By Kate Adach
Ori Garcia lived in constant fear before fleeing Mexico. She suffered homophobic violence and humiliation in a country often considered safe for queers.
“As a transgendered woman, every day that go by in my life, in my country, was a matter of life or death,” she said.
Garcia applied for refugee status in 2008 in Vancouver. Two years later she still waits for a hearing in to her case.
Despite the delay, she may be lucky to have sought status before Canada’s new refugee laws are enacted next year.
Advocates say queer claimants — people who face persecution for their sexual orientation or gender identity — may struggle to defend their cases under Bill C-11. The reformed act is intended to streamline the country’s lagging refugee process.
The Conservative government introduced the Refugee Reform Act to address a backlog of 63,000 pending claims.
In 2011, refugee cases will be determined within two or three months depending on the country of origin. This is a significant change. Previously, claimants have had to wait much longer.
However, many fear this fast-track system won’t allow enough time for sexuality or gender claims to be made sufficiently, and that pre-designating countries could have dangerous consequences.
“It’s a complex picture on the ground,” said Sharalyn Jordan, a PhD candidate at UBC whose research focuses on queer refugees. “No country is completely safe or completely unsafe for queers and trans people.”
Mexico has legalized same-sex marriage, for example, yet homophobia is prevalent throughout much of the country.
Too fast for comfort
Garcia’s two-year wait is not uncommon. Most cases take an average of 21 months before claimants learn whether they’ve been accepted or rejected.
“Compared to the current system where people are waiting up to two years, yes I want to see a shorter system,” Jordan said.
But the Rainbow Refugee Committee, an advocacy group for queer claimants, warns that there’s such a thing as too fast.
Queer refugees “have spent many years concealing their sexual orientation, their gender identity,” said Chris Morrissey, co-founder of both the committee and the Lesbian and Gay Immigration Taskforce.
Their needs go beyond those of other refugees, she said.
Queer claimants must provide evidence of two things:
- Their sexual identity or orientation, and
- That they face persecution because of it
Both can be a challenge.
Claimants have a difficult time getting documentation to prove their sexuality or that they are in danger, Jordan said.
Photographs, love-letters and evidence of a queer lifestyle may help their case, but these don’t always exist.
“In many other kinds of claims there’s more documentary evidence,” she said, “so less depends on the narrative that people tell.”
Queer claims tend to rely heavily on verbal testimony.
Advocates say queer claimants need time to find the courage to share an identity they have long repressed, especially to somebody in uniform.
“They are not likely to (develop) the kind of trust that they’ll need,” Jordan said.
Fear of government officials can inhibit all refugees. But even talking to lawyers is “virtually impossible” for queers who worry that exposing their identities or divulging intimate details will put them at risk, Morrissey said.
One man stayed in detention for 27 days, she said, “because he was afraid to tell his duty council that he was gay.”
‘A two-tiered system’
Under Bill C-11, a case like Garcia’s may be processed in two months, depending on whether Mexico is added to the “designated country list.”
Canada has not yet published which criteria it will base the lists on, but it has proposed sorting countries based on safety levels.
An applicant from a “safe” country will be processed faster because the government anticipates that a non-threatening case would be rejected.
But the refugee board has not announced which countries will receive designation.
The Rainbow Refugee Committee members are concerned by the prospect of putting broad labels on nations.
Jordan warns that a ranking system doesn’t work because up-to-date information of country-conditions is not always available.
“Extreme forms of homophobic and transphobic violence often co-exist with constitutional protection … on paper,” Jordan said.
It’s a myth that some countries – like Mexico – are safe for queers, she said.
Garcia’s experience is an example of this.
Standing at a podium in Vancouver’s Central Library, Ori Garcia, 26, faced a large crowd that had gathered to hear her share her story at a recent event sponsored by the Red Cross.
She recounted some of the trauma she experienced in Mexico. She stood tall, wearing a snowflake-patterned toque and hoop earrings.
“People would laugh and point at me in the streets,” she said.
Garcia said she was not only stigmatized, she was continually threatened with violence.
“After being rape for a stranger,” Garcia said, “…(the police made) very painful comments of how much I deserved that and how much I was probably begging for it.”
Her hearing is scheduled for January.
Related: Upcoming Queer Stories of Migration events and workshops