Arta, a transgender man and refugee from Iran, arrived in Italy in flight from his unaccepting father.  

“This was a very difficult case, because we did not know what we could do to help,” said Jonathan Matellori, secretary for MigraBo, Italy’s first LGBTQ center for refugees and migrants.

Arta’s was one of the first cases the Bologna-based center received, and one of the most challenging.  

MigraBo had difficulty finding a solution for him, because Italy’s Subcommissions for International Protection (CTRPI) does not recognize discrimination against transgendered people in Iran. Arta’s original application for asylum was rejected by the CTRPI, because Iran was willing to pay for transformation surgery.

Though Arta was eventually granted asylum in Italy, his struggle reflects the experiences many LGBTQ refugees have when trying to settle in Europe.  

Cathy La Torre, a Bologna based attorney who works closely with LGBTQ migrants and refugees, spoke about the struggles of the differently gendered in applying for asylum in Italy.

“They don’t care about anything,” La Torre said, of the judges and politicians who develop the rules that apply to such cases. “They don’t care about one kind of refugee versus another refugee.”

La Torre said that this disregard had led to improper examination of LGBTQ refugee cases. Many refugees are fleeing not only from war, she pointed out, but from societies where even identifying as differently gendered is a crime, punishable by imprisonment, or even death. Many Italians have an easier time understanding why refugees are escaping war-torn areas: because those refugees are fleeing for their lives, La Torre explained.

“You are escaping the war, so you need protections,” La Torre said. “But if you are an LGBTQ person, most people think you chose your life. You don’t choose war, but you chose to be LGBTQ.”

Bologna Welcomes LGBTQ Refugees


A Bologna nonprofit has established Italy's first hospitality center to serve persecuted gay and transgendered people from abroad

Writing by Nain F. Ladak and Sierra Henry

Photography by Maria Kristina Lander

Interpreter:  Julia Cicchinelli

Bologna: People-Powered City

Jonathan Mastellori, secretary of a nonprofit LBGTQ refugee assistance organization, believes Bologna is the right kind place to welcome gay and transgendered refugees fleeing hostility and abuse in their home countries.

La Torre herself does not subscribe to this idea, because she does not believe that people choose to be LGBTQ. In other cases, transgendered refugees are improperly placed in the wrong groups after receiving asylum. This could mean that a transgendered female might still be placed in male groups at hospitals or jails, which often sometimes leads to sexual harassment or assault.

“We don’t know how we can protect these kind of people,” La Torre said. “Trans people are more vulnerable, because gay and lesbian people can hide that they are gay—but it is very difficult for trans people to hide.”

La Torre also outlined the process all refugees, including LGBTQ refugees, must undergo before they are granted asylum.

After taking on a new case, a lawyer must first talk with a refugee about his or her history and life, and the situation in the country he or she is fleeing. She pointed to  Brazil, which she said has the world’s highest number of murdered transgendered people. Many LGBTQ refugees are also fleeing countries such as Libya, Syria, Egypt, Cameroon, Russia and Iran.

La Torre will help a refugee fill out an application for a court hearing, where a judge will decide whether to grant asylum six months later. If granted asylum, refugees can live as ordinary residents of Italy. However, even long after being granted asylum, refugees and migrants, especially if they identify as LGBTQ, will face discrimination when applying for jobs and education, she added.

Since 2012, MigraBo has worked with 90 LGBTQ asylum seekers, with only 15 rejections from the CTRPI, and with help from attorneys like La Torre. Mastellari expects that the numbers will rise, in tandem with the number of asylum seekers and migrants. The influx of refugees in Italy has become more of a political problem, La Torre said, because politicians will attempt to create a divide between Italian citizens and refugees. Politicians often claim that Italy does not have the funds or resources to help the refugees arriving in Italy, she added.

“The truth is that Italy receives a lot of money from the European Union each year to help refugees,” La Torre said. “[But] it's become a political problem, because many politicians use propaganda against refugees to build imaginary divides about race and religion.”

La Torre and MigraBo are not the only ones working on finding safe solutions for LGBTQ asylum-seekers. The local Trans Identity Movement (MIT), a nongovernmental organization founded in 1982, is looking into establishing an LGBTQ refugee house.  The project began in January, but was stalled after the National Association Against Sexual Discrimination (ANDDOS) was reportedly caught maintaining three club rooms where men could engage in sexual conduct with strangers, MIT Vice President Mario Dimartino said. Because ANDDOS is funded by the Italian government, a hold was placed on organizations like  MIT, which delayed the establishment of the LGBTQ refugee center.

MIT is now hoping to have the project finished in fall 2017. There have been issues with the Italian government’s attitude towards LGBTQ refugees, since a few people have taken advantage of the system in order to win asylum, Dimartino added. Gender recognition itself is an issue, because transgendered citizens are only able to change their names and sexual identities if they have transitional surgery.

"There is no one who can create real laws; there is no recognition of LGBT refugees,” Dimartino said. “We have an emergency. In part, [the government] does it’s job. In part, it does not. We know there is a problem, and it’s growing.”

These problems notwithstanding, Mastellori believes that Bologna is one of the best cities in Italy to create a strong LGBTQ refugee community, given its history as a university town more welcoming to LGBTQ rights and culture in general.

“Bologna is the right environment for LGBT communities,” he said. “ Bologna is a strong place in Italy. We have a strong tradition in social affairs. It is not a paradise, but you find one of the oldest universities in the world here. I think this place is good for LGBT migrants, because you can find different kinds of social projects here.”

Arcigay Cassero, Bologna's first LGBT center, is filled with LGBTQ-positive messages and artwork.


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