By the time David* came to terms with what he believed was imminent death, he had been drifting aimlessly in a rubber dinghy across the Mediterranean Sea for hours. Precisely how long he had been inside the cramped vessel, hearing relentless vomiting and moaning in the background, he could not say, although he never lost consciousness throughout the night. He lay awake at one end of the flimsy boat, waiting for daylight, not knowing if help would arrive.
David, a gay 35-year-old man from Cameroon, calculated 40 people were on the dinghy, including several pregnant women, children, and infants. Occasionally, he would hear the sound of a splash, but he did not dare look up to see if someone had fallen or been thrown into the black sea.
It dawned on him that it was the night he would die, yet he felt at peace under a stunning starry sky. "I would rather die under the night sky as a free man, with some dignity, as the human being I really am, than live a life of intimidation and brutality, constantly in fear and hiding," he said.
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Sitting in an old cafe in the neighborhood of Kypseli in Athens in June 2022, surrounded by elegant apartment buildings on Fokionos Negri Street, David took long pauses as he recalled the terrifying night crossing. It took him weeks to trust me with his story, but he was eager to share it that day. Verbalizing the journey and creating a narrative based on his real-life experience was part of a healing and self-empowerment process. The conversation made him tense, so he avoided eye contact and lowered his head while sipping an ice-cold soda between his lines. He continued the harrowing tale.
David did not want his life to end with a defeated spirit, so he defied reality by smiling for the last time. He looked up at the sky with a wide-open grin, his teeth exposed to the damp, salty air, counting the stars while coming to terms with what he trusted would be his fate. "Resistance comes in many forms," he said.
Lying on his back, he could hear waves crashing onto the boat as the women chanted African prayer songs, pleading with God to lead their way to the safety of Greek shores. That is when he felt a bright light hit his eyes. Exhausted and dehydrated, he initially thought it was death coming to take him, but when he heard a loud voice from a megaphone, David realized it was a rescue operation.
David's Mediterranean crossing began one day before his rescue in May 2019 at an unmapped location on Turkey's western coast, where smugglers ordered him to climb onto the dinghy with a large group. In hindsight, he estimates over 60 people who spoke Arabic and African dialects, and at least two Cameroon dialects, which he understood, were on the boat. Those on the vessel fled conflict, famine, and other humanitarian disasters.
David escaped a less visible form of barbarity: homophobic violence. Persecuting LGBTQ individuals in the region is not only socially accepted—at times, it is legalized and encouraged. In March 2023, Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which criminalizes homosexual activities and establishes life in prison and the death penalty as punishment for those caught and convicted. Institutionalized homophobia is becoming a rule across the continent, devastating the African LGBTQ community.
Facing severe challenges after being repeatedly assaulted, threatened, kidnapped by civil vigilantes, and illegally detained by police authorities, David learned that a local group of men were preparing to kill him. Two days later, he escaped Cameroon with empty hands.
After being rescued at sea by the Hellenic Coast Guard, David landed at a refugee camp on the island of Kos. Two months later, he and a group of refugees were transported to the mainland, instructed to board the back of a truck, taken to the Turkish border, and told to get off and start walking. The illegal practice of taking migrants who arrive in Greece back to the Turkish border by sea and land and forcing them to cross over into Turkey is known as "pushback." Pushback operations have been widely documented by international investigative media and condemned by the European Court of Human Rights.
David would face two more years of wandering between Turkey, Serbia, Bosnia, and North Macedonia, eventually returning to Thessaloniki and settling in Athens. In 2021, he joined Safe Place International (SPI), a humanitarian organization working with leadership development for displaced LGBTQ individuals in Greece.
David counts himself among the migrants who survive the torturous journey across Mediterranean waters in an attempt to find safety. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM)’s Missing Migrants Project, which records the death of migrants, including refugees and asylum-seekers in the process of migrating, keeping an updated database of all reported casualties by official sources (from coast guards to medical examiners) and nonofficial sources (media reports, NGOs, surveys, and interviews of migrants), 28,073 people lost their lives in the Mediterranean between 2014 and August 2023.
The body of water with invisible borders has become a shared space of life and death, hope and despair, reception and separation, entrapment and freedom for displaced people and rescuers alike. In migrant and humanitarian aid circles, the Mediterranean is known as the Emerald Cemetery due to the countless bodies that disappear at the bottom of the sea. Yet, the water-crossing pilgrimage is merely one of the extraordinarily challenging steps of a journey that often begins years before any given departure date and thousands of miles away.
Before his arrival on the western coast of Turkey, David had taken a flight from Cameroon to Lisbon and, with the financial and logistical support of a well-established Turkish acquaintance, made his way across Europe. When he reached Turkey, he thought of staying and settling down for some time. However, Turkey is considered an unfriendly nation for asylum-seekers and notoriously violent against LGBTQ individuals, despite Greece unilaterally declaring Turkey a safe third country for asylum-seekers.
In Turkey, David was illegally detained, beaten, and robbed by immigration police, survived on clandestine slave jobs, was sexually exploited and violated, and faced several violent encounters. When asked what kept him going, he said, "There was nothing left behind. I was not living. I was only surviving. Every minute of every day, wandering like a lost zombie." He added, "Many times, I thought life was not worth living, that I could not continue to suffer, living a miserable life of abuse."
Ironically, what led David to a more hopeful situation was a thwarted effort to end it all. After a suicide attempt in Turkey, David was sent to a medical facility. There, he took a break from the hostile environment that entrapped him, regained his strength, and reconsidered if he should try again to make plans for the future.
At the clinic, David met a United Nations representative who helped him report the mistreatment of Greek immigration police and referred him to reliable humanitarian organizations in Athens, finally allowing him to file an asylum claim. The guidance was critical, and for the first time, things seemed to be turning around. However, without proper legal assistance to strengthen his case, the Greek government would reject his asylum claim several times.
David’s fleeing trajectory and experience is the story of most LGBTQ refugees. The narrative of an excruciatingly long journey riddled with violence and despair is the norm for LGBTQ asylum-seekers who try to make it to Greece, and the road to recovery is long and winding for asylum-seekers and those who support them.
Fenix, a human rights law organization based in Lesbos, a Greek island in the northeastern Aegean Sea off the coast of Turkey, provides refugees with information and tools to navigate the complex and confusing asylum process while supporting individual needs with medical and psychosocial case management, mental health services, and legal representation. It provides a unique service that includes the interdisciplinary collaboration of lawyers, psychologists, and protection officers working on cases, making it an unconventional humanitarian law organization. This collaboration holistically addresses their clients' legal, medical, mental health, material, and social needs, focusing on personal dignity and empowerment.
This approach allows Fenix to effectively overcome the barriers that prevent clients claiming asylum from exercising their rights and helps improve their well-being and sense of security while navigating the asylum process. “We use a less traditional approach, one that is more holistic and focused on self-empowerment,” said Abby Field, Fenix’s legal team Family Reunification Supervisor and SOGIESC (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, Gender Expression, and Sex Characteristics) Consultant.
In 2019, after earning a master’s in International Human Rights Law at the University of Sussex, Field moved to Lesbos, joining Fenix as a legal assistant. Lesbos was, and still is, ground zero for Europe’s refugee crisis. It gained worldwide attention in 2015 when the Syrian Civil War triggered a massive exodus from Syria, Western Asia, and the Middle East. Many of those fleeing made their way to Greece, intending to reach other European countries. The island has always been the gateway to the heavily fortified European borders.
When Field joined Fenix, they started reading the reports of the organization’s legal transcripts. Scrolling through hundreds of pages of case studies, Field found a pattern of wrongdoing and violations years in the making. The standard procedural issues often involved minors, LGBTQ individuals, and single women.
A common issue was improper language in the required legal paperwork and inadequate translations introduced at court hearings, which could threaten the asylum-seeking process for LGBTQ individuals. Field understood that addressing the underlying issues of prejudice and discrimination against LGBTQ asylum-seekers in Greece was an enormous task, so instead, they proposed that Fenix would begin by trying to educate and train those on the frontlines of the humanitarian rescue process and the agencies involved in the legal claim-to-asylum process.
“The first step was to raise awareness of the outdated conventions in language and procedures, [and] point out popular prejudice so that attitudes can change,” Field said. Fenix started the work at a micro level, locally, offering training sessions to humanitarian workers, translators, attorneys, and those involved in the process of asylum claims, including local media.
Fenix attorneys and legal assistants combed through piles of legal transcripts, pointing out the incorrect use of language. Specific terms, such as “sexual assault,” “rape,” and “non-consensual,” were not included in legal proceedings and were never found in asylum claims. “We need to use the correct terminology—for instance, 'rape' instead of 'sexual act'—translate and write down the devastating explicit descriptions asylum-seekers use to describe the violence they experienced and the torture carried out by certain authorities and officials in positions of power,” Field said. “Describing horrific experiences most of us cannot fathom clarifies and supports why these individuals are requesting asylum.”
Field pointed out that these changes might seem small but they significantly impact the dated Greek asylum-claim process and, consequently, the claims filed by Fenix's clients. The idea behind the training is that, with time, changes in the language will lead to changes in mindset, attitude, and, eventually, culture.
When looking at the trauma and violence suffered in their countries of origin and throughout their refugee journeys, the cross-border LGBTQ collective, with its vast cultural and ethnic differences, has eerily similar stories. “Vulnerability is the rule,” said Fenix co-founder and deputy director Ana Liz Chiban, an Argentinean attorney based in Athens who developed the organization’s legal strategy and impact litigation efforts. “We have this concept of speaking of survivors of war, survivors of torture, but I feel that these are survivors of seeking asylum. Seeking asylum is deadly; arriving in a safe space is deadly,” she said.
To illustrate her point, Chiban explained how refugees are usually grouped inside camps according to their country of origin. LGBTQ refugees must often stay for weeks or months in overcrowded, enclosed spaces with the community of people who inflicted violence on them in their homeland. Thus, this group feels unsafe in refugee camps, where they must hide their identity. Due to the lack of protection for LGBTQ individuals in the camps, sexual violence and physical assaults are common.
Fenix works with individually tailored legal consultations to prepare their cases, explaining the legal procedure for people with a claim based on their sexual and gender orientation. Their legal team prepares LGBTQ clients for asylum claim interviews, focusing on the often invasive and, at times, illegal questions that LGBTQ individuals are asked.
Clients also have a designated protection officer who assesses their situation and advocates for them to receive the services they need, particularly medical and mental health support and connects them to LGBTQ support groups where they build a community, helping them feel less alone and more empowered.
Fenix assigns a psychologist to each client to help process their trauma and create purpose in their renewed lives. The act of finally expressing their claims for protection clearly and unequivocally will help LGBTQ asylum-seeking individuals move forward.
There are few places in Greece for LGBTQ refugees and asylum-seekers to gather safely. In Athens, Safe Place International (SPI) has been a reference for the collective since 2018. Founded by Justin Hilton, an American humanitarian entrepreneur, SPI opened its first safe house for LGBTQ refugees and asylum-seekers in Athens. As the unprecedented migration exodus was ongoing due to Syria’s Civil War, Hilton, a long-time activist involved in grassroots advocacy and humanitarian relief work, realized that doubly discriminated LGBTQ refugees had no support in Greece.
SPI started by offering LGBTQ refugees and other underrepresented refugee groups—mainly single women and unaccompanied children—shelter, food, and resources. Today, SPI supports over 20 shelter locations in Greece and has a thriving community center in central Athens.
Hilton also points to a lack of training in humanitarian and human rights law circles. "There's no standard for vulnerability assessments. There's no standard for protection. There's standards for protection for minors, but for no one else. So if someone comes in and they have HIV, or they're LGBT[Q], or they're trans, nobody asks any questions to provide them protective housing. Nobody does any assessment," Hilton said.
Hilton believes that humanitarian organizations on the frontlines must accurately record refugee stories in writing immediately upon their arrival. “The issue is nobody asks [refugees] if they left their country because of their gender or orientation. Our interest is in becoming a global aggregator of those concerns. So we can start some longer conversations, addressing systemic issues, while trying to make individual situations marginally more safe,” he added.
Like many humanitarian organizations supporting LGBTQ asylum-seekers, SPI faces the challenge of securing the longevity of its support. Given that most LGBTQ refugees who survive the migration journey and arrive in Greece would prefer to move to other European countries and the Americas, the plan is to create a network of supporting organizations throughout Europe and beyond.
“It is not an easy thing to do. My prayer is always that with each referral that SPI makes to a French organization, a Belgium organization, or a Dutch organization, it becomes a reciprocal flow of information and networking that allows asylum-seekers to move more effectively,” Hilton said.
A global humanitarian aid network offering long-term monitoring and support is what many LGBTQ asylum-seekers and the organizations that work with them strive for. "Right now, it's the opposite of what we aim to achieve. It's like—I'm in Syria. Okay, let's email every organization in Syria," Hilton explained.
These local networks are critical to the safety of hundreds of LGBTQ refugees. "We know from reading history books about the Underground Railroad that networks can really serve people in a way that works and hands them off in a very dignified way. But we have aspirations for a more global, expansive, effective, and enduring robust network," Hilton said.
For LGBTQ individuals, the roads that lead to the Mediterranean are many. Most come from the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Others come from as far as the Caribbean in an astounding around-the-world quest for a life worth living. Those forced to flee cannot choose a preferred route or means of transportation. Therefore, Haitian migrants may find themselves side by side with Angolan, Iranian, or Iraqi refugees on the same Turkish shore, in the same deadly dinghy, or, if they make it to safer lands, the same refugee social circle.
SPI’s community center in Athens serves as a gathering space for LGBTQ refugees at different points in their asylum-seeking process. From the outside, the unmarked two-story building is unremarkable. As a safe space for all LGBTQ refugees and asylum-seekers in Athens, SPI prefers to go unnoticed and keep a plain-looking facade. No one wants to attract unwanted attention from police, homophobic and racist individuals, or anti-migration groups. In September 2018, Zak Kostopoulos, an LGBTQ rights activist, was beaten to death on a busy street in plain daylight near SPI’s community center. His death shook the LGBTQ community in Athens. However, behind the undistinguished front, transformations take place.
On a hot June day, LGBTQ refugees and asylum-seekers came together to prepare for the 2022 Athens Pride Parade. For some, this was not their first Pride event. For others, it was a significant moment as it was the first time they experienced the freedom and safety to celebrate their identity publicly.
Preparations began weeks before the parade: Banners, costumes, and t-shirts were made, and the invitation for the LGBTQ refugee community to assemble at SPI’s community center before the Pride Parade spread across Athens.
The day began with SPI volunteers painting the faces of community members who were unafraid to catch public attention. The concern was that later that day, the group would have to take public transportation to Syntagma Square, the most important square of modern Athens, where the parade’s concentration would be.
The music played in the background, and the excitement was palpable inside the community center. M.* and A.*, two transgender asylum-seekers, watched the mirror while S.*, a transgender refugee from Tunisia, retouched their makeup. M., originally from Morocco, has lived in Athens for over two years, but her refugee journey began over seven years ago when she was forced to flee her hometown due to gender and sexual violence. She was still awaiting a final decision on her asylum claim.
Arezou, a lesbian Iranian asylum-seeker, created her fashion version of SPI’s t-shirt. She fled Iran years before this Pride day and awaits a final decision on her asylum claim. Arezou and M. are veterans of the LGBTQ refugee scene in Athens. This was not their first Pride parade, so they knew what it would be like outside their safe space. Although they are always cautious on the streets of Athens, on that June day, they were not afraid.
R.N.*, a lesbian asylum-seeker from Haiti, admired her Pride makeup but felt apprehensive. It was her first Pride event, something she never dreamed possible. M.R.*, a lesbian refugee from Cameroon, hesitated before finally agreeing to have her face painted. Josep, a gay asylum-seeker from Iraq, felt overwhelmed by the idea of walking on the streets wearing a t-shirt with a rainbow, something that could get him killed in his homeland.
As preparations for the celebration continued and the music got louder, several members remembered the profound significance of this day and moment—on the back of SPI’s t-shirt, a bold statement: “The queer nation has no borders.” Josep proudly slipped one on.
Late afternoon, the group moved through the streets of Athens. LGBTQ refugees, especially those who are transgender, are consistently harassed in public, and that day was no exception. A few unfriendly onlookers started heckling, but nothing seemed to faze this collective.
The group arrived at a packed Syntagma Square, where LGBTQ community members and supporters waited for the parade to begin. On the big stage at the center of the square, there were musical and dance performances, followed by several speakers. They introduced themselves, read texts, delivered messages, and claimed LGBTQ human rights. Nervously waiting in front of the stage was David. It was his first Pride event ever.
A few weeks before Pride, Hilton invited David to represent SPI at the parade warm-up event. David dreads speaking in public, so he rehearsed his speech out loud in front of a mirror, preparing a delivery addressing SPI’s work in Athens and demanding better conditions for LGBTQ refugees and asylum-seekers in Greece. He had never appeared openly in public as a gay man and felt more trepidation than excitement. Even though it had been three years since his rescue at sea, David still struggled with the trauma suffered in Cameroon and the violence experienced throughout his forced migration. It will take years to ease his dread and build a mental and emotional footprint of alternative positive life experiences.
The term “refugee” evolved from the Latin word “refugium,” but the modern definition was established after World War II. Today, the UNHCR recognizes refugees as “persons who are outside their country of nationality or habitual residence and unable to return there, owing to serious and indiscriminate threats to life, physical integrity or freedom.” Every member of the SPI community fits those criteria.
While definitions evolve, the UNHCR and other governmental agencies fail to address the timing of the asylum-seeking process and the complexity of refugee needs. The refugee reality is often discussed in the media and legal procedures as a temporary crisis requiring punctual action to fix it. Realistically, a refugee's existence is a long road riddled with systemic failures and transborder issues.
Frontline humanitarian agencies and organizations in countries experiencing endless waves of forced migration would benefit from proper training and education to bridge existing knowledge gaps in the context of asylum. According to Fenix, newly arrived refugees are rushed into the asylum procedure without receiving basic legal information. Chiban is convinced the asylum system would gain by offering information sessions in different languages, during which refugees can learn the asylum procedure and their rights.
“We've focused the first years of our existence on trying to build strong individual case management and legal support for our clients [and] a more stable, longer-term strategy for our advocacy and strategic teams. So we can actually make some impact because we've seen the same problems in case over case. And that means there's a systemic failure in the asylum practice,” Chiban said.
In the context of LGBTQ individuals seeking safety from persecution, many refugees are unaware they have a right to international protection based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. After being forced to hide their identities for many years in their homeland, most do not know how to express their asylum claims clearly. Understanding the asylum procedure, how sexual orientation and gender identity relate to it, what to expect during asylum claim interviews, the proper explicit language that should be used, and LGBTQ refugee rights in Greece and Europe would be an asset for the population seeking asylum.
Additionally, most LGBTQ asylum-seekers have survived traumatic events in their countries of origin and on their route to safer destinations, and they continue to face many stressors while in Greece. Ideally, they would receive mental health treatment and psychosocial support to help increase their chances of a smoother transition into a new life. Unfortunately, in Greece, most LGBTQ refugees have no access to mental health programs to help address their ongoing issues, which is why Fenix and SPI provide some form of mental health support to their clients and community.
Local integration is also key to providing LGBTQ asylum-seekers a sense of long-term stability while rebuilding self-confidence. SPI is developing local collaborations: “For folks staying in Greece, we're looking at partnerships with small restaurants where we pay their [refugees'] rent, and they [restaurants] train refugees. We pay the first three months of the refugee salary. The support changes with the changing needs,” Hilton said.
In greater scope, the legal timeframe of seeking asylum must be reconsidered and reframed as a continuous process, not a single event or an isolated crisis. For LGBTQ refugees, reaching a second chance at life will take several years. Long after the immediate threat to life has ceased, a slow and painful reconstruction of self continues.
On the big stage of Syntagma Square, David delivered his first speech as a gay man and a visible LGBTQ activist. A team of SPI workers and collaborators, LGBTQ asylum-seekers, and refugees of many nationalities stood by his side. He demanded that LGBTQ people have the right to live in peace without the need to justify their existence. He recalled parts of his journey before the crowd, and his vulnerability became an asset. David was ecstatic and proud when he concluded his speech, the crowd cheering and applauding his delivery.
As the Pride parade was about to begin and the SPI group prepared to march, David recalled something perhaps more important to him than anyone else: “There was a dark night when I thought ‘it is the end’ and that I would never smile again.” He shook his head, threw his arms up in the air, and cried exuberantly, “Look at me now!”
*Editor's note: Names have been changed or shortened to protect the identity of the source.