LGBTQI* Refugees in Thailand

Journeys of Another Kind

Ryan Joseph Figueiredo
Bangkok - lebhaft und bunt. Doch nicht offen für jeden?
© Hanny Naibaho on Unsplash

The Tourism Authority of Thailand recently hosted a LGBTIQI* symposium in Bangkok with the aim of placing the country on the top of LGBTQI*-friendly destinations in the world. The agency has also been sponsoring Pride floats in other cities like Toronto to compete with other countries who have realised the immense potential of LGBTQI* tourism. Tourism makes up for more than 18 percent of Thailand’s GDP and the LGBTQI* segment is largely untapped. However, there is another group of LGBTQI* persons who make journeys to Thailand - not for fun and leisure, but to save their lives. They choose Thailand because of the outward perception created by media that it is a safe and accepting place for diversity and inclusion.

Lille (not her real name) is an Egyptian transgender woman, who came to Thailand to escape violence and death threats from her parents and brothers. She made a long and difficult journey so that she could apply for asylum and find her forever home. She was struggling to hold on to her religion because she believed that her god had made her that way and that she did not understand how her loved ones could not see her as god’s creation. 

She called me a few weeks ago to let me know she was in the Immigration Detention Centre which offers anything but ideal living conditions for detainees. Lille was being beaten by other inmates and she was too scared to use the shower or lavatory. What was infinitely more appalling is that she was being detained with other men, which put her at higher risk of violence and sexual assault. Even the UNHCR, the Refugee Agency of the United Nations, could not intervene. We are now trying desperately to find a local Thai guarantor and bail money so that we can get her out of that situation.

The many LGBTQI* persons, who find their way to Thailand – usually from North Africa, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Myanmar – to seek asylum, have to reckon with the fact that Thailand does not recognise refugees. They are forced to go underground, undocumented and at constant risk of being found out and detained. This risk is compounded if they are transgender or ‘do not pass as straight’. What is especially tragic is that they face xenophobia and racism from the very same communities that they imagined would be accepting of them. 

LGBTQI* asylum seekers leave everything they know and love behind in a desperate attempt to find answers to profound questions about their identity and their place in the world. They cast away all that is familiar to them and seek refuge in communities and spaces so that they can live more authentically.

There is a growing need for the LGBTQI* movement and the refugee and asylum movement to come together and develop solutions for persons like Lille. We have made some tremendous strides to advance LGBTQI* rights in Asia, but should not lose sight of those amongst our own who have no place to call home anymore.

Ryan Joseph Figueiredo is the founder and executive director of Equal Asia Foundation based in Bangkok – a regional incubator for inclusive LGBTQI*-projects aimed at addressing deep-seated social inequities. EAF’s work is currently focused on reducing the social isolation of the elderly, preventing suicide and self-harm in the young, and mitigating the vulnerabilities of LGBTQI* migrants and refugees affected by climate change, conflict and disaster.

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