LGBTI People and Activists: „Sometimes it seems that political asylum is the only option “

On the workshop that SOC organized, in cooperation with its partners Foundation SHL, main talking point was about the process of political asylum on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.  In the following text of Mirza Halilčević you can find practical advice, guidelines, definitions of basic legal terms as well as personal experiences from the people that already went through the process of applying for asylum or are about to embark on it.

Author: Mirza Halilčević

Due to unfavorable economic and political situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, large amount of people is deciding to emigrate. General standard of living is fairly low. Adding all those problems, there are people that face specific forms of discrimination such as homophobia and transphobia. They often manifest through hate speech, violence or threats. To the victims, leaving the country and asking for political asylum elsewhere is the only solution. Possibility of applying for asylum on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity was the main talking point in the workshop organized by Sarajevo Open Centre in cooperation with Foundation SHL that was held on December 14th.

Vinko Mališ from Zenica was one of those that applied for asylum. Unfortunately, his application was rejected. He explains that everything started when he came out of the closet (publicly expressed his identity as gay) while giving interview for one newspaper with the purpose of encouraging others and empowering them to do the same. „I was outed by mistake. The interview I gave for the newspapers contained my first and last name because of the pressure of journalist. I lived in Switzerland at that time. When the article came out, threats and harassment started via social networks. I got very scared and afraid to return to BiH. I applied for asylum and even though I grew up in Switzerland and speak language very well, my application was refused because Bosnia and Herzegovina is considered as safe country for LGBTI people “, explains Mališ.

In spite of the fact that migrations are common phenomenon in the world, it is important to treat this term and put it in context such as socio-politic situation. Things have to be approached on individual basis in cases of applying for asylum on grounds of SOGI. Not every LGBTI person is victim to the same level of violence and discrimination nor do they belong to the same social and economic group. On the other hand, situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot be compared with the countries where homosexuality is criminalized or deemed as a mental illness. Bosnia and Herzegovina has adequate legal frame for combating discrimination on grounds of SOGI which as a consequence has the fact that many countries find BiH as a safe country.

In Sarajevo Open Centre they point out that the need for the workshop with this focus came from the ever-present atmosphere of migration of population as well as the need to present LGBTI specific issues when dealing with this subject.

“Specific thing is that along with many other problems in the country, that target everyone, LGBTI people go through additional issues that makes them impossible to imagine their future in BiH. Issues such as violence, lack of legal provisions that would make them equal in all aspects of life, bad implementation of laws, etc. SOC offers to LGBTI people education on this subject, legal counseling, psychological counselling. For this specific topic, we can prepare and inform person better before embarking on the process applying for asylum. We can connect them with other activists or people that went through same process”, said Darko Pandurević, one of the workshop organizers and facilitators that works as legal counselor and program coordinator for SOC.

In the beginning of the workshop, basic legal terms and words were defined. For example, difference between migrant and refugee. Migrants leave the country to reconnect with their families living abroad, for economic reasons, education etc. Refugee is a person who due to persecution, war, or the fact that country is unwilling or not able to ensure protection leaves his or her country. Migrants can still count on the protection of their government while refugees cannot. Status of a refugee is a given to the foreigner that due to founded fear of persecution on grounds of their race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, or affiliation to certain social group or political opinion decide to leave their country. In case of LGBTI people, it is due to affiliation to certain social group.

About the cases of LGBTI people that are in process of looking for asylum due to SOGI, talked Vladana Vasić, advocacy manager of SOC. “10-15 people contact us every year with questions related to asylum. So far, there was no successful applications with people that we know in the countries of EU. It seems that EU countries have more complicated conditions. Our practice is that asylum procedures go with most success in USA. Large number of activists successfully got their asylum there. We have successfully helped 4 persons with their asylum applications and 5th is currently in process. “ Vladana points that these processes are emotionally very demanding which makes a lot of applicants to quit the procedure before the end. Some of them have very hard time while staying at asylum centers, isolation from their family, as well as the fact that they do not have possibility of returning to their country of origin if they want to continue their asylum application procedure. Europe, when compared with USA, is more concentrated on countries of the world where there is war, or armed conflict. That makes applications based on SOGI to last longer. USA approves work visas to asylum seekers, which allows them to earn their own income.

SOC can also help asylum seekers from BiH by testifying about the conditions that are present in practice, especially since BiH is deemed as safe country for LGBTI. SOC has published letters of support for LGBTI asylum seekers with evidence that point to the bad implementation of existing laws and lack of security for LGBTI. The fact that there are almost no court sentences for violence and hate crime towards LGBTI. Positive thing is that every asylum application is approached on individual basis. Procedures of proving sexual orientation or gender identity or persecution are often very hard and stressful. There were past examples that people are being questioned about private life, sexual history, rejecting applicants for not being gay enough etc.

Jovana Boljanić also questions the possibility of leaving the country. She is activist and one of the founders of informal group Art Queer Sokolac. She came to the workshop because of all problems she faces, there is big need of informing herself more on this topic. “My work is manifested through a small group of people that we gather and dealing with usual problems of LGBTI such as violence through art. We have successfully ended 16 Days of Activism campaign. One of the reasons why I decided to participate in this workshop is my bigger and bigger visibility and exposure. This workshop opened my eyes a bit and made mi think in different directions than before,” says Jovana.

Possibility of asylum should not be considered as an opportunity of exodus of LGBTI people from BiH into some isolated safe space. Security is possible in BiH as well but we need to build it with patience, commitment and together. If we compare the situation with 10 years before, a lot of things changed. Positive thing is that for those in need, that suffer persecution, violence and face no bright future in their environment, there is still a possibility of finding brighter future elsewhere through asylum in some of the countries that fully accept them as they are.