By Shaya Goldoust
November 7, 2020
“I have been a refugee in a Turkish city for several years. My mental and physical health is not good, but I have to work for a living. I work in a textile factory, and like thousands of refugees who are forced to work on the black market, I am paid low wages compared to Turkish workers, and I am not able to protest.”
These are the words of a transgender refugee in Turkey who asked not to be identified for safety reasons. The experiences of this trans woman are similar to thousands of men, women, LGBT people and children who have left their homeland for various reasons and are currently in Turkey hoping to settle there as a refugee or asylum seeker or waiting to move elsewhere in Europe.
“I had worked in different places many times for different reasons, but either the situation was so bad I had to leave my job or I was fired because of my appearance and my gender identity,” she says. “I started working in a clothing production company last week. On the very first day, the foreman called me and told me to take a box and go with him. I picked up the box and went to the warehouse with him. When I went to put the box down, he tried to touch me and then attack me. I was scared, ran away and told the story to some other Iranian girls who worked there. They had all had similar experiences with the same person, but had kept silent so as to not lose their jobs.”
Turkish society in general does not traditionally have an accepting attitude toward its own LGBT community and routinely discriminates against it. So for LGBT refugees from other countries living in Turkey, the problems are multiplied. In fact, in recent years, the Turkish government’s efforts to suppress LGBT people and activists have intensified, including a ban on LGBT events in the capital, Ankara. According to research published by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) in 2019, Turkey has the second-worst record of upholding LGBT rights in the wider European region, with only Azerbaijan performing worse. Although members of “the rainbow community” do not face legal punishment for their sexual orientation or gender identity, there is no specific law to protect this vulnerable group from violence and discrimination.
Recently, Ali Arbash, Turkey’s highest religious official, blamed homosexuality for the coronavirus outbreak, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the LGBT community a group with a cursed perversion. Despite such an approach influencing the policies of the ruling government, it can be imagined that public opinion could be much worse.
Talking about the harassment of LGBT people in the workplace, one asylum seeker told IranWire: “I went to the workshop manager and explained the matter. He said, ‘do not pursue this issue and do not raise it anywhere else; I will talk to that person myself and warn him.’ One or two days passed and the same behavior was repeated by the same person. This time I did not remain silent and stood in front of him and said, ‘you have no right to treat me like this.’ He said rudely, ‘I do whatever I like,’ and this time he touched my chest. I carry pepper spray in my bag; I picked it up and sprayed it in his face. I was about to leave the workshop when I felt a severe blow to my shoulder. I turned around and saw [my attacker] standing with the workshop manager with a stick in his hand. No matter how hard they tried to make me go away, I resisted and called the police. I complained and went to a medical examiner so that I could follow up through the law. However, I am not sure that the law will protect me as a refugee and a trans woman.”
In Turkey, refugees often work without a permit, which is illegal. But one reason refugees have to work in this way is often that the employer is responsible for obtaining a permit for workers, and employers often refuse so they can pay their workers less.
Working without a work permit can lead to arrest and, in many cases, heavy fines or even dismissal and deportation. ”In the days that followed, I was constantly called and threatened, [telling me] to withdraw my complaint. They said it would get worse for me because I am a refugee here and not allowed to work and if I do not withdraw my complaint, I will get in trouble. But I do not want to withdraw my complaint. I intend to do the right thing and to get my rights.”
This story is just one of many examples of the violence, discrimination, and aggression LGBT refugees in Turkey experience. Many who have fled to Turkey for security and a better life say that culturally, religiously, and legally, it is no different from Iran. And in recent years, as many countries have changed their immigration policies and policies regarding asylum seekers and refugees, the situation has worsened. Searching for a better tomorrow and living in difficult circumstances and poor conditions, these vulnerable people have no way of knowing what their destiny will be, or what violence they will be forced to endure.