They fled war – now, LGBTQ refugees battle discrimination

In Poland and other eastern European countries, Ukraine’s queer refugees face political intolerance and social exclusion, writes Joanna Jaworska.

The World Today Updated 22 November 2023 Published 2 June 2023 3 minute READ

Joanna Jaworska

Assessment Officer (Moldova), Impact Initiatives

The first time Oksana, a queer Ukrainian refugee, travelled abroad was when she fled to Poland to escape the war last year. ‘I thought I was coming to Europe, so the society will be open [towards gay people]’, says Oksana, ‘but, turns out, it’s not that different from Ukraine here.’

Since the onset of war in February 2022, more than five million Ukrainians have registered in Europe for temporary protection. A high proportion settled in neighbouring countries, which are among the least tolerant towards gay people in Europe.

Poland, the most common destination country for Ukrainian refugees, was ranked last in the European Union for recognition of LGBTQ rights

In most Eastern European countries same-sex marriages or partnerships are not recognized and LGBTQ people are often subject to discrimination. In 2022, Poland, the most common destination country for Ukrainian refugees, was ranked last in the European Union regarding recognition of LGBTQ rights, according to ILGA, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, which assesses gay equality laws and policies each year.

Ukraine itself is falling behind in the ranking. Despite Ukrainian policymakers trying to move in a more progressive direction since the outbreak of the war, for instance, by considering legalisation of same-sex partnerships, recognition of LGBTQ rights and social acceptance remain low.

In a 2019 report by the Pew Research Center, only 14 per cent of Ukrainian respondents declared that homosexuality should be accepted by society. The United Nations and EU called for recognition of LGBTQ refugees’ specific needs, as pre-existent vulnerabilities become an added burden in a crisis.

Double exclusion

Krzysztof Kliszczynski, head of Lambda, a Warsaw-based LGBTQ organization, says that gay refugees struggle with similar issues to those faced by other refugees. They focus on organizing life in a new country, finding a job and accommodation. ‘However, LGBTQ refugees might be subject to double exclusion – based on nationality, as well as sexual orientation.’

On arrival in a new country, many refugees are first placed in collective centres. Yet LGBTQ newcomers may experience harassment from the other occupants. ‘Unfortunately, there is still homophobia and transphobia, and it was particularly hard for transsexual refugees to live in the communal centres,’ says Viorel Cenusa of GenderDoc, the only LGBTQ-oriented organization in Moldova.

Providing accommodation has been one of the main roles of such groups in Eastern Europe. They provide emergency housing to gay people who, for example, have been evicted by their families. As soon as the war started, this help was extended, offering shelters to refugees or establishing databases of hosts who offer LGBTQ-friendly accommodation.

Whether renting a room or looking for a job, refugees usually hide their sexual or gender identity to avoid discrimination. ‘No one announces that they are a couple,’ says Oksana. ‘People may be ashamed or scared.’

Safe social spaces for integration

Such organizations seek to establish safe social spaces for integration. They organize events and language classes, bringing together locals and refugees. Forming new social bonds can be difficult, however. Alexandra, a refugee living in Wroclaw, Poland, says refugees don’t have the time to socialize and can face a language barrier.

Lack of legal same-sex partnerships creates a particular vulnerability for those who suffer forced displacement. Unmarried couples cannot access social benefits or services as a family. As a refugee lesbian couple heard from a Polish civil servant: ‘Here you aren’t a family, here you are strangers.’

Poland, Romania and Bulgaria refuse to define same-sex couples as family members 

When it comes to temporary protection, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria exclude same-sex couples, even if they are married, from the definition of family members. Travelling together may be difficult if the partners are of different nationalities. Third-country nationals are often not offered the same aid as Ukrainians.

Anna Smarzynska, the head of Wroclaw NGO, Kultura Równósci, recalls the case of a Moroccan transgender woman who struggled to obtain asylum in Poland. Returning to Morocco was an impossible choice, however. ‘Had she done so, she would have been sentenced to prison.’

Transgender refugees face distinct vulnerabilities. Their identity is often questioned at border crossings, especially if their documents don’t match their gender identity. Those who reach their destination often struggle to access hormonal replacement drugs. Awaiting a doctor’s appointment increases the delay. In any case, price can make them unaffordable for many.

The importance of international support

Eastern European governments remain largely indifferent to the issues of LGBTQ refugees who often have to rely on local NGOs. Local projects are largely supported by the western refugee or LGBTQ-oriented organisations. ‘Without international support we wouldn’t make it,’ admits Kliszczynski. Yet, although the war is still going on, external help is beginning to fade.

Many LGBTQ refugees prefer to stay in neighbouring countries due to geographical and linguistic proximity to Ukraine

International cooperation is essential for an informed and swift response. Cenusa recalls that GenderDoc has been in contact with Ukraine-based and other foreign organizations since the first days of war, to help refugees as they reached the border and aid their journey onwards.

Although western countries offer special asylum programmes to Ukrainian refugees, including LGBTQ people, moving onwards isn’t an obvious choice. ‘Most of those who reached us were very young people, who never intended to emigrate,’ recalls Kliszczynski. Many prefer to stay in neighbouring countries due to geographical and linguistic proximity to Ukraine.

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ILGA and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees both call for inclusivity in the refugee response. Accommodation, healthcare and integration programmes should be established in cooperation with the LGBTQ community, including refugees themselves and local NGOs. The latter are often best suited to provide direct aid.

Yet, inclusivity begins with consultations and identification of refugees’ needs. So far, host countries have lacked large-scale studies on the particular situation of LGBTQ refugees. With low social acceptance and lack of legal status, LGBTQ individuals and families often go unnoticed.