As It Happens

Gay refugee couple to be separated because Turkey doesn't recognize them as a family

Alireza and his partner are trying to make their way to Canada, but they could be separated for years before that happens.

Alireza and his partner have been approved for resettlement in Canada, but the process could take years

Alireza is a gay refugee from Iran. His partner Kiran is from India. Like many LGBT refugees, the couple have been stuck in limbo in Turkey for years. As It Happens is not disclosing their identities. (Submitted by Alireza)

Alireza and his partner fled their home countries so they could be together as a couple, but now the Turkish government is pulling them apart.

Alireza is from Iran and his partner is from India. Like many refugees, they have been stuck in limbo in rural Turkey for years while they wait to be resettled in Canada.

As It Happens is withholding the couple's full names and location to protect their safety.

Now Turkey is relocating Alireza's partner to Istanbul so he can receive mental health treatment for severe anxiety — but Alireza is not allowed to come.

"They told us they do not consider queer families as being together.… For the last seven years we have never lived separately," Alireza told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"They are trying to separate us and we only have each other's support, and this separation will break us."

In order to be considered a family, Alireza said, they need a marriage certificate — an impossibility in a country that does not recognize same-sex marriage.

They are approved for private refugee sponsorship in Canada, but a backlog in the system means they could be stranded in Turkey for two more years. 

Their Canadian sponsors and a group of MPs are urging the federal government to expedite the couple's case. 

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said that it could not comment on specific cases due to privacy concerns.

'A better future'

Alireza fled Iran, where homosexuality is punishable by death, in 2011. 

He went first to India to be with his partner, and then they travelled to Turkey in 2014 in the hopes of claiming asylum in a Western country.

"We left the persecution in our countries just to live together and be together here, and maybe a better future for us," Alireza said.

They applied for resettlement to the United States, but the process came to a halt when U.S. President Donald Trump announced a travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries.

Then the Vancouver Rainbow Refugee came to the rescue, agreeing to privately sponsor the pair in Canada.

"The fact that everything on our side is ready to go, but the torture just continues for them, is truly upsetting," Guy Dubé, one of the pair's sponsors, told As It Happens in an emailed statement. 

He said the group is trying to find support for Alireza's partner in Istanbul. 

Due to a backlog of private refugee sponsorships, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada estimates a 23-month wait before their visas are processed. 

"We even doubt that we can even survive that long because we have already been here waiting for four years," Alireza said.

"Waiting for two more years for that to happen is unbearable for us."

'Constant fear and uncertainty'

In the meantime, Alireza's partner's mental health has reached a crisis point, Alireza said.

"Living in this constant fear and uncertainty, his condition has worsened," Alireza said.

The pair applied to be resettled to Istanbul, where his partner can get the treatment he needs.

But the move backfired. 

They got a letter from the Turkish government on June 8 approving his partner's relocation, but rejecting Alireza's.

"We don't know what to do," Alireza said. "It's very dangerous for him to be alone even for a day. I have to take care of him. His condition is very bad. He is in shock."

LGBT rights activists run as riot police use a water cannon to disperse them before a Gay Pride Parade in central Istanbul on June 28, 2015. (Huseyin Aldemir/Reuters)

Alireza's partner cannot refuse to go. If he doesn't present himself at the immigration offices in Istanbul next week, he could be deported.

Similarly, Alireza cannot legally leave the rural town to which he is assigned. 

This, despite the fact that they are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNCHR] as a couple. 

"We have been even together before even coming to Turkey," Alireza said.

"Unfortunately every time we ask for help from the UNHCR office, they just say our hands are tied in this matter and it's only in the hands of the Turkish migration police," Alireza said.

As It Happens has reached out to the UNHCR for comment, but has not received a response.

Bipartisan support 

A trio of Vancouver lawmakers — NDP MP Jenny Kwan, NDP MP Peter Julian and Liberal MP Joyce Murray —are calling on Canada expedite the couple's case. They've written a joint letter to the couple's case review officer. 

"There's no question that both of these individuals are in a very unsafe environment," Kwan, the federal critic for immigration, refugees and citizenship, told As It Happens. 

"They've experienced a life of persecution because of their sexual orientation. They have fled from place to place to place in search of safety."

Mathieu Genest, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, said Canada "is committed to extending protection to those who need it most."

"We recognize that members of the LGBTQ2 community are among the most vulnerable in the world. As such, we work closely with the UN Refugee Agency and private sponsors to identify at-risk LGBTQ2 refugees as part of our resettlement program," he said.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Alireza produced by Jeanne Armstrong.

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Istanbul as the capital city of Turkey. In fact, Ankara is the capital.