LGBT refugees in Lebanon – with Jasmin Diab

We met with Jasmin Diab during her visit to Lund. She is the Director of the Institute for Migration Studies at the Lebanese American University, where she also serve as an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Migration Studies. Her field of work is in the areas of migration, gender and conflict studies

She is also a Global Fellow on Migration and Inequality at the United Nations University Centre for Policy Research, a Global Fellow at Brown University’s Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies, as well as a Visiting Fellow at University of Cambridge and the Centre for Lebanese Studies’ British Academy Bilateral Research Chair on Education in Conflict. In parallel to her academic work, she has consulted extensively for UN Agencies, international humanitarian organisations and governments, and has evaluated humanitarian programming, led research in conflict settings, led gender analyses, and developed strategies for organisations targeting hard to reach areas across the MENA region. She holds a PhD in International Relations and Diplomacy with an emphasis on Asylum, Refugees and Security from the Center for Diplomatic and Strategic Studies of the School of Advanced International and Political Studies at INSEEC Grande Ecole in Paris, and holds graduate degrees in International Law, Human Rights and Feminist Writings.

What initially inspired you to do the work you do?

Growing up in Lebanon, narratives around migration and displacement have long formed part of my reality – as have debates around gender equality, gender inclusivity, peace and conflict. By the time I was 18, I had completed hundreds of hours of community service and volunteer work in the humanitarian space, in refugee camps, in shelters, etc. – a matter that pushed me in the direction of wanting to shed light on people’s struggles, their intersectional vulnerabilities, and the complexity of their needs. After being a volunteer for such a long time, and developing a connection to migration, gender and conflict studies, my line of work seemed to be the next natural course of action. I have been doing what I do for as long as I can remember. 

Explain a little bit more about the research you have conducted?

Refugees in Lebanon continue to endure layered forms of vulnerability – particularly amid the country’s ongoing and worsening socio-economic crisis. They are not only marginalized and isolated socially; this is more structural in Lebanon – impacting their access to the labor market, durable solutions as well as integration in any form. As Lebanon continues to lack a national refugee policy, and continues to be a non-signatory to the Refugee Convention, it strategically positions itself outside the refugee conversation until it wishes to politically leverage this community. Presently, refugees in Lebanon are at the center of heightened demands to repatriate them and forcibly return them to Syria – ultimately, leading to tensions between refugees and hosts in multiple regions of Lebanon, as well as impacting refugees’ mobility.

And this is where our initial starting point began – we wanted to explore the question of mobility (internally) in its complexity. We wanted to explore the social and political barriers attached to this, and wanted to delve into how the political class has managed to divert the conversation from all of the country’s tragic realities, to focus on refugees as the ‘main’ source of the problem. As we were putting a proposal together, a crackdown on the LGBT community began in Lebanon – and posed yet another layer of restriction on this question of ‘mobility’ we were exploring. Not only were politicians and decision makers in the country inciting violence against the LGBT community, they were also cracking down on safe spaces, LGBT organizations, as well as prominent human rights activists. So we thought to ourselves, what about refugees who identify as part of the LGBT community? Amid the targeting of two fundamental components of their identity, how does this impact their freedom of movement within the country? Their access to safe spaces? What does this look like through an intersectional lens? We were fortunate that the Williams Institute at UCLA’s School of Law saw the value in what we wanted to explore, and we are grateful for the award and funding we received to carry this out. Our data collection is still ongoing until the beginning of September 2023.

What have been some of the most surprising or significant findings from your research that have deepened our understanding of the challenges and resilience of the LGBT refugees in Lebanon?

As I said, our data collection is still very much ongoing – but emerging themes from the data have certainly begun to surface.

An important finding of our study at the moment, pertains to the interesting interplay between the two components of these refugees’ identity, namely their legal status and their gender. LGBT refugees in Lebanon are well-aware of how the international asylum system and protection regimes work – they know very well that refugees who identify as part of the LGBT community have options, have a better chance, and can seek asylum through a gender claim. In speaking to refugees from the LGBT community, we found an emphasis on persecution based on gender being ‘more reliable grounds’ for putting forth asylum applications in their eyes, rather than simply applying as a refugee. So this crackdown has put things into perspective for the community.

Important findings in the areas of mobility – which is our focus – have certainly surfaced as well. Refugees we spoke to describe the acute impacts these crackdowns have had on their mental health, their safety, as well as their abilities to escape hostile home environments. This has impacted their access to specialized health services, and has made it very difficult for them to be part of civil society spaces, advocacy and lobbying that they were engaged in. Many refugees have described their inability to leave their areas of residence – in many cases far away from the capital – because of the fact that their paperwork is not up to date, their documents are not in order, or because they fear that they will be arrested for one reason or another. Crackdowns on LGBT safe spaces poses a double threat to them, as in their eyes they could be targeted for one reason, that then places them at risk of being targeted for the other.

Within the LGBT refugee community itself, there are additionally different extents of vulnerability – importantly, trans* refugees encounter extreme forms of discrimination, and need their freedom of movement, access to safe spaces, and access to specialized health services the most. Another important point here, is that the targeting of both refugees and LGBT individuals is highly gendered – with male respondents not only expressing that they were more likely to be targeted as male refugees (because they are seen as more threatening), but also more likely to be targeted as gay men (because of what they describe as homophobia that is very ‘male-focused’ and ‘male-phobic’). While female respondents certainly described feeling targeted due to their refugee status or their gender – some of our most explicit findings pertain to our male respondents for sure, as they continue to be perceived as either more threatening to the country’s fragile security landscape (as refugee men), or more threatening to the country’s fragile patriarchy (as gay men).

In your opinion, what are the most pressing gaps in knowledge and understanding of refugees in Lebanon?

There remains an overall lack of an intersectional approach to refugee management, research and policy development in Lebanon. We continue to homogenize refugees in the country – in humanitarian responses maybe less so more recently, but in research we still do this – particularly in the social sciences. This creates a gap in our understanding of the specific vulnerabilities, insecurities and needs of sub-groups within the refugee community – not just when it comes to gender, but also when it comes to age, agency, ability/disability, location, as well as period and circumstances of displacement. Not everyone from the same refugee group moves at the same time, enters the host country under the same conditions, or has the same journeys, hindrances and barriers along the way. While much of what they experience as refugees may be common, this does not mean that their experience in the host country unfolds in the same way either.

Refugees ‘in all their diversity,’ a term I largely use the way I use the term ‘women in all their diversity (WiTD)’ – remain unpacked. We are moving in the direction of correcting this, which is also how we hope our study will contribute. We want to discuss refugees not just as legal entities, not just as a population group, but also as individuals that are complex and diverse – individuals that are just as diverse as their host communities when it comes to their needs and concerns, with their ‘refugee status’ constituting a very detrimental added layer to these concerns, and NOT overshadowing all other components of their identities. 

What role can research play in promoting social change and improved conditions for refugees in Lebanon?

I would say again, research can play a role in filling the gap I just mentioned to you. It can play a pivotal role in shedding light on the complexities within this group, the diversity, and the multitude of specific needs. Research can inform policy, can inform the humanitarian response, and can assist in laying the foundation for a more tailored response across multiple fronts. Research in Lebanon that is participatory, inclusive and at the grassroots level can further challenge dominating Western discourse about refugees, our region, and refugee priorities. It can importantly feed into the decolonization of refugee research in general – a matter that can only improve the means through which we frame refugees, improve conditions for them, and address their needs.

 But also, we hope that our research can shed light on an important intersection that is under-researched, that is absent from the national narrative in Lebanon at the moment, and that is specific to a sub-group within the refugee community that often ‘falls between the cracks’ as we say.

Based on your experience, what advice would you give aspiring researchers or students who are interested in studying or researching the experiences of refugees?

I would encourage them, as I do with my own students, to expand on the lenses they implore whilst looking at the community, and conducting research with the community. I would encourage them to adopt participatory approaches, ethically include refugees in the design of the research and its implementation. And importantly, I would encourage them to branch out of typical approaches to research in this field – namely, move towards delving into the specific needs of sub-groups within the refugee community in contexts where this group is homogenized as a political tool.

Featured image: by Charbel Karam on Unsplash

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