LGBTQI+ accessibility and visibility in a Dutch asylum seeker centre
Picture by the author.
LGBTQI+ asylum seekers in the Netherlands can experience social isolation and challenges when accessing services, which often do not understand their needs. This article explores attempts by services to accommodate LGBTQI+ asylum seekers, and explains where efforts need improvement.
The Centraal Orgaan opvang asieloekers (COA) is responsible for housing people who are seeking asylum in the Netherlands. The COA’s task is to facilitate basic necessities as well as safe surroundings for people staying in one of their asylum seeker centres (known in Dutch as AZCs). Unfortunately, safety, as well as basic necessities, are not a given in AZCs. LGBTQI+ people staying in these centres tend to be in an especially vulnerable position because of social isolation, lack of a support system, and harmful beliefs and biases of fellow AZC inhabitants.
A few months ago, two employees working in a Dutch AZC were assigned to become LGBTQI+ coordinators, which can be seen as an attempt to reduce this group’s social isolation. However, the two employees do not have experience in dealing with LGBTQI+ topics, and neither identify as part of the LGBTQI+ community themselves. Through my research, I have found that they do not view that as a problem, but they have noticed barriers they cannot seem to cross. They wonder how to start conversations, how to be approachable, and who to talk to.
Currently, this specific AZC does not have a (safe) space for LGBTQI+ people to come together, and the new coordinators are not in touch with the national network that does exist. This national network consists of mostly not-for-profit foundations that support LGBTQI+ asylum seekers while their claims are processed, and afterwards. The network is large, and foundations work with each other closely, as well as with other actors like lawyers, political parties, and government employees.
The LGBTQI+ coordinators question why LGBTQI+ people do not bring up their gender or sexuality even though they are now in the Netherlands where, according to them, different genders and sexualities are accepted. LGBTQI+ acceptance in the Netherlands is discussed in the training that asylum seekers receive on Dutch society and so the AZC coordinators wonder, why would one not talk about it? They hope to increase the visibility of LGBTQI+ people so that they can help them access available resources.
This is where I come in. While doing fieldwork, I gained access into the national LGBTQI+ refugee network. Through this network, I try to help the two LGBTQI+ coordinators build bridges by informing them about meet-up events that are organised outside of AZCs. Additionally, I have found that being part of the LGBTQI+ community myself allows me to relate differently to LGBTQI+ people going through the asylum procedure, compared with those who are not LGBTQI+. For LGBTQI+ asylum seekers, this first-hand knowledge tends to be beneficial for learning about and getting in touch with Dutch society while identifying as LGBTQI+ people.
Going forward, it is important that services know that it is not just about them showing how accepting they are of people who identify as LGBTQI+. Being the ‘accepting’ one already perpetuates the hierarchy of a heteronormative standard, with LGBTQI+ people seen as subordinate and requiring acceptance. But more importantly, it also lacks the understanding of the very powerful internalisation of heteronormative standards that LGBTQI+ people are burdened with. I would like services to become more aware of how their positioning might come across, as well as increase their understanding of how people can internalise societal values. By explaining these issues to the employees, I hope to convey that even if they tell LGBTQI+ people it is okay to be who they are, these values are still keeping them from being open about it even though they are now in the Netherlands. It takes time and courage for LGBTQI+ people to share who they are. Creating a space where people can do so while being surrounded by other asylum seekers (the very people they might be fleeing from) requires care, understanding and patience.
Very practically, the two AZC coordinators and I are aiming to create a safe space by organising fortnightly meet-ups. The meet-ups will be used to discuss different topics, check up on the experiences of staying in the AZC, and organise cheerful activities. We bring in ideas based on my fieldwork and on projects that are working elsewhere (for example creating a WhatsApp group). However, the project is happening very much in collaboration with the LGBTQI+ asylum seekers who are currently staying in the AZC. The goal is to constantly get their input in hopes of responding to their needs specifically. For example, for the next meeting we have planned to create a poster together informing others on the possibility to come together safely with other LGBTQI+ people. The poster will be hung up publicly and so together we will decide what kind of information to put on there – a phone number, an email address, but maybe not the time and place of the meeting, given some members might not be open to others in the AZC.
The collaborating aspect of the project is not only giving space to LGBTQI+ asylum seekers to voice what is on their minds, it is also introducing the coordinators to the nuances of being LGBTQI+ and living in the AZC, and helping to increase their understanding. Although we still have work to do, it is promising and appreciated how motivated the two AZC coordinators are in their work to structurally promote diversity and safety, by increasing the accessibility and visibility of LGBTQI+ people in this Dutch asylum seeker centre.
Jennifer Maaskant is an MSc student at the University of Amsterdam pursuing a degree in Social and Cultural Anthropology (Applied Track). She obtained her BSc degree at Wageningen University & Research in International Development Studies and majored in Development Sociology. Currently, she is in the process of writing her master thesis in which she engages with the culturalisation of citizenship, bureaucracy, LGBTQI+ asylum seekers, and (re)traumatisation in the asylum procedure. Her fieldwork led to a collaborative project that aims to increase visibility and accessibility for LGBTQI+ people in a Dutch asylum seeker centre. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.