Spain: LGBT Asylum Seekers Abused in North African Enclave

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) asylum seekers in Spain’s North African enclave, Ceuta, are exposed to harassment and abuse, Human Rights Watch said today.

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Spanish authorities should transfer them to mainland Spain without delay and halt its de facto policy of blocking most asylum seeker transfers to the mainland.

“LGBT asylum seekers who fled homophobic harassment and intimidation at home face similar abuse in Ceuta, both at the immigration centre and on the street,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Spain should transfer them to reception centres on the mainland, where they can get the services and support they are entitled to.”

All migrants who enter Ceuta irregularly are housed in the Temporary Stay Centre for Immigrants (Centro de Estancia Temporal de Inmigrantes, CETI), under the authority of the Employment and Social Security Ministry. The facility, designed for short-term stays and with a capacity of 512 people, is often overcrowded. Despite staff efforts, asylum seekers cannot get the care and services there to which they have the right under Spanish law.

When Human Rights Watch visited on March 28 and 29, 2017, the centre held 943 residents, many living in large tents set up on what should be a basketball court inside the compound, with others sleeping in rooms that should be used for classes or group activities. While the centre is open, and migrants may come and go, they are not allowed to leave Ceuta, an enclave of only 18.5 square kilometres.

According to centre staff, currently 70 to 80 asylum seekers are in the Ceuta centre, of whom at least 10 have filed for asylum on the grounds of discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Human Rights Watch spoke with three gay men housed at the centre, two from Morocco and one from Algeria, all of whom had filed for asylum on the grounds of persecution due to their sexual orientation. They described extreme abuse, including physical violence, by family members, repeated and widespread societal rejection, and physical attacks on the streets in their countries of origin. One Moroccan man said he had been jailed in part due to his sexual orientation. Both Morocco and Algeria criminalise consensual same-sex sexual activity, punishable by up to three years in prison and fines.

All three spoke of difficulties in the centre and in Ceuta due to their sexual orientation.

“Ahmed” (a pseudonym), a 29-year-old Moroccan, said he fled his country because he suffered threats from both his family and the police but that he is experiencing the same kind of treatment at the hands of other people staying in the CETI. “They [other CETI residents] tell me if they see me outside [the centre] they’ll beat me,” he said. “They come after me, and I run. One time, in November or December, they hit me.”

LGBT asylum seekers are trapped in Ceuta by what Human Rights Watch believes to be a policy designed to deter asylum applications from all asylum seekers, except for Syrians, who manage to reach the enclave. Migrants who do not apply for asylum are given expulsion orders and transferred to mainland Spain at a target rate of 80 per week where they are placed either in detention centres pending deportation or in shelters operated by nongovernmental groups. Asylum seekers, however, are generally not permitted to transfer.

“Denying asylum seekers their freedom of movement to deter applications would not only be cruel and misguided, but also a misuse of power,” Sunderland said. “Yet, the evidence suggests that the authorities impose a terrible choice on people in need of protection, requiring them to declare their need and face months or years in limbo in Ceuta, or to take their chances and apply for asylum only after they’ve been transferred to the mainland with an expulsion order in hand.”

While some migrants may stay at the centre in Ceuta four or five months, those who apply for asylum normally stay much longer, sometimes throughout the entire procedure for assessing their application for protection, a process that can last well over a year. Police in Ceuta carry out border checks and block asylum seekers who try to leave the enclave for mainland Spain.

In 2010, the Spanish Interior Ministry said that the asylum seekers in the enclaves receive documents allowing them to live both in Ceuta and in the other North Africa Spanish enclave, Melilla. However, the ministry said that these documents do not in any circumstances entitle them to travel to the Spanish mainland. Although Spanish authorities do regularly transfer Syrian asylum seekers from the enclaves, the ministry does not appear to have changed its policy with respect to other nationalities despite a series of court rulings and recommendations from the Spanish human rights institute – the Defensor del Pueblo – and refugee rights organizations. Court rulings also have said that asylum seekers should have freedom of movement inside Spain.

“The situation of the enclaves, the European Union’s borders on the southern rim of the Mediterranean, is no doubt different than for other EU countries but that’s no excuse for punishing those who enter Ceuta to seek asylum,” Sunderland said. “Spain has the wherewithal to treat asylum seekers decently including LGBT people searching for a tolerant country where they can live without fear of discrimination or violence.”