ORAM- Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration works for the protection and well-being of extremely vulnerable LGBTIQ refugees and asylum seekers globally. We are recognized as one of the first international NGO to assist people fleeing persecution based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. We have since become a thought leader in LGBTIQ migration.

Founded in 2008, ORAM has worked tirelessly to protect LGBTIQ individuals claiming asylum. LGBTIQ individuals often experience a unique set of challenges when they claim asylum. But what challenges do they face? 

To answer this question, it’s first necessary to know who our beneficiaries are and understand their journey.  

ORAM serves lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) individuals who escape their country of origin because of reasons linked to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity and expression. Seventy states around the world still criminalize same-sex sexual acts. This exposes many people to the risk of arrest, imprisonment, physical punishment and even the death penalty. This forces thousands of LGBTIQ people around the world to flee their home countries every year. It is often the beginning of a hazardous journey. Many find themselves living in squalid and poverty-stricken camps or shelters for years as they apply for asylum. Marginalized by their refugee communities for being LGBTIQ and by the local host community for being foreigners, they are often ostracized and isolated. LGBTIQ asylum seekers and refugees are consistently among the most vulnerable individuals in the world. 

The marginalization and isolation they face, limits their access to basic services. Due to the frequent past trauma experienced in their home countries because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity and expression, they are often too afraid to reach out to local authorities. Therefore they cannot access services and assistance available to asylum seekers and refugees. Moreover, hiding their sexual orientation and gender identity from fellow refugee communities forces LGBTIQ individuals to continue living in the closet. 

The asylum process

The asylum process includes a series of interviews between the officer and the asylum seeker. This is done in order to establish the credibility of the claimant and grant them (or not) protection in the country of asylum. These interviews are very personal and confidential. Asylum seekers are required to go through their traumatic memories of violence and abuse providing as many details as possible. Those details may include minor things such as precise dates and times, expressions, colors of clothes. 

The described process itself can be a traumatic experience. High levels of discrimination often affect the population we serve. Cases of discrimination also occur from asylum officials. This despite the asylum process needing to be impartial and free of judgement, credibility should be decided on the basis of facts, not stereotypes or pre-existing assumptions or political opinions. 

It is important to enable the LGBTIQ asylum seeker and refugee population to access the same services as any other asylum seeker or refugee. In some countries homophobic or transphobic attitudes and views on sexual and gender minorities interfere with the impartiality the asylum process should guarantee.

In 2019

ORAM started developing programmatic work in Tijuana, Mexico after the high increase of LGBTIQ people seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. ORAM discovered that one of the critical challenges facing LGBTIQ asylum seekers along the border was the lack of legal assistance. We partnered with an LGBTIQ shelter in Tijuana called El Jardin de las Mariposas, and launched a program through which ORAM provides pro bono direct legal assistance to LGBTIQ asylum seekers who wish to apply for asylum in the U.S.  Migration in this geographical location is currently a big issue in the political agenda of both presidential candidates in the U.S. 

LGBTIQ asylum seekers ORAM supports in Tijuana have been waiting for months to get a chance to apply for asylum; on top of that, the current pandemic has impacted migration into the U.S.  The border is now closed, and the asylum system in the U.S. is suspended. Uncertainty and depression are very easy feelings in this situation, but we are trying to use this time in a positive way. We are organizing various remote workshops for the residents of the shelter. We started with a digital storytelling workshop. Now thanks to SPEAK we are able to provide English language classes to the residents. Divided into small groups of three, they are learning a new language and building a relationship with the buddy. On top of language and culture, the residents also have the opportunity to familiarize themselves with new e-learning technologies. 

Learning the language of the host country is one of the fundamental steps towards integration. We are happy to be a part of this partnership!

Watch a video explaining our activities in Tijuana during Covid-19!

Meet Marjori

Marjori is a transgender woman from Guatemala who fled her home country after fearing for her life there. Since arriving in Tijuana, Marjori has found refuge at a collective house for members of the LGBTIQ migrant community that is one of ORAM’s partners along the border. Before she left the shelter, we asked her why ORAM’s legal program is so important to her:  

 “Through the legal program, I’ve learned how to express myself to others, how to get rid of the past things that hurt me, and most importantly, how to have confidence in myself and my story.” – Marjori, Guatemala 

Marjori is confident and better prepared for the complicated legal process ahead of her when she seeks asylum in the United States. This is due to the efforts of a months work with ORAM’s team.  

What we do in a nutshell: 

ORAM works in Tijuana, Mexico assisting LGBTIQ asylum seekers who have fled violence, primarily from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. We know of hundreds of LGBTIQ asylum seekers in Tijuana, however there are probably thousands more along the border.  ORAM also works in Kenya. Kenya is the only East African nation to accept asylum claims based on sexual orientation and gender identity. More than 700 openly LGBTIQ urban refugees live in Nairobi. A further 200 in Kakuma Refugee Camp, but there are almost certainly many more.

ORAM has trained hundreds of refugee and asylum professionals on LGBTIQ sensitization in many different countries. Through training of refugee professionals, ORAM has safeguarded sexual and gender minorities (SGM) in the asylum process. We ensure they receive equal access to their rights. 

We run a 24/7 online Helpline for LGBTIQ individuals around the world, offering legal advice and referrals. ORAM partners with local organizations to create livelihood projects in transit countries; striving to empower internationally displaced SGMs to take control of their own lives. Through collaborative relationships with governments, international organizations, NGO’s and the general public ORAM has and continues to successfully increase system-wide awareness and protection of SGM asylum seekers and refugees.

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Author: Anna Fontanini

Anna Fontanini is the Project Officer at ORAM since two years. She works on multiple projects, given her knowledge of the language, she is involved in ORAM’s programmatic efforts in Tijuana. She is based in Berlin.

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