Winnipeg LGBT centre puts out call for help after spike in refugee calls

A Winnipeg drop-in centre for LGBT people is putting a call out for help after receiving a spike in the number of refugees coming for support.

Rainbow Resource Centre hoping for funding bump, donations to provide counselling to clients

Bashir Khan, a Winnipeg immigration lawyer, said he's seeing a recent increase in the number of LGBT refugees new to the city coming to him for help. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

A Winnipeg drop-in centre for LGBT people is putting a call out for help after a spike in the number of refugees coming for support.

The Rainbow Resource Centre calls the increase over the last two weeks "dramatic," and says its counsellors are becoming overwhelmed with calls from refugees, their lawyers and settlement workers.

"We've done a call out to the community to ask for help in providing additional hours to our counsellors," said Mike Tutthill, the centre's executive director.

He added staff are hoping to get more government funding and donations to pay for the increased demand in counselling. 

The story of LGBT refugees coming to Winnipeg in search of a better life hit the spotlight this month after two Ghanaian men fled to Canada on Christmas Eve in the bitter cold.

The journey left both men severely injured with serious frostbite requiring amputation. Just a few weeks prior, a gay man from Syria arrived in Winnipeg, ending a five-year search for refuge that some of his friend didn't survive. 

Adam, a gay man from Syria, arrived in Winnipeg in December. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Tutthill said the centre has been receiving as many as 10 calls per week over the last two weeks from asylum-seekers. 

He said the increase in calls started in November.

Tutthill said the refugees are coming from Africa and Eastern Europe and often need help validating their stories.

The centre does brief psychosocial assessments to confirm stories about identity before providing a letter to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.

Special challenges once in Canada 

"Sometimes too it's just great for people to have a chance to understand that their sexual orientation can be something positive and have that validated for them by sitting in the same room with someone who has that similar experience, even if it's in a different culture," he said.

Tutthill said LGBT refugees face special challenges once they've arrived in Canada, including with language.

"For some folks, they might just talk about, you know, having love for women as opposed to identifying as a lesbian and so sometimes it's about unpacking that for folks that are in the refugee board," he said.

Tutthill added refugees might face strong questioning if they've come here claiming asylum but were in a heterosexual relationship back home, though it may not have been by choice. 

Fate luck of the draw

Bashir Khan, a Winnipeg immigration lawyer, said he's also seeing an increase in the number of LGBT refugees coming to him for help. He said he's now handling about 20 cases a year. 

"They're telling me exactly what the Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other NGOs and the United Nations has written up.

"The lack of human rights and the lynching and the mob violence and having their clothes torn off and being raped publicly and then being shamed and sometimes burned alive," Khan said.

Once an application for refuge has been made with the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, it's the luck of the draw and up to a single adjudicator to decide if the case is valid.

Khan said there's no way to know who will hear the case or if a refugee will be able to stay in Canada until after a hearing is held.

"It's a secret," he said adding it's up to the adjudicator to interpret facts and then apply them to Canada's refugee laws.

Returning home 'like being executed'

But how those facts are interpreted depends entirely on an adjudicator's background and beliefs, he said.

"Each board member comes from a different walk of life and has a different understanding about life and how they see the world."

Khan said he does know of claimants that have lost a case in Winnipeg and been sent back home.

"It's like you're going to be executed," he said.

"It doesn't matter how much you want to live, it's just the one thing (in) which you don't have a say or control."


​Austin Grabish is a reporter for CBC News in Winnipeg. Since joining CBC in 2016, he's covered several major stories. Some of his career highlights have been documenting the plight of asylum seekers leaving America in the dead of winter for Canada and the 2019 manhunt for two teenage murder suspects. In 2021, he won an RTDNA Canada award for his investigative reporting on the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which triggered change. Have a story idea? Email:

with files from Nadia Kidwai and Danelle Cloutier