San José, Costa Rica. From July 29th to the 31st, a group of LGBTI Nicaraguan refugees living in Mexico and Central America held a summit in San José, Costa Rica to promote discussion about the human rights of LGBTI refugees. In particular, the summit addressed violations and vulnerabilities resulting from workplace and housing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
In the course of the summit, which was organized by the Mesa LGBTI de Nicaragua with the support of Race and Equality, participants reiterated that the circumstances which caused them to leave Nicaragua, the precarity of their situation in their host country, and experiences of discrimination have all combined to harm their emotional and mental health. This reality has not yet been identified and addressed in the international response to Nicaragua’s crisis, despite the fact that depression has emerged as a common factor among refugees, as in the case of a young gay refugee who died of suicide in Costa Rica in July.
The majority of LGBTI refugees have been forced to leave Nicaragua due to threats over social media, political persecution, arbitrary detention, and in many cases grave violations of their human rights to liberty and to personal, bodily, and mental integrity. The summit highlighted both the importance of ensuring accountability for these violations in Nicaragua and the urgent need to support the integration of refugees in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico.
Attendees shared their experiences of fleeing Nicaragua, often with only days or hours to prepare and sometimes with as little as $40 on hand. Many suffer the emotional impacts of not being able to say goodbye to their friends and family. Refugees are also exposed to security risks on the journey itself: while traveling on irregular and informal routes, some refugees, particularly LGBTI women, reported threats to and violations of their sexual and bodily integrity.
Attendees also discussed their diverse experiences in the receiving countries. While the Costa Rican government has recognized its duty under international norms to integrate the sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) of refugees into its response, other countries such as Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala have treated SOGI as irrelevant, causing friction between public officials and refugees.
All attendees, however, made clear that SOGI factors have had important impacts on their experiences, particularly in their daily efforts to claim and exercise human rights such as the right to housing. Verbal threats and harassment, spying and surveillance from neighbors, and denial of housing opportunities are daily occurrences for LGBTI refugees, particularly trans women and persons with non-binary gender expressions. This situation is compounded when locals refuse to rent to Nicaraguans for reasons of xenophobia.
Refugees have suffered similar violations of the right to work. In addition to the natural difficulty of finding work outside one’s own country, many trans women report that employers have forced them to change their gender expression in order to obtain employment. Many younger refugees have not yet finished their schooling, adding an additional difficulty to their search for employment. Together, these factors of precarity have led to “survival sex work” among some Nicaraguan refugees, who report that this work exposes them to sexual health risks.
Despite this adverse context, all attendees shared experiences of mutual support that they identify as crucial for their survival, including offers to share living space, initiatives to create common funds for refugees’ expenses, and support for each other’s gender identities and sexual orientation. These experiences demonstrate the need to maintain a network of LGBTI refugees and to articulate a strategy that demands rights for refugees in the receiving countries, recognizes the existence of a diaspora at the regional level, and seeks to allow refugees to return safely to Nicaragua with their human rights assured.
To pursue this strategy, Race and Equality will combine our efforts with the Mesa LGBTIQ de Nicaragua and its chapter in Costa Rica to seek an audience with the Interamerican Commission of Human Rights regarding LGBTI refugees in the region. We also hope to continue working with our counterparts in Nicaragua and with Nicaraguans across the region to monitor their situation and pursue human rights documentation that will support our joint advocacy for their human rights.