No closer to heaven — transgender asylum-seekers in Greece
For many transgender asylum-seekers, their arrival in Greece only drags them deeper into misery.
Whether it’s their ultimate destination or not, many refugees arriving in Greece consider the country a safer place where they can start re-gaining a relatively more normal life. It is not necessarily the case for a lot of LGBTQ+ asylum-seekers seeking refuge in the country.
Merely 27% of the LGBTQ+ population said they are now very open about their identity in Greece, compared to 47% for the EU. Compared to 61% in the EU, a shocking 74% said they avoided often or always holding hands with their same-sex partner.
According to the survey, one in five persons of the trans and intersex people had experiences of being physically or sexually attacked, which doubled that of other LGBTQI groups.
So how can trans asylum seekers navigate such a hostile context?
Now 25 years old, Florian was born to a Muslim household in Sylhet, Bangladesh. Assigned male at birth, Florian realized at a young age that there is a woman’s soul living inside her.
Back home, she was constantly beaten up, harassed, and raped more than once by the religious members of her family due to her urge to wear the clothes of her mom and sister, as well as her “feminine” behaviors. She decided to carry the pain by herself silently, fearing that they would only hurt her again if she told others what happened.
At school, she failed to fit in despite her attempt to act like other boys. She made no friends but encountered bullying from other students. Instead of holding the bullies accountable, she told Solomon, the teacher blamed her for her femininity and complained to her mom.
Bit by bit, these painful incidents caused her to attempt suicide. “But I was not lucky enough to succeed,” said Florian.
It was 2017 when Florian read in a magazine that same-sex marriage is legal in Europe or the U.S., and people there could be whoever they wanted to be. It was then that she started hatching the idea to go abroad.
She first arrived in Lebanon to work as a cleaner, a job that helped her earn $350 per month, working 13-hour days. There, she attempted suicide again, after being bullied by co-workers.
“For my mom, I stopped myself from doing what I was planning to do,” said Florian. In contrast to the others’ judgement, Florian’s mom did not leave her alone as many other families with LGBTQ+ members in Bangladesh would do. “She managed to save me three times and helped me get out of death.”
Florian then tried to make her way to Europe from Turkey. Her mom connected her to a relative living in Turkey involved in human smuggling to get people into Greece.
“Thinking about this, for the first time in my life, I was happy,” she told Solomon. “I believed that I would finally be free.”
Like Florian, many asylum-seekers of the LGBTQ+ community in Greece bear the traumas and shame from the hostility and the extreme conditions they experienced in their countries of origin.
Nikolaos Gionakis, psychologist and co-founder of Babel Day Center, which provides mental health services to people on the move since 2007, emphasized the importance of helping asylum-seekers reconstruct the complexity of their reality. Therefore, Babel helps the asylum-seekers avoid generating over-simplifications that might hinder them from having a more holistic consideration of their needs.
“If I go to Germany, everything will be ok; if I am in a camp, everything is bad. This is the reason for my negative well-being; meanwhile, the other thing is something that will save me,” he explained a common pattern of perception of reality.
“What we try to emphasize with people is to reconstruct this sense of complexity, to be aware either of the negative reactions and the consequences of these experiences of the events they have gone through. At the same time, we want them to be able to recognize what has remained unchanged from what they had previously, be it positive or negative.”
Gionakis told Solomon that, most of the time, the transgender asylum-seekers come to Babel after they experienced violence, either in their countries of origin or in the camps here.
As such, Babel tries to re-establish the essence of home for them. “When somebody comes here, we try to make them feel comfortable, accepted, safe, and feel heard. It is different from offering accommodation,” Gionakis stressed.
Find a tent. Do the medical screenings. And dive into a series of interviews ― this is what the first days hold for asylum seekers in the camps on the Greek islands.
Once someone arrives, it is a rushed process in the days leading up to the interview, according to Abby Field, consultant on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) cases of legal-aid NGO Fenix.
Within one week after arrival, one has to convince a stranger of being persecuted because of sexual orientation or gender identity. There is no time to explore and reconcile all the internal shame and guilt that people may be feeling. Apart from that, inappropriate questions are still asked from time to time. Abby told us that some of Fenix’s clients described the interviews as an interrogation.
During the asylum interview with the Greek Asylum Service and the European Union Agency for Asylum (EASO), applicants can find themselves being expected to fit within specific labels, which Field considers rigid and Western-oriented.
“You often have someone who may clearly state their gender identities or their sexual orientations during their asylum interview. For example, I am a man attracted to men, and the caseworker would be like ‘are you LGBT?’ Of course, the answer, more often than not, is no,” Field told Solomon. “Because they have no idea what LGBT is. That response can go against their credibility.”
The Greek Transgender Support Association (GTSA) estimates it had offered psychological and legal support to up to 160 LGBT+ asylum seekers by the end of 2019. In a GTSA survey published in 2021, just five out of seventeen respondents said they had felt comfortable and safe during their interview, and just three of them felt safe enough to declare their identity.
The result of being lost in translation like this and unable to articulate their gender identity properly? According to all experts we talked to, one is often met with scepticism.
Transgender asylum-seekers are far from safe even inside the refugee camps.
The lack of recognition on the legal level can be a big problem, as they lack the referrals that would help them proceed into the asylum system faster or get to Athens for safer housing.
In the camp, transgender asylum-seekers often need to keep their guard up 24/7 to avoid harassment and attacks, even when waiting in line to get food.
“People often say, ‘in my own country, I was only persecuted by my own community.'” Dan Chapman, the chairperson of the Samos Volunteers LGBTQ+ Group, told Solomon. “‘Now I am in the camp, I am persecuted not only by my community but also people of other origins.’”
Chapman stressed the importance of creating a safe space in the camp for the SOGI asylum-seekers. In the interview, he recalled their failed attempt to persuade the Greek government to establish safe zones for women and the LGBTQ+ community when they were building the recently-created camp on Samos. “Why is it a group of white-cis men in charge of issues that do not affect them and that they have no understanding of?”
With this lack of safe spaces for the trans refugees and the very restrictive services inside the camp, Chapman reckoned that most people have to hide that they are trans.
That is to say, if you are biologically a man, but identify as a woman, the individual might have to stay with other single men, where they may not feel safe.
Meanwhile, Chapman believes that the only way for people to be safe is to not be in the camp, but in an alternative accommodation where there are only LGBT people.
“Even if it is not possible, at least allow the LGBT people to be allowed to not be in a container or to at least have their own privacy where they can escape, but it is not still happening.”
So how could Greece become a place that helps transgender asylum-seekers start the new chapter of their lives?
Chapman stressed the importance of helping them get rid of the stigmas of being LGBT+. “This is what is important to be in the community. We want to let them know that being queer is actually cool, being yourself is how you should be, and also you are not alone.”
On the other hand, Gionakis emphasized the government’s responsibility to respect their rights. “Not in theory but practically, and to avoid policies that exclude people from exercising their rights.” He also encouraged the Greek government to implement the obligations it is entitled to after having signed international conventions on the issue.
“Because we do not respect our own signatures on these documents,” he said. “On one hand, we say we will support these people with their integration. Yet on the other hand, what we do as a society is to apply the deterrence policy to send them away.”
Sometimes, transgender asylum seekers have to face hostility even from people who theoretically support them, since, according to Gionakis, the professionals who come into contact with them still carry their own prejudices.
Hope was shattered into pieces after Florian got ditched by the smuggler after, she said, having refused to spend a night with him.
Walking on foot with a group of other persons on the move in extreme weather for days, she finally made it to Greece, later being caught in Thessaloniki by the Greek police. They kept her for 24 hours before releasing her with some money, food, as well as a document that demanded she leave Greece, and she was left on her own.
With little money in hand, Florian decided to follow other compatriots to Manolada and started working at the strawberry fields, where the vast majority of strawberry pickers come from Bangladesh.
After four months of work, she said, she finally had the money to buy a phone.
While working in Greece, the suffering derived from her gender identity continues to haunt Florian. She continues to be harassed by her co-workers and roommates in the reed-and-plastic shack she lives in.
“I ran away and stopped telling anyone about anything again because I know that they will kick me out if I do,” she told Solomon.
She stopped shaving her beard. “There is no hope here in Greece,” said Florian, expressing her intention to leave the country.
“My mental health is getting worse. And I cannot keep living like this.”
Her mother still talks to her. Her siblings don’t.
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