Transgender asylum seekers are transgender-identifying people seeking refuge in another country due to stigmatization or persecution in their home countries.[1] Because of their gender non-conformity, transgender asylum seekers face elevated risks to their mental and physical health than cisgender asylum seekers or those whose gender identity is the same as their sex assigned at birth, including higher risks of physical and sexual assault, torture, "conversion therapy" practices, and forced isolation.[1] As a result, transgender people face challenges in the asylum process not experienced by others.

As defined in the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee or asylum seeker is any "person owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion ... [or] membership [to] a particular social group [that cannot] avail himself of the protection of that country." In the US, asylum claims made by transgender refugees are considered under the basis of persecution because of their involvement in a particular social group.[2] This requirement means that membership to a social group is not enough in order to claim asylum, but that refugees must prove that they've been persecuted because of their social group's standing in order to be granted refuge. The growing restrictive asylum policies and processes include increased periods of mandatory detention and extended processing times and often require individuals to navigate complex legal procedures, all while proving the persecution they've faced because of their identity. These processes result in high levels of mental and physical distress as refugees navigate the asylum process.[3]

Countries of origin

Transgender persons may have experienced "severe persecution" in the countries they have fled, even where anti-transgender laws do not exist.[4]: 8–9  Regardless of anti-transgender laws, the strict gender norms that exist in many countries, associating masculinity with men and femininity with women, perpetuate the violence faced by transgender refugees. Because transgender people often move away from identifying with their sex assigned at birth, or feel as if their gender is fluid, many transgender refugees face persecution, discrimination, and transphobia in their home countries. The stigmatization and violence faced by this group of refugees can take place in a range of places, including within the home, the workplace, with health care providers, or simply from the general population.[1]

Research shows that transgender individuals experience greater socioeconomic disadvantages, more exposure to traumatic events, and more stressors than cisgender individuals within their home countries. These individuals also often face multiple forms of stigmatization related to their employment, health care access, housing, etc.[5] A document review of asylum applications of Mexican transgender refugees revealed several common themes, focusing on stressors experienced, health consequences of these stressors, and services accessed by transgender asylum seekers. In their place of origin, Mexico, each asylum seeker faced some levels of verbal, physical, and sexual assault, an unstable environment, fear for their safety and security, and economic insecurity.[3]

The report states that "[w]hile living in Mexico ... verbal assaults often started at a very early age and continued until they escalated to physical assault."[3] Most asylum seekers within the study reported numerous physical assaults by peers, family members, and authority figures, and many reported sexual assaults that started in their early teens. For example, one asylum seeker explained how "[In Mexico] [m]y father always rejected me throughout my childhood . . . He beat me a lot. He beat me with his hands, kicked me a lot, and often whatever he could find around him to beat me. I lived in fear for my life around my father... because he wanted to have sons that acted like men not women."[3] Focusing on the violence faced because of gender norms, this asylum seeker describes violence within her own household. While living in Mexico, many asylum seekers also reported being kicked out of their homes or fleeing because of violent family members, and many reported living on the streets or with anyone who would take them in. In addition, asylum seekers reported moving multiple times to escape harassment, discrimination, and abuse or to find a more LGBT-inclusive environment, creating a lot of environmental instability. Finally, each asylum seeker reported leaving Mexico because of extreme fear of violence and death since many of them had friends who, because of their identities, were beaten, raped, or even murdered.[3] This report shows the high levels of mental and physical stressors of transgender asylum seekers within their home countries.

In 2017, Amnesty International released a report on LGBTI people seeking asylum in Mexico, describing El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras as being "no safe place" for transgender people.[6] A 2020 public health review determined that transgender women seeking asylum from Mexico were fleeing a situation of "extreme vulnerability."[7]: 6  Most transgender asylum seekers flee from Central American countries, but, of course, transgender asylum seekers seek refugee from many parts of the world.[8]

Treatment while seeking asylum

In most cases, transgender asylum seekers are at greater risk than others while seeking asylum. The restrictive asylum policies and processes, increased periods of mandatory detention, and extended processing times, create unsafe, unstable environments for transgender persons. Although the claim for asylum due to discrimination faced because of gender identity can constitute viable grounds for asylum, "proving" one's identity can be particularly challenging for transgender asylum seekers. Adjudicators, those who approve asylum claims, often rely on outdated, medicalized notions of what it means to be transgender, and usually require transgender asylum seekers to desire, seek out, or obtain, some sort of medical procedure before approval.[1] Additionally, to claim asylum transgender refugees must produce proof of persecution, which often requires them to retell experiences of trauma through categories such as gender reassignment, sex assigned at birth, their dead name, hormone therapy, etc. For asylum seekers, this requirement can add additional stress as these definitions might not be applicable to multiple cultures and as they are required to retell their experiences through Westernized vocabulary.[1]

Health Issues Experienced by Mexican (Male to Female) Transgender Asylum Seekers

Also, because they are required to retell traumatic stories or discuss the abuses they experienced within their home countries, transgender persons face high levels of emotional and physical distress, and most asylum seekers report feelings of sadness, hopelessness, depression, and anxiety while seeking asylum.[9] In the study focused on document review of asylum applications of Mexican transgender refugees, professionals diagnosed 100% of the asylum seekers with PTSD and diagnosed 93% with depression.[3] Over half of the asylum seekers reported suicidal tendencies and several made attempts as suicide, to them, seemed like the only way to escape the verbal, physical, and sexual abuse they experienced. A report based on interviews from 28 transgender women from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, highlighted that all the women interviewed had survived physical assault, verbal violence, and denial of routine treatments while in detention.[1] Transgender refugees in particular suffer from inadequate access to hormone therapy while in the asylum process, and often suffer from physical abuse within detention.[10] In the United States, for example, transgender refugees may only receive hormone treatment if they were already undergoing such treatments before being detained.[4]: 37  This lack of access may make them more visible during transition and hence more readily targeted for transphobic abuse.[4]: 17 The denial of medical treatment, including hormone treatments and medical treatments to combat HIV/AIDS, places transgender people at higher risks of mental and physical distress during the process.

Transgender people may also be at risk while detained in the countries in which they seek asylum. NGOs such as Human Rights Watch Transgender Europe, and the National Center for Transgender Equality have reported cases of rape and abuse of transgender people in UK, US, Norwegian, and Greek facilities for asylum seekers.[11] In the United States, Immigration and Customs Enforcement places transgender asylum seekers in a "transgender pod" where there is a lack of medical and mental health services.[12][13] Additionally, some countries rely on a gender binary in their placement of transgender refugees during the detention process. Because of this reliance, some transgender refugees are placed in detention centers based on their sex assigned at birth rather than their gender identity. This placement adds another sense of mental distress, trauma, and physical abuse for transgender refugees.

Globally, asylum laws leave LGBT refugee detainees "particularly susceptible to heightened levels of physical and mental abuse."[4]: 2 

Asylum outcomes

When denied asylum, there have been reports of adverse outcomes for transgender persons.[14][15][16] According to the ASPIDH Rainbow Trans Association, a transgender woman seeking asylum in the United States was killed in El Salvador weeks after her request was denied.[14] One asylum seeker explains how "[they are] afraid to return to Mexico because the society is very homophobic. There is a lot of discrimination and abuse of transgender people in Mexico. The police do nothing to protect us, and often kill transgender people like me. There is no safe place for me to live anywhere in Mexico."[3] The violence and discrimination faced by transgender persons create these adverse, dangerous, outcomes if they are denied asylum and required to return to their home countries. Transgender persons may also face difficulties after being granted asylum because of their gender identity.[17] The Williams Institute reported in 2022 that transgender asylum seekers may be disproportionately harmed by detention practices and face sustained mental health challenges as a result.[18] Additionally, transphobic people, and transphobia exist within every part of the world, still leaving asylum seekers vulnerable to violence or emotional distress even if granted asylum.

Map of Transgender People Murdered Worldwide in 2020

Legal issues and political debate

Since 2000, the United States has recognized transgender asylum seekers as a social group that deserves protection on the basis of gender identity.[19] The lack of employment opportunities in their home countries, as a result of their transgender identity, sometimes means that transgender refugees were forced into prostitution as a means of survival. Despite the US' recognition of transgender asylum seekers, transgender refugees are sometimes disqualified under the United States' criminalization of prostitution, even if they are not engaged in criminal activity.[20]: 271–2  The United States' requirement that transgender refugees prove their identity also disadvantages them in the refugee process as many refugees are unable to begin transitioning until arriving in the United States.[21][22]: 163 

Some U.S. political activists have sought to improve conditions for transgender asylum seekers.[23]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f Avgeri, Mariza (2021). "Assessing Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Asylum Claims: Towards a Transgender Studies Framework for Particular Social Group and Persecution". Frontiers in Human Dynamics. 3. doi:10.3389/fhumd.2021.653583. ISSN 2673-2726.
  2. ^ "Asylum in the United States". American Immigration Council. 16 August 2022. Archived from the original on 28 April 2023. Retrieved 24 April 2023.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Gowin, Mary; Taylor, E. Laurette; Dunnington, Jamie; Alshuwaiyer, Ghadah; Cheney, Marshall K. (May 2017). "Needs of a Silent Minority: Mexican Transgender Asylum Seekers". Health Promotion Practice. 18 (3): 332–340. doi:10.1177/1524839917692750. ISSN 1524-8399. PMID 28187690. S2CID 206740929.
  4. ^ a b c d Tabak, Shana; Levitan, Rachel (2014). "LGBTI Migrants in Immigration Detention: A Global Perspective". Harvard Journal of Law and Gender. 37 (1). Archived from the original on 3 October 2022. Retrieved 3 October 2022 – via NCJRS.
  5. ^ Rosati, Fau; Coletta, Valentina; Pistella, Jessica; Scandurra, Cristiano; Laghi, Fiorenzo; Baiocco, Roberto (25 November 2021). "Experiences of Life and Intersectionality of Transgender Refugees Living in Italy: A Qualitative Approach". International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 18 (23): 12385. doi:10.3390/ijerph182312385. ISSN 1660-4601. PMC 8656617. PMID 34886110.
  6. ^ "Americas: 'No safe place': Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Hondurans seeking asylum in Mexico based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity". Amnesty International. 27 November 2017. Archived from the original on 3 October 2022. Retrieved 3 October 2022.
  7. ^ Cheney, Marshall K.; Gowin, Mary J.; Taylor, E. Laurette; Frey, Melissa; Dunnington, Jamie; Alshuwaiyer, Ghadah; Huber, J. Kathleen; Garcia, Mary Camero; Wray, Grady C. (2017). "Living Outside the Gender Box in Mexico: Testimony of Transgender Mexican Asylum Seekers". American Journal of Public Health. 107 (10): 1646–1652. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2017.303961. PMC 5607674. PMID 28817317.
  8. ^ Coleman, Madia (1 May 2023). "The countries from which LGBT people are seeking asylum". American Progress.
  9. ^ Li, Susan S. Y. (20 July 2016). "The relationship between post-migration stress and psychological disorders in refugees and asylum seekers - current psychiatry reports". Current Psychiatry Reports. 18 (9): 82. doi:10.1007/s11920-016-0723-0. PMID 27436307. S2CID 24663885.
  10. ^ "Asylum seekers' need for trans-specific healthcare". TGEU. 23 February 2018. Archived from the original on 22 May 2022. Retrieved 24 April 2023.
  11. ^ Savage, Rachel (18 July 2019). "Trans asylum seekers assaulted, abused in U.S., UK, Norway detention". Reuters. Archived from the original on 2 October 2022. Retrieved 21 July 2022.
  12. ^ Johnson, Sylvia (9 July 2019). "The Untold Story of Trans ICE Detention". The Atlantic. Archived from the original on 2 October 2022. Retrieved 2 October 2022.
  13. ^ "The Precarious Position of Transgender Immigrants and Asylum Seekers". Human Rights Campaign. 4 January 2019. Archived from the original on 3 October 2022. Retrieved 3 October 2022.
  14. ^ a b Renteria, Nelson (22 February 2019). "Trans asylum-seeker killed after U.S. deportation back to El Salvador". Reuters. Archived from the original on 2 October 2022. Retrieved 27 July 2022.
  15. ^ "Death of transgender asylum seeker in Guatemala highlights increased risks and protection needs for LGBTI community". UNHCR. 6 August 2020. Archived from the original on 26 June 2022. Retrieved 3 October 2022.
  16. ^ "US: LGBT Asylum Seekers in Danger at the Border". Human Rights Watch. 31 May 2022. Archived from the original on 3 October 2022. Retrieved 3 October 2022.
  17. ^ Hennessy-Fiske, Molly (5 October 2020). "'She was really a warrior': Transgender migrant reaches U.S. only to die". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 2 October 2022. Retrieved 27 July 2022.
  18. ^ Shaw, Ari; Verghese, Namrata (7 July 2022). "LGBTQI+ Refugees and Asylum Seekers". The Williams Institute. Archived from the original on 3 October 2022. Retrieved 3 October 2022.
  19. ^ Cory, Connor (2019). "The LGBTQ Asylum Seeker: Particular Social Groups and Authentic Queer Identities". Georgetown Journal of Gender and the Law. 20 (3). 578 and footnote 2. Archived from the original on 3 October 2022. Retrieved 3 October 2022.
  20. ^ Medina, Luis (2017). "Immigrating While Trans: The Disproportionate Impact of the Prostitution Ground of Inadmissibility and Other Provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act on Transgender Women". St. Mary's Law Review on Race and Social Justice. 19 (3): 253. Archived from the original on 3 October 2022. Retrieved 3 October 2022.
  21. ^ Vogler, Stefan (2019). "Determining Transgender: Adjudicating Gender Identity in U.S. Asylum Law". Gender & Society. 33 (3): 439–462. doi:10.1177/0891243219834043. S2CID 151176794. Archived from the original on 3 October 2022. Retrieved 3 October 2022.
  22. ^ Leonard, Marnie (2022). "A Particular Social Group: The Inadequacy of U.S. Asylum Laws for Transgender Claimants". Human Rights Brief. 25 (2). Archived from the original on 3 October 2022. Retrieved 3 October 2022.
  23. ^ Valentine, Brittany (4 March 2021). "A new call to release transgender ICE detainees gains momentum nationwide". Al Día News. Archived from the original on 2 October 2022. Retrieved 3 October 2022.