Three Things to Know About LGBTQ+ Refugees this World Refugee Day

Roughly 40 percent of the world’s refugees live in countries where lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) individuals face legal persecution. Sixty-four countries worldwide criminalize consensual same-sex relations, with sentences ranging from imprisonment to the death penalty.

Contrary to the global trend, LGBTQ+ rights have largely regressed across Africa and Western Asia in recent years. In 2024, new bills that criminalize or increase penalties for homosexuality have been introduced in Ghana, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bahrain, and Mali. After the passage of Iraq’s Anti-Prostitution and Homosexuality Law in April, nine of the ten countries with the highest number of internally displaced people (IDPs) now criminalize homosexuality. These laws are also often used to target transgender people.

This has led to state-sanctioned persecution based on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI), driving displacement. LGBTQ+ refugees also struggle to integrate into hosting countries with repressive laws and practices.

Yet the impact of these laws on LGBTQ+ refugee displacement and integration is often overlooked in research and programming. There is a need to identify the distinct needs of LGBTQ+ refugees in order to effectively support their socio-economic integration. This Pride, ahead of World Refugee Day, we highlight three things we know about LGBTQ+ refugees to aid these efforts.

1. LGBTQ+ refugees face continued persecution in hosting countries

Perhaps the most salient example is Uganda, which hosts the largest number of refugees (1.6 million) in Africa. Their constitutional court recently upheld the 2023 Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA), which imposes life imprisonment for consensual same-sex conduct and the death penalty in cases of “aggravated homosexuality.” Following the AHA’s enactment, there have been documented increases in targeted violence, evictions, and arrests based on SOGI.

While the AHA has been met with condemnation and sanctions from the World Bank and U.S. government, Uganda is simultaneously praised by donors for its progressive refugee policies and often referred to as the “best place to be a refugee.” Indeed, Uganda grants refugees the right to work, move freely, and access essential services including education and healthcare. The country also co-convened the 2023 Global Refugee Forum (GRF) in Geneva, facilitating pledges from governments and other actors to ensure refugee protection and socio-economic inclusion. But for LGBTQ+ refugees, who remain largely invisible, the country is no safe haven.

LGBTQ+ people in Uganda have long-faced social intolerance, but the AHA further cements their insecurity. Fearing prosecution under the AHA, LGBTQ+ refugees reportedly choose to remain in Uganda’s settlements in hopes of protection from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). However, within the first month of the AHA’s passage, a group of 28 LGBTQ+ refugees were evicted from a local settlement and forced to evade arrest by police.

It is unknown how the AHA will impact the migration decisions and outcomes of LGBTQ+ refugees in Uganda over time. However, there is a clear disconnect between the rights that Uganda grants refugees in law and those that LGBTQ+ refugees can exercise in practice.

While Uganda is an extreme case, LGBTQ+ refugees also experience continued persecution in other major hosting countries including Kenya, South Sudan, and Lebanon. Likewise, in Türkiye, LGBTQ+ refugees face violence and harassment but are unable to benefit from their legal rights to protection.

2. LGBTQ+ refugees are largely hidden

There is no reliable data on the number of LGBTQ+ refugees, asylum seekers, and IDPs worldwide, and how these populations have changed over time. Conservative estimates based on general population averages suggest that five percent of refugees identify as LGBTQ+, though the true proportion may be higher given their heightened risk of experiencing discrimination and violence—and therefore understandable fear of reporting.

Quantitative research on LGBTQ+ refugees’ socio-economic outcomes is also nearly non-existent. Despite growing investments to collect representative data on refugees and their hosts, including initiatives to integrate refugees into national statistical systems, there are inconsistent measures and guidelines on how to sensitively identify LGBTQ+ refugees. Data collection on LGBTQ+ refugees is further complicated by their relative invisibility. Many are fearful to disclose their identity out of distrust and stigmatization. Research shows that many LGBTQ+ refugees are not formally registered with UNHCR.

This fear is not misplaced. LGBTQ+ refugees experience multiple forms of marginalization due to their intersecting identities, leading to intensified discrimination from host community members and other refugees. For example, in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp, LGBTQ+ refugees report high rates of verbal and physical abuse, denial of services in shops and markets, and relocation to other accommodations due to safety concerns.

3. LGBTQ+ refugees are isolated from opportunities and services

Within hosting countries, LGBTQ+ refugees face acute barriers to socio-economic integration. Social networks play a significant role by bridging access to housing and jobs, yet LGBTQ+ refugees tend to dissociate from both host communities and co-national refugees. Lack of social capital, along with discrimination by landlords and employers, leads LGBTQ+ refugees to face housing insecurity and economic exclusion.

If LGBTQ+ refugees are unable to access the formal labor market, they may resort to informal jobs or sex work. Those engaged in sex work are more susceptible to exploitation, gender-based violence, and sexually transmitted infections. Meanwhile, LGBTQ+ refugees who manage to find employment frequently report poor working conditions and situations where they do not receive payment for their work. More data is needed to evaluate LGBTQ+ refugees’ access to labor markets and economic welfare relative to other refugees.

Many LGBTQ+ refugees experience deteriorating health outcomes after leaving their country of origin. In hosting countries, it is difficult to consistently access health services due to financial constraints, stigma, and discrimination. Certain health services may be barred, including antiretroviral therapy for those who are HIV-positive and gender-affirming care. Preventative health services for LGBTQ+ refugees also tend to focus overtly on STIs and HIV, leading other health concerns to be overlooked. Crackdowns on LGBTQ+ civil society organizations (CSOs), particularly LGBTQ+ health clinics, further exacerbate these concerns.

How should donors and practitioners respond?

Of the 1,600 pledges made at the 2023 GRF, there were very few specifically focused on LGBTQ+ refugee socio-economic integration.[1] Donors and practitioners must close this gap. Such advancements have already been made through consultative forums such as UNHCR’s 2021 Global Roundtable on Protection and Solutions for LGBTIQ+ People in Forced Displacement, along with other convenings by researchers to identify and address knowledge gaps. Since then, UNHCR has documented significant progress on integrating recommendations addressed to the agency.

Yet more could be done. Donors and practitioners should draw expertise from local CSOs on how to design culturally appropriate, gender-sensitive programs. This will require visible commitments to fund LGBTQ+ and refugee-serving CSOs. However, in countries where LGBTQ+ services are prohibited or heavily stigmatized, direct funding models could inadvertently subject such CSOs to undesired visibility, making them a target. Practitioners should engage in consultative processes to understand local sensitivities and seek alternative models where necessary. For instance, partnering with regional LGBTQ+ organizations to support existing refugee CSOs could be a better approach.

Stronger global pressure must be placed on host governments to overturn anti-LGBTQ+ laws. Just as the World Bank withdrew funding to Uganda following the AHA’s passage, donors and practitioners should draw attention to other potential policy levers. To fully support LGBTQ+ refugees, organizations must unequivocally affirm broader LGBTQ+ rights in hosting countries.


[1] Canada and the U.S. pledged to increase referral and sponsorship pathways for LGBTQ+ refugees in partnership with non-governmental organizations. Malta’s Agency for the Welfare of Asylum Seekers pledged to implement LGBTQ+ training for staff, establish protocols for NGO collaboration, and provide dedicated accommodations for LGBTQ+ asylum seekers. Other governments referenced LGBTQ+ refugee vulnerabilities in their pledges on healthcare and gender-based violence, but did not make standalone commitments.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

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