Soldado Kowalisidi had fought for LGBT rights in Siberia since 2012, and had come out as a transgender man in 2015, when last year he finally sought shelter in Ukraine, convinced he couldn’t continue his work in Russia anymore. Russia had just passed legislation widely known as the “Yarovaya package” — twin anti-terrorism laws that dramatically expanded the government’s surveillance powers. As one of Siberia’s first openly transgender activists, Kowalisidi had long been a target for Russia’s security service, and for homophobic gangs.
Ukraine, he hoped, would offer him protection.
He was wrong. The 25-year-old was last month denied refugee status by Ukraine’s migration service, his case the latest in a string that human rights activists believe could be the result of discrimination. Just the week before Kowalisidi’s verdict, a Ukrainian court had sided with the migration service in its decision to deny another LGBT activist, Belarusian Edward Tarletsky, refugee status the previous year.
If you haven’t had gender reassignment surgery, you are a woman.
Ukrainian migration official to Kowalisidi, a male transgender asylum seeker
Human rights activists say the treatment of LGBT asylum seekers is symptomatic of Ukraine’s attitude toward the wider LGBT community. Homophobia remains prevalent across the country at a time when Ukraine is preparing to take a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council for the 2018–2020 term, following its election in October. That means Ukraine will soon hold others accountable for their human rights record while it still faces questions about its treatment of sexual minorities.
One caseworker handling Kowalisidi’s application had no idea what a transgender person was. A second was more blunt. “If you haven’t had gender reassignment surgery, you are a woman,” Kowalisidi recalls the officer telling him. The interviews, he says, made him feel as though he were at fault for being transgender.
For sure, Ukraine’s migration service isn’t welcoming in any case for asylum seekers, irrespective of why they’re seeking shelter in a foreign land — only 71 applicants out of 656 received protection in 2016. But human rights advocates say minorities such as the LGBT community face further discrimination. (A migration service spokesperson said they had no knowledge about discrimination within the body.)
Oleksandra Lukianenko, a lawyer at Right to Protection, a refugee-aid nongovernmental organization, says officers at the migration service are not trained enough to work with this vulnerable category of people, and don’t understand their fear of returning to their home countries. This, she says, leads to the rejection of their claims. Her nonprofit is currently working with four LGBT asylum seekers, none of whom have so far been granted protection.
For the moment, the total number of LGBT asylum seekers applying for shelter in Ukraine is small, says Anna Kuznyetsova, a resettlement associate at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Ukraine. Though exact numbers are unclear, Kuznyetsova says these cases are new for the migration service, only really emerging in the past two years.
That may appear to partly explain the ignorance Kowalisidi experienced. But Ukraine faces a deeper challenge, suggests Irene Fedorovych, project coordinator at the nonprofit Social Action Centre in Ukraine. The country, she says, receives LGBT refugees but also produces them. Ukraine, she adds, has never been “very human rights orientated,” an approach reflected in how authorities handle LGBT cases. “When you start talking to them, they genuinely do not understand that their attitude is part of what we call discrimination,” she says.
It was a very different Ukraine that activists had envisioned following the Maidan revolution, which ousted Russian-allied President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. The country, they had hoped, would adopt a more progressive attitude toward the LGBT community as part of its new pro-European rhetoric. But there has been little improvement either socially or legally on protections for the community, says Olena Shevchenko, executive director of LGBT nonprofit Insight. Just two weeks ago, a gay couple from Odessa fled Ukraine, fearing for their lives after they were targeted in a homophobic attack. “We have a pride parade now,” Shevchenko says. “But we would like to feel safe at other times of the year too.”
Officially, the UNHCR says it has not received any complaints of discrimination against LGBT applicants while seeking asylum in Ukraine. It has, however, resettled four LGBT asylum seekers who were turned away by Ukraine in third countries, since 2015. It will also this year partner with the European Asylum Support Office to train migration-service caseworkers how to assess with sensitivity claims related to sexual orientation and gender identity.
And while Ukraine is expected to use its seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council to highlight Moscow’s abuses in Crimea and parts of Donbas that are under Russian occupation, next year’s membership could cut both ways. “With a seat on the council, the spotlight on the human rights situation of the members is that much brighter,” says Human Rights Council spokesman Rolando Gomez. “We would expect with a seat on the council that they would [take their] human rights obligations that much more seriously.”
For those expectations to turn into reality may take time, though. And for Kowalisidi, who is in the process of appealing the decision of the migration service, it may be too late by then.
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