DRESDEN, Germany — Rami Ktifan made a snap decision to come out. A fellow Syrian had spotted a rainbow flag lying near the 23-year-old university student's belongings inside a packed refugee center. The curious man, Ktifan recalled, picked it up before casually asking, "What is this?"
What followed over the next several weeks, though, was abuse — both verbal and physical — from other refugees, including an attempt to burn Ktifan’s feet in the middle of the night. The harassment ultimately became so severe that he and two other openly gay asylum seekers were removed from the refugee center with the aid of a local gay activist group and placed in separate accommodations across town.
As the largest flow of refugees since World War II streams into Europe, Ktifan's case illustrates an emerging problem for gay and lesbian asylum seekers. Some of them arrive in Europe only to find themselves under threat from fellow refugees.
Gays who face official persecution in nations such as Iran and Uganda have been fleeing to Europe for years. But experts estimate that a record number of gays and lesbians seeking asylum, as many as 50,000, will arrive this year in Germany, the European nation accepting the largest number of refugees. Rather than leaving their home countries specifically because of anti-gay persecution, many are fleeing violence and war in nations such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Once in Europe, gays and lesbians are herded along with other asylum seekers into cramped shelters and camps, where a number of them are exposed to serious harassment.
There are no official figures. But the Lesbian and Gay Federation of Berlin and Brandenburg, for instance, says it is receiving three to six cases a week in which gay asylum seekers have been victims of physical abuse, including sexual assault. Earlier this month, a 21-year-old gay Arab asylum seeker in Berlin was hospitalized after he was insulted and assaulted at the refugee center where he was staying. In the city of Dresden, an eastern German metropolis of 525,000, at least seven gay asylum seekers have been removed from shelters this year for their own safety.
Sensing a growing threat, officials in Berlin are seeking to open the city’s first refugee center exclusively for gays and lesbians. The Berlin gay federation, meanwhile, has rolled out a new campaign called Love Deserves Respect, putting up posters inside refugee centers showing three couples kissing — a man and a woman, two women and two men.
“Just like everyone else, with the refugees, there are good ones and bad ones, and there are those who are carrying homophobic attitudes from their homelands,” said Jouanna Hassoun, head of the Berlin gay federation’s migrant program. “Those attitudes won’t be abandoned immediately.”
Part of the debate
The incidents are fast becoming political lightning rods, playing into the broader debate in Germany over questions of how to integrate hundreds of thousands of new refugees and whether to start sending more of them back.
The majority of the newcomers are coming from nations in the Middle East and Africa with sharply different laws and social norms from Germany regarding, for example, gays and women. Even some on Germany’s political right — rarely seen as champions of gay rights — have seized on gay bashing as further evidence of the dangers of accepting so many refugees, many of whom may never fully embrace modern German values.
Many on the political left, while demanding protections for all refugees, concede that there is, at the very least, a steep learning curve ahead for newcomers to accept established norms in a country that is led by a female chancellor — Angela Merkel — and that offers legal benefits, if not full marriage, to same-sex couples.
“You must forget what you learned at home about what is right or wrong,” commentator Harald Martenstein recently wrote in the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel, addressing refugees. “You do not have to give up your culture, not that. But you must accept the equality of women. You must learn that homosexuals and Jews are just like everyone else. You must bear mocking and satire, even when it concerns your religion. . . . If you don’t accept these rules, you have no future here.”
Ktifan and two other men — Yousif al-Doori, 25, of Iraq, and Ahmed Suliman, 20, of Syria — said that initially they suffered only verbal abuse after word spread about their sexual orientation in a refugee shelter in Munich. But after they were relocated with other refugees to a longer-term facility in Dresden, things took a turn for the worse.
At one point, Ktifan said, another refugee slipped into his room at night, stuck pieces of paper between his toes and set them on fire. Al-Doori said several male refugees from North Africa and the Middle East surrounded him and then demanded sex. He said he pretended to go with one of them willingly before running away. Ktifan, al-Doori and Suliman said they were routinely pushed and shoved by fellow refugees while in line for food. Several of the male refugees would shout at them “to go wait with the women,” Ktifan said.
The harassment became so constant that, with the aid of local gay activists, Ktifan, al-Doori and Suliman were pulled out of the refugee center last month and installed in a small separate apartment near the city center. The dangers they faced, though, were nothing new.
Before fleeing for Europe, al-Doori said, he was kidnapped and held for two days in Baghdad by religious thugs who had tried to extort his family because he is gay. Ktifan said that in Syria he hid his sexuality from all but a select few and initially fled to Libya to escape his country’s civil war. But after a Libyan man tried to blackmail him for being gay, Ktifan said, he returned to Syria. As he grew increasingly fearful of Islamist extremists who were targeting gays and lesbians, he said he decided to join the exodus to Europe.
“We thought we were leaving that kind of treatment behind,” Suliman said. “But inside the refugee center, it felt like we were back in Syria.”
Widely differing views
Yet opinions among refugees regarding gays and lesbians differ widely and often are very nuanced. On a recent afternoon outside Berlin’s teeming main refugee registration center, some asylum seekers who were asked about their beliefs strongly denounced gays and lesbians and said they should not be tolerated.
Others, such as Ali Ahmad Haydari, a 25-year-old father of four who said he had lost two of his children during the war in Afghanistan, said accepting gay rights came with the territory of a new life in Europe.
“I don’t have a problem with that,” he said.“I like the freedom here. Everybody should live as they want.”