Gay Iraqi asylum seeker 'too girlish' for Austrian officials points to wider anti-immigrant sentiment

Austrian officials have denied residency to an Iraqi asylum seeker claiming he lied about his sexuality, according to reports by local media. Activist Joe Niedermayer says it's not about sexuality, but keeping migrants out.

'They thought I'm like an actor ... what should I do to prove it?'

People protest for the rights of asylum seekers on World Refugee Day in Vienna, Austria, on June 20. Nearly 44,000 migrants entered Austria in 2017. (Lisi Niesner/Reuters)
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When Firas first arrived in Austria three years ago, he was too scared to tell asylum officials he was gay.

The 27-year-old, who was not open about his sexuality in his home country of Iraq, fled with family months earlier, eventually arriving in the European country alone.

"I [didn't] know what the gay rights are here in Austria," Firas told CBC Radio's Day 6. CBC has agreed to use only his first name as he fears for his safety.

He was denied asylum after his first interview with immigration officials, but appealed the decision, arguing he couldn't return home because of his sexual orientation.

Following a second interview in May, he was denied again last week. Officials said Firas was "too girlish" and they believed that he lied about his sexuality, according to reports by Austrian media.

"They thought I'm like an actor ... what should I do to prove it?" he asked.

With signs in support of LGBT rights, revellers march in the Regenbogenparade Pride Parade in Vienna in June. (Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters)

In a statement, a spokesperson for Austria's asylum office denied using "clichéd language" in the decision, according to British newspaper the Independent.

Like many European nations, Austria is facing a populist backlash to the growing number of immigrants and asylum seekers.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz leads the country's conservative People's Party and campaigned on a promise to crack down on illegal immigration in the wake of Europe's refugee crisis

Sexual orientation is grounds for seeking asylum in the nation, but LGBT activists say that applicants are subject to an unfair vetting process.

Firas's case is the third reported denial of an asylum claim on the basis of sexual orientation in Austria. In one case, officials rejected an Afghan applicant for not being gay enough, the Guardian reports.

Assessing sexuality

Immigration officials look for stereotypical traits in order to assess whether an applicant is indeed gay or lesbian, according to Joe Niedermayer, chairman of the LGBT rights group RosaLila PantherInnen.

"They have an idea how they're supposed to act; they have an idea how they're supposed to talk," said Niedermayer, who has followed Firas's case closely.

In the case of gay men, he said this might include looking for traits that are considered feminine or how outgoing an applicant is.

"If they are not fitting in this idea of a gay man or of a lesbian girl, then officials say, 'No, we don't believe you. We don't believe you are gay,'" he said.

The other night, my uncle called me and he said, 'What have you done? You are a shame for your family.'- Firas, a gay Iraqi man seeking asylum in Austria

It's a catch-22. LGBT people living in Iraq may not be open with friends or family about their sexuality.

In that country, they are still persecuted for their sexuality, and there have been reports of killings of LGBT people by terrorist groups like ISIS.

This leaves refugees with few people who can act as references for their claim.

Outed to family

During a "stressful" six-hour interview with immigration officials, Firas says he was asked about his family and the first time he realized he was gay.

Immigration officials then, despite assurances the interview was confidential, asked Firas's father and brother if they knew he was gay, he told Day 6.

It's one of the reasons he was denied asylum. Officials wrote: "You said you are gay, [but] your father says no. There must be something wrong; you are cheating,'" Niedermayer says.

In order to prove that they're gay, some refugees, including Firas, have gone as far as having Austrian sex partners sign letters declaring that they had sex, Niedermayer says. Austrian officials have denied asking for such documents in Firas's case.

Sebastian Kurz became chancellor of Austria in 2017 after campaigning on a promise to crack down on illegal immigration. (Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters)

Niedermayer isn't convinced the decisions are solely homophobic. Same-sex marriage will become legal in Austria at the beginning of 2019.

It comes down to politics.

"We have a right-wing political situation [in Austria]," Niedermayer said. "The fact is our politics, right now, don't want any more refugees here in our country and this is the basic problem."

As officials attempt to reject a greater number of applications, asylum seekers like Firas end up caught in the anti-migrant crossfire, he said.

Niedermayer says that more needs to be done to protect not only LGBT migrants, but asylum seekers in general.

'Maybe I'll get killed'

Despite an uncertain future, Firas is optimistic about his situation in Austria. With the help of RosaLila PantherInnen and non-profit Queer Base, which will provide legal support, according to Niedermayer, Firas will appeal the rejection.

"I'm lucky to come here to help my chances for a better life, to build my identity," Firas said.

Niedermayer says that while many in Austria aren't 'right-wing,' the populist government has stoked a fear of migrants. (Lisi Niesner/Reuters)

That appeal could take up to 15 months to materialize, however, and in the meantime, Firas is barred from working, according to Niedermayer. Still, the activist believes that Firas has a chance to stay.

"If the current appeal will be denied, we still have one more way to go. We can appeal again," he said.

After being outed to his family, Firas fears what a return to Iraq would mean for him.

"The other night, my uncle called me and he said, 'What have you done? You are a shame for your family,'" Firas said.

"If I go back to Iraq, maybe I'll get killed."


To hear the full conversation with Joe Niedermayer, download our podcast or click listen above.