British Columbia

LGBT refugees in Lower Mainland face service gaps

A recent study found no resources for LGBT refugees in Surrey and a shortage of services and training for frontline staff across the Lower Mainland. That leaves many LGBT refugees without supports like shelter and health services, say advocates.

Advocates say basic refugee services need to be tailored to LGBT community

A series of people are visible beneath a large rainbow flag, which takes up the majority of the image.
A large rainbow flag is carried down Robson Street during the Vancouver Pride Parade in Vancouver, B.C., on Sunday, August 2, 2015. For Ranier Oktovianus, an LGBT refugee from Indonesia, it was the first time he experienced a Pride event. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

While living in Indonesia, Ranier Oktovianus would tell anyone who asked, that his now-husband was just a friend or a cousin, in order to hide the fact they were living together as a couple.

They now live in Canada, openly married with landed refugee status after fleeing Indonesia, where being gay is still punishable by law.

"In Indonesia, being gay is a death sentence, basically," Oktovianus told Dan Burritt, host of CBC's BC Almanac.

Gay and transgender refugees face a number of hurdles even after making it through the tight net of immigration and landing in Canada, according to advocates.

"Getting here is actually the main issue. Coming from a Muslim majority country, we had to give a lot of documents, a lot of evidence," explained Oktovianus.

Worldwide, countries are moving to tighten immigration requirements, making it harder for refugees to leave dangerous situations, said Sharalyn Jordan, board chair of the Rainbow Refugee Society and an assistant professor of counselling psychology at Simon Fraser University.

"The vast majority of people who need refugee protection are not able to leave their countries," said Jordan.

History of Trauma

Adding to that are challenges LGBT refugees face even once they arrive in Canada, including a lack of services and a history of trauma, she said.

A recent study looking at the availability of LGBT-tailored refugee services in the Lower Mainland found gaps in basic services, including shelter availability.

Specifically, the report highlights a dearth of services in Surrey, where many refugees settle.

"According to participants, clients have moved away from Surrey due to the lack of support," says the report.

"This information points to the important certainty these specific services are currently being sought, and are an integral aspect of creating a welcoming community."

Jen Marchbank, a professor of gender, sexuality and women's studies at Simon Fraser University supervised the study.

Marchbank said many frontline workers lack the skills needed to help LGBT refugees.

"This is about practical matters about 'I'm gay and Muslim, is there a safe mosque for me here in Vancouver? Where can I go and practice my religion,'" she said.

End to 'living in fear'

Those day-to-day needs aren't being met, the report said. Nor is their need for mental health and medical services, it added.

Oktovanius said he's grateful to be in Canada with his husband, although he said he's been on the receiving end of racist and homophobic remarks since his arrival.

"It gives me that little bit of freedom and relief from what we have been living in fear of for so many years back in Indonesia," he said.

Living with the fear of being arrested, killed, beaten or harassed for so long can leave many LGBT refugees traumatized.

That makes the need for mental health services and community services which are tailored to LGBT refugees, even more acute, said Jordan.

Watch the week-long series Pride & Progress on CBC News Vancouver at 6.