What sounds like a list of cliches from a different era appears to have been the basis for at least one rejected asylum application of an 18-year-old Afghan refugee in Vienna, the capital of Austria.
When he first entered the country, the teenager failed to disclose his homosexuality, later saying that he was intimidated by his translator. Officials were not convinced.
“Of course it’s difficult to tell people that you’re gay, when you live in asylum accommodation centers where you still have to hide your sexuality. He was a teenager — they need time and a trustful environment,” said Marty Huber, a human rights activist with the Queer Base nongovernmental organization that has represented the teenager.
The refugee first approached the human rights organization in spring this year to appeal against the decision, but documents related to his case became public only this week when Austrian weekly Der Falter published excerpts. “Neither your walk, nor your behavior or clothes offer any indication at all that you might be homosexual,” wrote the official who rejected the teenager’s asylum claim.
“You appear to be capable of a level of aggression which would not be expected among homosexuals. You didn’t have lots of friends. . . . Aren’t homosexuals usually more sociable?” the official asked.
Responding to an interview request by The Washington Post on Thursday, a spokesman for Austria’s Interior Ministry said it was unable to discuss specific cases and did not acknowledge any wrongdoing. “The federal authority for asylum has made 120,000 decisions over the last two years . . . with a volume of 5 million pages. Using a few sentences out of this enormous amount does not reflect reality,” said ministry spokesman Christoph Pölzl. The 18-year-old has appealed against the decision and remains in Austria.
The Post could not independently verify the asylum seeker’s complaints, but critics of Austria’s right-wing government said that the stereotypes authorities relied on to reject his application reflected a worrisome but common pattern. While other cases have raised less public attention, stereotypes are frequently used to justify asylum rejections, said Huber, whose organization has provided support to about 400 LGBT asylum seekers in Austria.
“The country’s asylum laws had already become much stricter over the last decade. Now the right-wing government is cracking down even more and pushing back against civil society groups that back LGBT refugees,” Huber said.
Last year, 31-year-old center-right party leader Sebastian Kurz won the Austrian elections and subsequently formed a coalition with the country’s controversial far-right and anti-immigrant party. Kurz and his coalition partners have pursued some of Western Europe’s toughest immigration laws, and critics argue that their rhetoric has emboldened right-wing extremists and xenophobes.
The country’s tougher immigration laws have also clashed with a recent ruling by the European Court of Justice that outlawed personality tests as evidence in asylum applications by LGBT refugees. Despite the clear ruling by Europe’s highest court, many European nations including Austria continue to justify rejected applications with arguments that come close to or are equivalent to personality tests, rights groups say.
“Austria’s populist government is spreading concerns that refugees might falsely claim to be LGBT in order to stay in Austria. But even if there are doubts over someone’s sexuality, I’d rather allow them to stay here than to risk their death by sending them back to Iran or elsewhere,” Huber said.
In the case of 28-year-old Iranian Navid Jafartash, the threshold for taking that risk was low. Jafartash was “100 percent sure” that his application would be accepted when he appeared for an interview at Austria’s asylum authority, he said Thursday. After all, the Iranian had an Austrian boyfriend, a number of gay Austrian friends and had even appeared on the country’s main evening news cast to discuss homosexuality — an interview for which he could have faced the death penalty in Iran.
His meeting at the asylum authority appeared to go well, Jafartash recalled. The official asked only three questions, including one about the origins of the rainbow flag.
“I had no idea what it stands for,” Jafartash recalled. “But he also didn’t ask my partner a single question. He wasn’t interested at all.”
In the official rejection letter, which Jafartash shared with The Post, Austrian authorities argue that the risk of execution would be low upon returning to Iran. “A judicial prosecution of homosexual acts is relatively rare. To impose the death penalty, four male witnesses are needed,” the official wrote.
“Based on your extensive description of your sexual relationships — which date back years — one can conclude that the threshold of evidence is not met,” the official went on.
Jafartash was stunned by the rejection letter. “I was so sad,” he said.
The 28-year-old eventually appealed the decision, and the rejection was later overturned by a higher court. Jafartash and Austrian human rights organizations believe that the high initial rejection rates among LGBT refugees are part of a deliberate pattern in Austria.
“I think they deliberately do this to prevent refugees from coming here,” Jafartash said.
Austria’s Interior Ministry rejected such accusations on Thursday. “Especially in regards to the trustworthiness (of an applicant’s claims), the personal impression during an interview is of significance,” said Pölzl, who indicated that the country was open to teaming up with the U.N. Refugee Agency to offer more extensive training to its officials.
But Pölzl cautioned against drawing premature conclusions, saying that the decisions were up to courts. “The subjective legal opinion of a journalist, the person affected, a lawyer or any organization or other individual does not matter in this regard,” he said.