"When I told (my interpreter) that I wanted to include homosexuality in my grounds for claiming asylum, he dropped his pen and walked out of the interview"
By Morgan Meaker
FRANKFURT, July 31 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - After Khadar arrived in Germany from Somalia in December 2014, he waited nearly two years for his asylum interview - the appointment that would decide if he could stay in the country.
Khadar, who is gay, left his hometown of Qoryoley in southern Somalia aged just 17 because his life was in danger, he said. Homosexuality is outlawed in Somalia, one of a handful of countries where consenting gay sex is punishable by death.
"In Germany, I felt very anxious about what would happen to me," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Frankfurt. "I didn't know if I would be deported back to Somalia."
When Khadar finally sat down to his interview in October 2016, his interpreter warned him, in Somali: "Don't say anything bad about Islam."
Speaking at the headquarters of support group Rainbow Refugees, Khadar, "a proud Muslim", said the comment made him uncomfortable, as if he could not express himself openly.
The 19-year-old is one of many LGBT asylum seekers in Germany who have complained about ignorant or intimidating comments made during their asylum interviews.
During these interviews, asylum seekers must talk about why they came to Germany in front of a "decision maker", who asks the questions and an interpreter who helps with translation.
While Germany's parliament voted to legalise same-sex marriage in June and last weekend saw one of the world's biggest gay pride parades in Berlin, prejudice against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community persists.
And as interpreters are often hired from refugee communities, they can reflect attitudes from asylum seekers' home countries – attitudes they came to Germany to escape.
Rights groups blame the problem on a lack of basic training on LGBT rights for decision makers and interpreters.
A spokesperson for Germany's Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BaMF) said by email: "The interpreters are not schooled in asylum related topics as their only task is it to translate word by word."
But the Thomson Reuters Foundation spoke to several gay asylum seekers who felt uncomfortable discussing their sexuality in front of their interpreters.
NO WORD FOR GAY
In a Berlin café, Mahmoud Hassino, a journalist and activist from Syria, described his experience: "When I told (my interpreter) that I wanted to include homosexuality in my grounds for claiming asylum, he dropped his pen and walked out of the interview."
Abdullah al-Busaidi, another activist from Oman now living in Saarbrücken, near the French border, discovered his interpreter did not know the word for "gay" in Arabic.
If refugees are made to feel uncomfortable during their interview, they might withhold crucial information about their case – risking rejection and possible deportation, said Knud Wechterstein, founder of the charity Rainbow Refugees.
"It is my opinion that the low qualification of interpreters is a reason for the high number of wrong decisions made by the BaMF," he said, adding that nearly half of his clients, 22 people in total, had received deportation orders.
A report published in March by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights raised concerns about asylum interviews for LGBT applicants across the bloc. It suggested interpreters don't receive adequate training because they are hired as external contractors, not as government staff.
In the report, Germany was singled out for using "unlawful, intimate questions" to test if LGBT asylum seekers were telling the truth.
This was the experience of Javid Nabiyev, an asylum seeker from Azerbaijan.
"My asylum interview was just disgusting," says Nabiyev, founder of the organisation Queer Refugees for Pride.
Despite a 2014 decision by the European Court of Justice ruling that asylum seekers should not be questioned about their sexual activity, Nabiyev says he was asked intimate questions about his sex life, including about sexual positions.
Cara Schwab, project manager at Plus Mannheim, who works with LGBT refugees in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, believes better training for all decision makers and interpreters is crucial.
"With training, a person can become aware of their own stereotypes or even homophobia," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Special representatives or "Sonderbeauftragte" who have been trained to deal with LGBT applicants do exist, but Schwab said she had never met one. "When we put in a request, we are usually ignored," she said.
The federal migration and refugees office, BaMF, said there were 321 special interviewers in Germany, but they are not available for every relevant asylum interview.
"Unfortunately it is not always possible to enable an interview with one of these special decision makers, because it could, for example, result in a much later interview appointment," a spokesperson said.
The availability of specially trained staff appears to vary around the country.
Leipzig-based Queer Refugees Network said it found it easy to contact specially trained staff. "They're doing good work. They're sensitive, they listen. We're happy," project manager, Sabrina Latz, said by phone.
Khadar, the Somali teenager, has now been granted refugee status. But he says it's important others like him are able to express themselves freely during their asylum interviews. "We want someone who doesn't judge us," he said.
(Reporting by Morgan Meaker; Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, resilience and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.