LGBTQI+ refugees and the ‘Berlin Model’

“It’s a heartbreaking moment,” confesses Berlin Minister Lena Kreck, “when a person tells you, ‘this is the first time in my life I’m saying aloud that I’m a lesbian’ – your whole body shivers.”

When asylum seekers arrive in Berlin, they often have a long journey behind and ahead of them to become part of a new society. The city doesn’t want their lesbian, gay, transgender, queer, intersex or other sexual or gender status (LGBTQI+) to present them with additional barriers.

For that reason, the city has been developing a ‘Berlin Model’ – a reception and integration strategy that recognises and accounts for the special vulnerability of asylum seekers who identify as LGBTQI+.

Berlin will present this model in detail and discuss it with participants at the upcoming 10th Integrating Cities Conference in Utrecht, , financed through the EU funded CONNECTION  project. You can find out more and register for the conference for free here.

Distrust of authorities

It  2015, with the wave of migration that year, the city began to see many LGBTQI+ refugees arriving. “These refugees were highly traumatised, and they had to face exclusion and even violence not only in their country of origin, but also during their journey and after arrival,” Kreck explains.

These refugees were highly traumatised, and they had to face exclusion and even violence
— Lena Kreck

Dr. Lena Kreck from the German ‘Die Linke,’ also known as ‘the Left Party,’ is the Berlin Minister for Justice, Diversity and Anti-Discrimination. She is in charge of LGBTQI+ issues within the Berlin government.

In her previous job, she worked as a legal counsellor for LGBTQI+ refugees before getting a professorship at the Evangelische Hochschule Berlin, where she still is a member of the academic team.

Kreck says that LGBTQI+ people arriving in Berlin were often used to hostility from authorities, and therefore nervous about notifying German authorities about their gender or sexuality, and the violence or harassment that they faced.

Even when they did flag their status, people working in the asylum system were not always well equipped to help them, lacking a consistent approach or the skills and resources necessary to facilitate their needs.

And it wasn’t just the local and national authorities. A number of NGOs and civil society organisations that worked with refugees also recognised these needs but lacked the capacity to accommodate them. These organisations engaged with the local government to try to find a solution.

Bespoke counselling

That was the genesis of the Berlin model. The first step was to provide counselling, a safe space where LGBTQI+ could talk about their situation without fear of judgement or reprimand, and get access to further assistance. “We built up quite a complex network of different kinds of counselling,” Kreck explains.

‘Low threshold counselling’ was a counselling service that was available at the reception centres, which did not require any paperwork, booking or commitment. “Anyone that wasn’t sure if this was a support that would work for them could just go in and check if it was okay, if it fit their needs,” Kreck says.

They can just grab the phone and call the organisation that can offer the most appropriate support
— Lena Kreck

“We also have anti-violence, antidiscrimination and psychosocial counselling available, as well as counselling relating directly to the asylum application process,” Kreck says.

“They’re all organised by specialised organisations, but all of them work together closely, so if one has a client with needs that they are not equipped to tackle, they can just grab the phone and call the organisation that can offer the most appropriate support.”

However, counselling is not a panacea. The city also offers a specialised shelter for LGBTQI+ refugees, with around 120 beds. These are safe spaces in which refugees can be confident that they are recognised and respected, regardless of their gender or sexuality.

“Of course, every any shelter is hard to live in,” Kreck admits, “but these ones have social workers there at all times who work hard to ensure that everybody feels a sense of belonging.”

Intersectional awareness

As LGBTQI+ is neither a homogenous, nor a closed group, a successful approach must take into account both diversity within the category, and intersectionality with other potential sources of vulnerability.

“A black gay man may have needs that differ from a Russian lesbian,” says Kreck, “if you are trans or HIV positive, you may need access to medication; if you are disabled as well as being LGBTQI+, you will need other specialised services.”

A black gay man may have needs that differ from a Russian lesbian
— Lena Kreck

Accounting for this requires mechanisms for open communication and cooperation between departments of the local government and the other organisations and programmes that support refugees.

Berlin logo with rainbow flag and 'refugees welcome'
Refugees welcome logo

The Berlin Network for Vulnerable Refugees helps to maintain these open channels, and to make sure that all actors are aware of the range of services available and how and where to obtain them.

Attaining this level of cooperation was not always an easy road. Kreck remembers that when programmes for LGBTQI+ refugees started out, some of the other structures existing to support refugees called into question the high levels of funding and attention that they perceived to be channelled exclusively to LGBTQI+ communities.

Support for this community is coming decades later than for other refugee groups
— Lena Kreck

However, she says “through dialogue they eventually recognised that support for this community is coming decades later than for other refugee groups, so we need extra funding to link these different forms of belonging.”

In or out?

As well as an awareness of intersectionality, the city understands that LGBTQI+ is a very broad category, in which infinitely different sorts of people and needs can be found.

Some transgender people, for example, may be in or beginning the process of transitioning, so Berlin must ensure that they have the proper medical and psychological support during this process. Such people are also very visible, and therefore more likely to be victims of harassment.

Another challenge in assisting LGBTQI+ refugees is that some of them may not be ‘out’ – may still be keeping their sexual or gender identity a secret. “Before I became a senator,” Kreck says, “I used to work as a counsellor for refugees and I met many who were not out.”

This is really, really hard, and these people need special support
— Lena Kreck

These people were faced with a choice: to tell the German authorities about their status, which would enhance their chances of being granted asylum, or to keep it to themselves. “This is really, really hard, and these people need special support,” Kreck says. “Even with that support, I had many clients that decided not to speak about it.”

Soft signalling

One tactic the city uses to help identify this group is through soft signalling, such as decorating offices with rainbow flags, so that LGBTQI+ refugees understand that they are among friends. “We have to make it easy for them to get more information, without revealing too much,” Kreck explains.

We have to make it easy for them to get more information, without revealing too much
— Lena Kreck

In counselling, they can communicate their needs without fear of other refugees in the centre, including their own families, learning how they identify. “They can even make a hidden note, just to get an address of a place that they can go to for further support.”

Despite all of this, there are many people whose needs still go under the radar, especially intersex refugees, and Berlin aims to continue its quest to become more inclusive so that more and more people feel confident to speak out and express their needs.

LGBTQI+ refugees may be fleeing persecution that relates to their gender or sexual identity, or they may be fleeing for wholly other reasons. They may be travelling alone or with their families or friends.

The way that they think about their identity and the treatment that they need to receive will always be highly personal, depending on these and other contexts in which they experience their situation.

A source of strength

Kreck remembers one young trans man with whom she engaged during her time as a counsellor for refugees. “He was Persian, Iranian,” Kreck recalls, “The interesting thing is that the Iranian state has such a strong hetero-normative logic that if you transition to another gender, and follow the social rules for that gender, you can actually go under the radar – they say ‘at least if there are no homosexuals, everything is fine.’”

They say "at least if there are no homosexuals, everything is fine."
— Lena Kreck

This man, however, did not want to undergo all of the surgery that would allow him to appear to the Iranian authorities as a ‘proper man.’ As such, he had to face sever brutality from the state, and his whole family, who stood behind his decision, were persecuted as well.

“It was hard to convince the German authorities of the persecution that this man and his family faced,” Kreck recalls, “But he was such a strong person that he made it through that difficult process. I still think of him quite often, even today.”

So, while the execution and evolution of the ‘Berlin Model’ for working with LGBTQI+ refugees may contain challenges, the staff and politicians that implement and advocate for it have a great well of strength to draw inspiration from – the strength of vulnerable people that take on often perilous journeys from all over the world to Berlin to find the freedom to be themselves.

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer