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The Irony of Rights: Healthcare for Queer and Transgender Refugee Applicants in Turkey

[UNHCR Resettlement Assessment Tool] [UNHCR Resettlement Assessment Tool]

The crowd in front of the police station is chatting in clusters in the brutal summer heat. Refugee applicants occasionally stop their conversation to say hello to friends and acquaintances who arrive on foot or on bicycles. It is Wednesday, the signature day (rooz-e emzaa) in Kayseri; a weekly ritual in every “satellite city” in Turkey, when refugee applicants are required to appear in person at designated local police stations to sign and prove that they are there. Until this spring, Marjan also came to this police station to sign as an Iranian transgender woman refugee applicant, hoping to be resettled in Canada. Marjan never made it to Canada. This April, she died due to lack of access to proper health services.

Marjan is one among many transgender women who die in Turkey from everyday economic or physical violence. Ironically, while giving temporary refuge to a number of queer and trans refugee applicants, Turkey is not a safe haven for trans and queer people. Gaye, a Turkish trans woman who owned a flower shop, was killed in Istanbul this July. Four transgender murders and eleven assaults in the cosmopolitan tourist-oriented Istanbul have taken place in the past seven months. This does not take into account the number of suicides, health-related deaths, and murders in smaller cities, nor does it say anything about the living circumstances that lead to death for transgender women. “Every summer, the toll is on the rise. These are only the cases we know of. We don’t know what is happening in eighty-one provinces of Turkey. We only know of cases when they happen in big cities or where trans communities are active. Therefore, we cannot tell an exact number,” says Kemal Ördek, a representative of Kırmızı Şemsiye Association. The situation is even more disconcerting for queer and trans refugee applicants who do not have citizenship rights and live in Turkey under the rhetoric of “protection of rights.”

Even as the geopolitical and the developmental logic of human rights regimes assume transphobic and homophobic violence to be particular to Iran or Turkey in the Middle East, the story is not that different in the United States or Canada, two common destinations for many Iranian queer and trans refugee applicants. Yet it is unlikely that the United Nations High Commisioner for Refugees (UNHCR) would grant refugee status to black trans women from the United States, even as three black trans women were murdered in April alone. Nor does human right protection seem applicable to queer and trans refugees who arrive in the United States or Canada and are faced with lack of sufficient social services, which are being increasingly cut due to neoliberal economic policies. Sayeh, an Iranian transgender refugee woman who committed suicide in 2008 less than a year after arriving in Toronto, is an example of the contradictions in the logic of universal human rights. Neither the hardships that she endured while waiting in Turkey, nor the lack of access to housing, work opportunities, and healthcare in Canada entered the register of violation of human rights. “Resettlement is not a right,” a refugee advocate in Turkey tells me as he recounts the contradictions in the UNHCR’s claims of protection of rights.

The inconsistencies of the value of life, its protection, and its disposability, beg the following question: What counts as rights and what is condemned as the violation of rights? Where and when are certain acts marked as “violation” of human rights and when and where are they seen as individual criminal acts? How does one explain Sayeh and Marjan’s deaths, when their lives as refugees were seemingly protected under the auspices of human rights? What are the conditions of queer and trans refugee life (or one could argue, to adopt Lauren Berlant’s term, “slow death”) in Turkey? As a part of my ethnographic research, this summer I visited queer and trans refugees in Istanbul, Ankara, Denizli, Kayseri, and Nevsehir. I conducted forty-five interviews with the Iranian queer and trans refugees, the UNHCR, Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants (ASAM), KAOS GL, the Helsinki Citizen’s Assembly, in addition to a few other organizations that provide services to refugees in Turkey.

According to the UNHCR, between 1 January 2010 and 1 July 2013 there were 537 LGBTI refugee applicant arrivals in Turkey, 471 of whom are from Iran, thirty-one from Iraq, thirteen from Afghanistan, and a handful of people from Syria, Tunisia, Cameroon, Morocco, and other locations. Turkey extends protection under the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees only to persons originating in Europe. However, the Turkish government allows non-European asylum seekers to remain in Turkey temporarily while their cases are pending with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Refugee applicants are required to register with the Turkish Ministry of Interior and with the UNHCR, while waiting to be interviewed several times over a span of several years. Upon registration with the UNHCR, the applicants are assigned to small satellite cities where they are registered by the Turkish Police and are required to stay during the time they are interviewed by the UNHCR and the embassy of the country of asylum. Most Iranian queer and transgender refugee applicants are assigned to cities such as Denizli, Kayseri, Eskisehir, Nevsehir, and other small cities. If approved as refugees, they are allowed to apply for resettlement to a third country of asylum. The registration process with the UNHCR, registration and assignment to small satellite towns in Turkey, interviews with the UNHCR for refugee status determination, and interviews with the third country of asylum takes years. During this time asylum seekers are required to pay for their own basic expenses.

In my interview with the Helsinki Citizen’s Assembly, I learned that the number of refugees (excluding the Syrian arrivals) in Turkey has increased from five thousand to fifty thousand since 2009. However, the UNHCR still resettles the same number of people as before. This translates into a backlog of cases and a much slower process for refugee applicants who are waiting to be interviewed. While the largest number of refugees until 2010 was from Iraq followed by Iran and Afghanistan, currently the number of Afghan refugee applicants exceeds the number of Iraqis and Iranians. Some Afghan refugee applicants come to Turkey from Afghanistan, but many are those who have left Iran in hopes of a better life elsewhere. There are about 2.5 million Afghan refugees and undocumented immigrants living in Iran. The second wave of movement of Afghan refugees from Iran to Turkey is a direct result of economic sanctions that have scapegoated immigrants and refugees as economic burdens.

Not unlike Afghan refugees, the number of queer and trans refugee applicants has increased during the Iranian sanctions. The sanctions have made life for many people, especially those who are marginalized, extremely difficult. At a time when inflation and the high cost of food and medicine make life unaffordable for many in Iran, people compete over jobs and resources for survival. The economic situation makes queer and trans people, especially those who have visible markers of queerness, more vulnerable to losing their jobs and being subjected to economic and physical violence. Pointing to the disappearance of social solidarity in the face of economic hardship, a lesbian woman and a single mother in Denizli told me, “These are times when deer won’t nurse her own child!” Rather than fixating on the usual narrative of “gay executions,” perhaps the human rights regimes and the international media should pay attention to the deteriorating living conditions and escalating social insecurity that push queer and trans people out of Iran. Pejman, an Iranian gay man who has “passed” the UNHCR refugee test, told me “I left because I was fed up with the situation in Iran. I knew that you could become a refugee for being gay. Many of my friends had left. I didn’t have problems with the state for being gay, so I made up a story in my interview, just to make sure that the UN would not reject me. But it doesn’t mean that I didn’t have a good reason to leave. In fact, the way that this [the economic situation in Iran] is going, all 70 million Iranians have legitimate cases to become refugees!”

This is not to say that all queer and trans applicants in Turkey have left Iran due to economic reasons; nor am I suggesting that all queer people have the same experience with the Iranian authorities. However, for many people, reasons for leaving are a lot more nuanced than the usual narrative of “gay executions” that has become the sine qua non of legitimacy for queer refugees from Iran. Just the way that those who can stay put without being affected harshly by the economic crisis can afford to stay and live a comfortable life, there are those who have the money to leave in search of more social freedoms and an “out” lifestyle. The abstract category of “LGBTI refugee” does not capture the privileges that gender and class afford to some queers. The living situation of queer and trans people in satellite cities are different for those who have brought money and/or have family support from Iran, and those who do not have class and gender privileges.

Refugee applicants are not allowed to work in Turkey, but some people find “illegal” work. As it is the case with undocumented people in most parts of the world, refugees who work “under the table” are often exploited by their employees and receive lower wages than most citizens. Many refugee applicants quit their jobs because their employees withhold their wages. There are no legal grounds for claiming one’s wages for “illegal” work. Denizli is one of the hubs of textile industry and towel factories in Turkey. Omid, a gay man who suffers from back pain, quit his factory job because he was not allowed to take breaks to sit down: “The manager yelled at me and insulted me when I sat for a second to stretch my back. He would not pay my wages, so I quit and I have not been able to find anything that does not involve operating heavy machinery.”

Most available jobs for refugee men involve operating heavy machinery or construction work. Sahand and Shayan, two transgender men in Denizli, have to pass as cisgender men in order to find work. Sahand told me that because he has a small body and cannot perform heavy work, he is often fired from his jobs. He has developed a skin irritation on his chest because he binds tightly and works outdoors in the extreme summer heat. Neither Sahand nor Shayan have had top surgery in Iran, as they were not able to afford the cost. The Iranian state has significantly reduced the subsidy for gender reassignment surgeries since economic sanctions. “They only gave me a 2.5 Tomans loan which was barely enough for my hysterectomy and ovariectomy,” Sahand said as he showed me the bulk of paperwork that identify him as a person with “gender identity disorder.” He has brought all his medical and psychological evaluation records from Iran to prove that he is indeed a transgendered person. “I don’t shoot testosterone anymore because I can’t afford it here. Thank god that I had my hysterectomy and ovariectomy before I came here. Otherwise, without hormones I would be getting my period now!” Sahand, who needs medicine for a chronic health condition, has not been able to receive any medical help or medicine since he has been in Turkey. Two days after we met, he called to let me know that he lost his painting job because his employer has moved to a different city. Denizli police would not give him permission to leave his satellite city and he did not want not to risk leaving without permission.

Being fired from one’s job is every day anxiety for many queer and trans refugees. Shayan does not socialize with other queer refugees or Iranian refugee applicants, because he is worried that others might out him as a trans man to his employer. “People would cut throat for work here. If somebody else can get my job, they would not hesitate to say that I am not a man!” His partner, Roya, complained about being extremely isolated and alone because she was afraid of socializing with other queer and trans refugees, out of the fear that Shayan would be outed as trans. Even Mohsen, a gay man who speaks fluent English and Turkish and has been able to find an office job in a company owned by an Iranian-Turkish man, has to lie to his boss and pretend that he has a girlfriend. “He really likes me, but he would fire me immediately, if he finds out that I am gay.” Passing is an ironic reality of queer and trans refugee applicants in Turkey. The term used when one is recognized as a refugee by the UNHCR is “ghabool shodam” (“I was accepted” or “I passed the exam”). Passing the test of being gay, lesbian, or transgender according to the UNHCR standards, and passing as straight or cisgender at work or in public in Turkey mark forms of policing and surveillance that queer and trans refugees experience on a daily basis.

Sepideh, a young masculine female-bodied person in Kayseri, has been passing as a boy to find work. Not having any other options, she took a job as a welder without having any prior experience. Her employed fired her when she burned her arm. Recently, she found another job, but it didn’t take long before she was again fired. The job was advertised in one of the refugee resource websites in Kayseri. The man who advertised the job as an opportunity to “make money from home” is a private contractor with a factory. He hires a group of Iranian and Syrian refugees in a sweatshop-like environment at his home to assemble product parts for a small pay. Sepideh was getting 100 TL ($50) for a week’s work, which is much lower than the minimum wage. I “didn’t have the feminine figure that the contractor expected,” Sepideh wrote in our online correspondence. The contractor, who pretended that he did not have money to pay her, finally asked her to go with him in his car so that he could get the money for her. “I took a friend with me, knowing that he was up to no good. He drove us to a dark spot and finally gave me my money.” Like many other refugee applicants who become depressed while living in a limbo with no work opportunities or money, Sepideh is worried about her next month’s rent and has frequent anxiety attacks.

The situation for many transgender women is even more devastating. In most cases, transgender women cannot pass as cisgender and face hostility and violence. Darya, a trans woman who has had surgery in Thailand told me that the only available job to trans women in Iran and in Turkey is sex work. Darya, who speaks fluent Turkish and can pass as a “real woman” as she put it, was working as a hairdresser in Denizli, until one of the customers outed her to her employer. Darya was fired and has not been able to find work since. Shadi, a young transgender woman from a working class background, left Iran because she was constantly harassed on the streets. She has no money to pay rent and has managed to support herself by living with different “boyfriends.” On several occasions, she has been in domestic violence and sexual abuse situations and has been forced to have sex in return for shelter (which her housemates had initially offered as a gesture of friendship). When I met with Shadi for an interview, she came with her “boyfriend” and announced happily that she had received her “passing results” from the UNHCR earlier that day. The minute Shadi’s boyfriend left us to say hello to another man, Shadi told me that she is only living with him because she has no other choice. “It is better to sleep with one person in return for a roof over my head, than sleeping with several people,” Shadi said in a frank tone. “At least he doesn’t beat me or lock me in the house. But, since he has “passed” the UN test, he has been threatening to kick me out and has been telling me that he wants to be with a real woman.”

Because of criminalization of sex work, Shadi has never reported domestic violence and rape to the police, nor has she told the UNHCR about the way she has survived in Turkey so far. She is concerned that the police would arrest her, rather than the abusers, and is afraid that telling the UN would jeopardize her case. “I don’t even know what STDs I may have at this point,” she whispered after telling me about being forced to have sex without protection with different men. Ironically, while the UNHCR has a HIV/AIDS program, it will not provide the necessary financial support or housing that can prevent Shadi and other trans women from contracting HIV, or protect them from being subjected to violence. Condom distribution is important, but one cannot live in a condom or exchange it for food or rent. When I chatted with Shadi online in the middle of writing this piece, she told me that her “boyfriend,” who has forged a relationship with a cisgender woman, finally kicked her out two weeks ago. “I left and was in a park until a man took me home with him. I am temporarily living with a couple of friends. I don’t know for how long I can continue this,” Shadi wrote before she let me know that she had to get offline and give the computer back to her host. In the past, a diasporic queer organization helped Shadi leave an abusive situation. However, this organization has stopped answering her emails all together, assuming that Shadi has been lying about repeated abusive situations. Perhaps, understanding the criminalization of poverty and sex work would give LGBT refugee advocacy organizations better tools to support working class queer and trans refugees. “Let me call the police for you!” (a suggestion Shadi received from one of these organizations in Canada) may be the worst possible advice, as Shadi told me. Transgender women sex workers know very well that it is more likely for them, rather than the perpetrators to be arrested, deported, or denied resettlement.

For refugee applicants who do not have money and cannot find work, access to affordable healthcare is almost impossible. While the Turkish government provides limited social and medical services to refugee applicants, this requires a fee-based foreign number/blue book (kimlik), which costs 198 TL (roughy100 USD). This card will not be issued unless the applicant pays a $50 “temporary resident permit,” which needs to be renewed every six months. Many refugee applicants cannot afford the kimlik fee and therefore do not have access to necessary health services. The UNHCR and its implementing partner, ASAM, provide some basic healthcare and a very small assistance on a case-by-case basis, only after one is recognized as a refugee. Granted that being recognized as a refugee takes a long time (from several months to more than a year), refugee applicants who cannot afford the cost of kimlik do not have access to healthcare. This financial aid that the UNHCR offers to those have been recognized as refugees (have “passed the test”) is discretionary, is often granted as a one-time assistance, involves a home visit, and takes a long time after one applies for aid. Even though the UNHCR and ASAM claim that they help transgender refugees with hormone therapy (after they are recognized as refugees), none of the trans refugees to whom I spoke were able to receive hormone therapy. A legal advocate with KAOS GL, an organization that helps queer and trans refugees, told me that she could not even get money for HIV medicine for her clients, let alone for hormones.

Many refugees prefer not to seek medical and mental health services with UNHCR referral, because the UN-referred professionals report the results of refugees’ health condition to the UNHCR. The UNHCR, in turn, relays this information to the “third country of asylum.” This often prolongs refugees’ resettlement processes, as the third country of asylum expects the refugees with health issues to receive a “reasonable” number of treatment sessions before they are allowed to enter its territory. This is particularly problematic for people who suffer from depression or chronic illnesses that take a long time for treatment. The UNHCR randomly orders medical and psychological evaluation by “experts” for some queer and trans refugee applicants. As a legal advocate at the Helsinki Citizens Assembly told me, this is one of the most problematic parts of the UNHCR assessment processes, as the applicants are not told why they need to have a blood test or psychological evaluation, nor are they informed of the results of their evaluation.

The pathologization of queer refugees by the psychological “experts” in Turkey keeps many queer and trans refugees from seeking psychological counseling. A UNHCR staff member told me that many Iranian queer and trans refugees suffer from mental health issues and depression because of the trauma that they have suffered in Iran. What is ignored in this assumption is the fact that many people become depressed because they live under extremely unstable conditions in Turkey, while under the “protection” of the UNHCR. “I am not depressed because I am gay. I am depressed because I have been waiting for so long without any support. My interview is not for another six months and I don’t even know if I will pass. Nobody cares about how I am going to make it here. I would be happier if I was dead,” Ali, a gay man in Nevsehir told me. Many people who leave Iran with the expectation of claiming their rights, while being stripped of the rights in an in-between zone where they cannot work, do not have affordable housing, and do not have access to healthcare. While queer and trans refugees are pathologized as those suffering from depression because of their sexuality, the everyday conditions of refugee life that might lead people to depression, suicide, and even death from lack of healthcare, are often erased.

Most people to whom I spoke have not received much support from the diasporic Iranian organizations that purport to help queer and trans refugees. For most people, the extent of help they have received from these organizations is a verification letter to prove to the UNHCR that the applicant is indeed queer. KAOS GL and Helsinki Citizen’s Assembly provide great legal help for queer and trans refugees, but their resources are quite limited and barely sufficient to respond to the increased number of refugees.

Are there grassroots mobilizing strategies that can change the living conditions of queer and trans refugees? Does the normative notion of rights, which has proved to be contradictory and unachievable for those who do not fit the norms of race, class, gender, and sexuality, improve the living condition of queer and trans refugees? Or, are queer and trans lives becoming disposable in the name of rights? Is it possible to work towards social justice for queer and trans people, without repeating narratives of oppression vs. freedom that make queer and trans refugee advocacy organizations fundable by the “liberating” states or entities that serve the neocolonial agendas in the Middle East? Is it possible to form a politics that recognizes the way that war and sanctions increasingly force queer and trans people to become refugees? Is it possible to support queer and trans refugees without mimicking the policing strategies of the states and human rights regimes that “test” queer and trans people to decide who is deserving of rights and who is not? 

No justice seems possible or thinkable without the principle of some responsibility, beyond all living present, within that which disjoins the living present, before the ghosts of those who are not yet born or who are already dead, be they victims of wars, political or other kinds of violence, nationalist, racist, colonialist, sexist, or other kinds of exterminations, victims of the oppression of capitalist imperialism or any of the forms of totalitarianism. Without this non-contemporaneity with itself of the living present, without this responsibility and this respect for justice concerning those who are not there of those who are no longer or who are not yet present and living, what sense would there be to ask the question “Where?” ”Where tomorrow?” “Whither?”

                                                                                                                  -Jacques Derrida

When I was conducting research with queer refugees in different satellite cities in Turkey, I suggested the possibility of forming a network that is run by refugees, does not have a hierarchal structure, does not take a charity approach, does not work to police and regulate queer and trans refugees’ sexuality, does not criminalize poverty and sex work, and does not get caught up in the competitive neoliberal logic that dominates much of the queer refugee advocacy work. Since those series of initial conversations, a group of us have been meeting on a weekly basis on Skype to form a network that we have named Sayeh (shadow), commemorating a transgender woman whose story was used in many documentary films about the situation of transgender women’s lives in Iran, but whose suicide in Canada remained unspeakable.

While we are still in the process of writing a mission statement and are not officially established as a non-profit organization, we are discussing strategies that would improve the living situation of queer and trans refugees in Turkey and the third country of asylum.

The Kimlik fundraising project is our first project to make healthcare accessible to queer and trans refugees who cannot afford healthcare. We need to raise at least $12,000, but are hoping to raise more funds to reach out to as many queer and trans refugees as possible. While we are only in contact with Iranian queer refugees, we hope to reach out to other queer and trans applicants (mostly from Iraq and Afghanistan), in order to increase the life chances of people who fall through the cracks in the international human rights regimes. We do not wish to receive funding from states or organizations that serve the neocolonial agendas in the Middle East, nor do we wish to become complicit with any kind of pinkwashing propaganda that claims to save or liberate queers. We believe that social change will happen through grassroots politics and organizing, and not from above. That is why we have chosen crowdsourcing to raise funds for the Iranian queer and trans refugees who are living under dire conditions and are not receiving sufficient support from the "liberating” states and human rights NGOs. 

Our hope is to collaborate with other social justice groups in the United States, Canada, and other locations where queer and trans refugees are resettled, demanding what Dean Spade has called Impossibility Now. We envision a world where justice, and not empty promises of equality, is the promise of the future. Our kimlik project is a very small first step towards forming a network that brings about that change. If you would like to support us in our efforts to make healthcare accessible to queer and trans refugee applicants in Turkey, please visit our Fundly page.

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