LGBTQ2* Refugees in Canada

(Disponible en français : Les réfugiés LGBTQ2* au Canada)

*This note uses the preferred Canadian acronym LGBTQ2 (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and two-spirited) to refer to individuals and organizations in domestic contexts, and the preferred international acronym LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) for those in international contexts.

This publication summarizes human rights issues facing LGBTI people globally, and factors that lead these individuals to seek refugee protection in other countries. It discusses Canada’s role in welcoming LGBTQ2 refugees, including the federal government-supported Rainbow Refugee Assistance Partnership and the arrival of Chechen LGBTQ2 refugees in 2017. The note concludes by describing specific settlement services available to LGBTQ2 refugees in Canada.

Dangers to the International LGBTI Community

Worldwide, 77 countries criminalize same-sex activity, seven of them with the death penalty. The United Nations Human Rights Office’s 2019 booklet Born Free and Equal: Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Sex Characteristics in International Human Rights Law highlights the dangers experienced by LGBTI individuals in every region of the world. These include:

  • targeted killings;
  • sexual and physical violence and spontaneous attacks including those that occur in state institutions such as medical clinics, prisons and schools;
  • hate speech, often perpetuated by state officials and the media;
  • arbitrary arrest and detention;
  • forced conversion therapy, surgeries and sterilization;
  • restricted access to basic services including inadequate access to appropriate health care, particularly for those who are HIV-positive; and
  • higher levels of bullying and abuse in school settings, leading to lower educational attainment.

Human Rights Agreements and Instruments

To assess how to better apply international human rights agreements and instruments to protect LGBTI persons, and to determine the root causes of violence and discrimination, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) created a mandate for an Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The rights of LGBTI persons are affirmed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and protected globally by international human rights agreements such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Likewise, the rights of refugees are protected internationally by the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951 (the 1951 Convention), and its 1967 Protocol, among others. These apply to all refugees, including LGBTI refugees.

In Protecting Persons with Diverse Sexual Orientations and Gender Identities, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports how the persecutions and discriminations experienced by LGBTI people sometimes drive them to claim asylum in other countries. It states that as a result, LGBTI refugees are, and will continue to be, in need of resettlement.

As well, LGBTI persons may continue to be at risk where other refugees are often considered safe, in refugee camps or as asylum-seekers in more politically stable neighbouring countries. Since they frequently face discrimination at the hands of non-state actors such as family and other community members, forced displacement can be a further source of persecution and trauma.

LGBTQ2 Refugees in Canada

Asylum in Canada was first granted on the basis of persecution as a result of sexual orientation in 1991. ([1991] C.R.D.D. No. 501 (QL)). In 1993, the Supreme Court of Canada defined “membership in a particular social group” (one of the five 1951 Convention grounds used by the Canadian government in determining refugee status eligibility) as groups possessing an “innate, unchangeable characteristic.”

This allowed greater numbers of LGBTQ2 individuals to successfully claim asylum based on persecution because of their sexual orientation. In 2000, the first transgender refugee was recognized in Canada. (B.D.K. (Re), [2000] C.R.D.D. No. 72 (QL)).

In 2017, the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB), the administrative tribunal responsible for determining refugee status, implemented the Chairperson’s Guideline 9: Proceedings Before the IRB Involving Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression. The Guideline provides decision makers with a set of principles to follow in cases involving LGBTQ2 claimants. They address the difficulties that many LGBTQ2 individuals claiming asylum face because they do not fit with normative sociocultural views surrounding sexuality and gender, and the impact this has on presenting their case.

In addition to legislative and policy changes, the federal government has supported LGBTQ2 refugees through targeted initiatives. In 2011, it partnered with the not-for-profit Rainbow Refugee Society to create a pilot program promoting awareness among potential Canadian sponsors of the unique needs of LGBTQ2 refugees, thereby increasing private refugee sponsorship numbers. The costs of supporting incoming refugees were shared between Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) and private sponsors. The project ultimately sponsored more than 80 persons.

In June 2019, the project’s funding was extended and renamed the Rainbow Refugee Assistance Partnership. IRCC pledged to provide $800,000 over the next five years, increasing the number of sponsored refugees from 15 to 50 per year.

A separate federal government special initiative in 2017 resulted in the resettlement of 57 Chechen LGBTQ2 refugees in Canada. In response to international reports of human rights violations against gay men in Chechnya, Russia, representatives from Canadian and Russian non-profit groups and the Canadian government collaborated on this targeted resettlement operation.

All LGBTQ2 refugees who are resettled to Canada receive the same support and settlement services as non-LGBTQ2 refugees. This consists of income and other supports for up to one year, including help finding and outfitting accommodation, orientation and translation services and information about publicly-funded services.

However, experts advocate that for LGBTQ2 refugees, typical newcomer networks of support found in ethnocultural communities often do not exist and that consequently, settlement supports that are provided by LGBTQ2-specialized groups can be more effective.

LGBTQ2 organizations can provide refugees with information about LGBTQ2 rights in Canada and exploring sexual and gender identity within new cultural contexts. They can also connect refugees with LGBTQ2-friendly mental and physical health supports that are adapted to the particular trauma and violence that can affect LGBTQ2 persons who are fleeing sometimes multiple traumatic situations at state, community and family levels.

Additional Resources

House of Commons, Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration [CIMM], Adapting Canada’s Immigration Policies to Today’s Realities, 42nd Parliament, 1st Session, Twenty-Fifth Report, June 2019.

House of Commons, CIMM, LGBTQ2+ At Risk Abroad: Canada’s call to action, 42nd Parliament, 1st Session, Twelfth Report, June 2017.

Canadian Department of Heritage, LGBTQ2 Secretariat.

Government of Canada, LGBTQ2 Refugees.

Envisioning Global LGBT Human Rights in Canada: The Impact of Canada’s New Immigration Regime, June 2014.

Author: Lara Coleman, Library of Parliament

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