens” together, queer “citizens” uttered the idea of “saving ourselves first before we help refugees”. Iranian queer refugees noted that a gay bar in Beyoglu, Istanbul did not serve them because they were refugees. Many also noted that they have attempted to socialize with queer citizens, but they faced discriminatory remarks which made them feel bad and prevented them from having fun.

I have delved deep into stories of discrimination that Iranian queer refugees face at the hands of the state, resettlement as a part of broken international refugee governance and anti-refugee sentiments within queer communities of Turkey. It is crucial to know, reflect upon and politically mobilize around such problems. Nevertheless, this does not mean that there are no queer communities created for and by Iranian queer refugees in Turkey. It is as equally crucial to know and support actors that foster solidarity and care. Kaos Gay and Lesbian Cultural Research and Solidarity Association (KAOS GL, for short) – one of the oldest LGBTI+ organizations in Turkey – has been closely working with queer refugees since early 2000. HEVI LGBTI+ Association, which initially focused on issues related to Kurdish LGBTI+ individuals in Turkey, expanded its activities to support queer refugees soon after it became an association in 2015. Positive Living Association, Red Umbrella Sexual Health and Human Rights Association and Social Policies, Gender Identity, and Sexual Orientation Studies Association have initiated a first-of-its-kind project in Turkey that directly provides services for queer refugees and people living with HIV. These actors sustain their support and care for queer refugees amidst the provincial bans on any LGBTI+ activities, constant attacks on the Pride Marches, and the global pandemic.

Mert Kocak is a PhD candidate in Sociology and Social Anthropology at Central European University (CEU). He is currently a non-resident fellow at Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen and an associated PhD student at Centre français de recherche en sciences sociales. In order to conduct his fieldwork, he received funds from CEU, Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law and New Europe College.

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[i] In order to protect the anonymity of my interlocutors, I will be using pseudonyms, and I will not mention their city of residence. [ii] Between September 2017 and October 2020, I conducted a multi-sited ethnography in four cities of Turkey: Istanbul, Ankara, Eskisehir and Yalova for twenty months. I have interviewed 56 queer refugees from Iran, Syria, Zimbabwe, and Pakistan. I have also interviewed 60 workers of transnational, international and local non-governmental organizations. [iii] [iv] Mert Koçak, “Who Is ‘Queerer’ and Deserves Resettlement?: Queer Asylum Seekers and Their Deservingness of Refugee Status in Turkey,” Middle East Critique 29, no. 1 (2020): 40. [v] [vi] M. Zieck, “UNHCR and Turkey, and Beyond: Of Parallel Tracks and Symptomatic Cracks,” International Journal of Refugee Law 22, no. 4 (2010): 593–622. [vii]