Where Active Solidarity Strikes the System: In conversation with Queer Base

Art & Culture

The needs of LGBTIQ refugees are still not sufficiently protected in Austria’s asylum procedures. Activists and refugees were able to fight for some improvements, but many problems still remain.

Queer Base – Welcome & Support for LGBTIQ* Refugees‘ is an organisation that formed in 2015 to help tackle these issues and support those seeking refuge in Vienna and across the country. Here, longtime collaborators, label Freeride Millenium talk to Marty Huber and Fedaa Alarnaoot who about their mission and work.

Queer Base is a quite young organisation and started in the aftermath of the “long summer of migration” in 2015. Can you tell us a little about why it was so important to start an LGBTIQ* refugee organisation?

Marty: Refugee gays, lesbians and especially transwomen are justifiably afraid of coming out, of assaults, and violence in Austrian asylum shelters. Activists and refugees began years ago to raise awareness and lobby politically on this issue, but for a long time they fell on deaf ears. The tide only turned in Vienna in 2015, when Hande Öncü, an asylum-seeking transwoman and sex worker from Turkey, was murdered by a customer. After that, negotiations began. The city of Vienna agreed that all LGBTIQ* refugees who wanted to come to Vienna would be accepted into basic services here. The first queer housing communities were established in cooperation with Diakonie Lares and in summer 2015 Queer Base got its name and soon after its first funding.

Fedaa: ‘Queer Base – Welcome & Support for LGBTIQ* Refugees’ started as an organisation to fight for structural change in housing and legal support for LGBTIQ* refugees in the asylum process. However, our history goes back further. It starts with the networking of Viennese LGBTIQ* organisations in 2011, when the state took a trans woman from Turkey into deportation detention. Groups and associations, such as ORQOA (Oriental Queer Organization Austria), tekoşin, Planet 10, Türkis Rosa Lila Villa, HOSI, migay, queer amnesty and transX already tried at that time to support queer refugees in joint coordination. 

You mentioned violence and fear in asylum shelters and the question of housing as one main focus of your work. Can you tell us a little more about this issue?

Fedaa: The Türkis Rosa Lila Villa housing association rented an emergency apartment to protect LGBTIQ* refugees from the threat of homelessness. In the fall of 2014, “Kill Gays” was daubed large on the villa. As a result, many in the queer community asked how they could support the villa. The activists took this as an opportunity to go public with the existence of this emergency shelter for the first time and ask for donations. However, the activists were already aware at that time that the LGBTIQ* community was only able to address the problem of homelessness of queer refugees. For many, the flight in Austria was not yet over.

In addition to safe housing, violence prevention and access to the LGBTIQ* community, Queer Base’s work is also about legal advancement. What are the main issues in this area?

Marty: The basis for any asylum decision is the interviews at the Federal Office for Immigration and Asylum (BFA) and the Federal Administrative Court, as well as the country reports from the countries of origin. Because these are the basis for any decision of the state if they accept or believe that a refugee is actually queer and needs protection.

In 2018, stereotypical BFA interviews of gay asylum seekers went through the (international) media. Some refugees were asked absurd sexual questions, e.g. if they have gay porn on their mobile or which gay porn websites they know. Others were told that they were ‘not gay enough’ in their respective behaviours, while some were told they acted ‘too gay’ and were thus only faking it. As you can imagine, this sparked quite an outcry (and some funny memes). 

So how did the Austrian state react?

Fedaa: There were first voluntary trainings at the Federal Administrative Court and UNHCR organised training opportunities for the BFA. Today, three years later, however, Queer Base – Welcome & Support for LGBTIQ* Refugees is again confronted with the question of how sustainable and consistent improvements for this particularly vulnerable group have been and are being implemented. Unfortunately, improvements are hardly noticeable, if at all. On the contrary: In interviews about sexual intimacy, officials have violated the human dignity of LGBTIQ* refugees several times since then. A trans woman was forced to undress in front of male police officers.

Marty: Trainings on sexual orientation and gender identity as a reason to flee have begun. But in the last few years, only 52 asylum officers have been trained (voluntarily). It is unknown if there was training within the police. The standards of interpreters also leave much to be desired. Only 15 percent of the interpreters commissioned by the asylum office have received training. To what extent this includes trauma and LGBTIQ*-sensitive translation techniques is questionable.

So there is still much to do. You also mentioned ‘basic care’ within the asylum procedure. What is that exactly and how does it work for vulnerable LGBTIQ* refugees?

Marty: In basic care provided by the federal government or in allocations to basic care, too little consideration is still given to the special needs of LGBTIQ* refugees. Even in the case of trans women, safe accommodation cannot be taken for granted. Thus, it happens again and again that transwomen are accommodated in men’s quarters. Or they are housed in isolation, which protects them from immediate danger but does not meet their social and psychological needs. Transwomen are also still dispersed to quarters in the provinces and in small towns where there is no community-based or even specialized (e.g. medical) care.

Fedaa: In addition, accelerated asylum procedures put immense pressure on particularly vulnerable groups. People who have survived rape, torture, psychological and physical violence (including LGBTIQ* people to a large extent) need a different interview situation. One that is not characterized by time pressure and fundamental mistrust.

There is a new Austrian government since last year with The Greens being the junior partner to the conservative party. Did anything change for the better since then in the asylum procedure with regards to the mentioned time pressure?

Fedaa: No, unfortunately not. The government program actually provides for the opposite. The first asylum decision is to be issued within a few days in the initial reception centers. Contact with institutions such as Queer Base will be massively impeded and a state-sanctioned black box will be created in which refugees will have to find their way around. Especially in questions of sexual orientation and gender identity, this speed is fatal, as many have to find strength and courage to talk about their reason for fleeing for the first time. Moreover, our experience shows that the authorities only recognize the (open) living out of one’s own sexuality in the country of flight as proof and deny the moments in the country of origin that triggered the flight. This means that living your sexual orientation openly is your best chance of getting asylum, yet refugees are impeded on doing that because they are being kept from Vienna and its big LGBTIQ* community. So the message of the government is quite clear: ‘we don’t want you here’.

Marty: A current example is the case of a young lesbian woman who applied for asylum at Vienna airport. A trauma-sensitive interrogation would address the different aspects of vulnerability. It would have to recognize that the asylum seeker comes from an area with human rights violations against LGBTIQ* and was particularly vulnerable there as a woman. However, the BFA first decided against her entry. Only after Queer Base submitted comments and further evidence did it relent. Although not from a safe country of origin, the refugee was in an accelerated procedure.
 Training and quality standards are urgently needed.

What are your main political demands?

Fedaa: Queer Base calls on policy makers to ensure consistent quality management. As well as to expand mandatory trainings for police, BFA and Federal Administrative Court. The Ministry of the Interior must ensure that interpreters are trained accordingly and that standards in translation are enforced. On the European level, the official recognition of LGBTIQ* refugees as particularly worthy of protection is on the horizon. So it is high time. 

Marty: By the way, the trans woman from Turkey we mentioned at the beginning who was detained received her convention passport in 2017. Just like 311 other clients of Queer Base. It is worth fighting!

Follow Queer Base. Tune in to Freeride Millenium’s 13 hour takeover on 26th June, which is raising money for Queer Base. Watch Queer Base in conversation at Vienna Pride.