Harnessing legal pro bono to create safe houses for LGBTQ+ asylum seekers and refugees

by Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 22 June 2023 08:11 GMT

Participants hold flags during Mumbai's 2020 Queer Azadi Pride, an event promoting LGBTQ+ rights. Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

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Despite the significant strides the LGBTQ+ community has made in promoting respect and equality worldwide, homosexuality remains illegal in 67 countries. In 11 of these, including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria, it is a crime punishable with the death penalty. The magnitude of violence, torture and persecution faced by LGBTQ+ communities extends far beyond these numbers, causing many to flee their homes to find safety. 

However, once LGBTQ+ asylum seekers reach the UK, their experience of the discrimination, homophobia or transphobia that they were trying to escape isn’t always over. Even if LGBTQ+ asylum seekers are granted a refugee status, they can be regularly subjected to continued abuse in their shared accommodation by fellow refugees. This community fears the consequences of returning to their country of origin but are also unable to fully integrate in their host country, making them more vulnerable to poverty, destitution and sex trafficking.  

In the midst of the migration crisis in Europe in 2017, Micro Rainbow, a UK social enterprise, noticed increasing homelessness amongst LGBTQ+ asylum seekers and were propelled to create the first safe houses exclusively for LGBTQ+ refugees and asylum-seekers. With pro bono legal support from Weil, Gotshal & Manges facilitated through TrustLaw, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s global pro bono service, they received tax and structuring advice. The project marked the start of a long-term pro bono partnership with the international law firm. 

Over the past seven years, Micro Rainbow has opened 20 houses across the UK, and the impact of their work can be seen through the inspiring stories of individuals like Chege from Kenya and Cataleya from Malaysia. 

Chege, living in one of Micro Rainbow's safe houses in the north of England, expressed his heartfelt gratitude, stating, "If there is something that Micro Rainbow has made me realise, it is that there are places you haven't been where you already belong, and being here feels like home with a family miles away from mine."  

Cataleya, a trans woman from Malaysia and the newest member of a Micro Rainbow house, speaks of finally finding a place where she truly belongs. She shares, "In the house, you find members of your own community – people who respect each other and are on the same life journey. Although we may not really know each other, we're from the same LGBTQ+ community and are a family. Thanks to the Micro Rainbow house, I'm not afraid anymore and can finally focus on myself." 

Unfortunately, the migration crisis has worsened over the past couple of years, as a result of Russia’s war on Ukraine, the conflict in Afghanistan and the increase of climate-related natural disasters. In recent months Micro Rainbow has supported over 90 LGBTQ+ Ukrainians to reach the UK and more than 100 LGBTQ+ individuals and their families from Afghanistan.  

Sebastian Rocca, Founder and CEO of Micro Rainbow, speaking on the importance of pro bono legal support in protecting the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, praises the transformative impact of the legal advice received. He said, "At Micro Rainbow, we could not have afforded the top-quality legal advice that we received from Weil, Gotshal & Manges. The pro bono legal advice has been transformational: from dreaming of running safe houses for LGBTQ+ refugees, we now run 20 across the UK."  

Micro Rainbow's unwavering commitment to providing refuge, training opportunities and empowerment, and legal support stands as a testament to their dedication to the LGBTQ+ community. Through their tireless efforts, they continue to create safe spaces and facilitate the journey towards a brighter and more inclusive future. 

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