Beneath my surface a song is rising: Working with LGBTI Migrant Women

By Jennifer Rumbach

WITH these words from their peace anthem “Our Deliverance,” the American folk rock music duo the Indigo Girls turned something personal into a public outcry against the devastation of war, how violence doesn’t work, and how we’ve got to find a way to do things differently.

Here’s the thing: When UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon delivered a landmark speech at the “Leadership in the Fight Against Homophobia” event on 11 December 2012 in New York, he was doing much the same thing.

“The very first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims that, ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. All human beings - not some, not most....all. No one gets to decide who is entitled to human rights and who is not,” he stated.

What followed was a momentous declaration: “Let me say this loud and clear: lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are entitled to the same rights as everyone else. They, too, are born free and equal. I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them in their struggle for human rights.”

Increasingly, international organizations are recognizing that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons face significant human rights challenges around the world, and that we must take a leadership role in equipping the humanitarian community to better assist them. Particularly vulnerable are LGBTI women, who face high levels of violence at the intersection of gender and sexual orientation or gender identity.

At IOM, we are turning our attention to LGBTI migrants - both those who have fled their countries of origin due to LGBTI-related persecution, and those who migrated for other reasons but face discrimination or abuse in host countries. We recognize that while LGBTI migrant women may have escaped violence or stigma at home, they often grapple with continued obstacles during asylum, including ostracism, isolation, harassment, and public and private harm.

The IOM Resettlement Support Centers (RSCs), through the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), are implementing a “safe space” campaign to create welcoming and supportive environments for LGBTI refugees. This initiative reassures refugees that IOM staff members are sensitive to their needs, and that the information will not be shared with their family members or the community. Handouts are distributed to all refugees to ensure those who do not share their sexual orientation or gender identity with us have access to the critical information they need to make informed decisions about their resettlement cases.

IOM RSC staff members are also undergoing training to learn how they can serve LGBTI migrants with dignity and respect. Receiving training this year are staff in the Middle East, Latin America, Central Asia and South Asia. The training provides a diverse toolkit for their work with LGBTI migrants, including guidance on correct terminology; what questions to ask and avoid during counseling and interviews; how to write LGBTI refugee assessments; special concerns for LGB women and transgender persons; and needs specific to interpretation, travel and transit.

These efforts are a starting point that we at IOM hope will open new doors for LGBTI migrants - particularly women.


Jennifer Rumbach is IOM's Resettlement Support Center Manager for South Asia