Photo by Kasya Shahovskaya.
“There is nothing more in Russia,” says gay refugee Pavel, part of a growing contingent of LGBT asylum-seekers that spiked after the State Duma unanimously passed an anti-gay bill in June of 2013, which bans the act of distributing information among minors that encourages “nontraditional sexual attitudes.” Its signing brought on a wave of hate crimes targeted against LGBT individuals and activists, and with it, a wave of refugees fleeing persecution from the country. In a 2014 survey on protection of LGBT citizens, Russia ranked last. Pavel, who uses an alias to protect his identity, tells others to forget Russia, “like you would forget a nightmare.”
In Europe, Russian refugees are second only to Syrians in number of appeals, but countries like the UK refuse to release the number of LGBT individuals among them. While Pavel won his case and has attained asylum in Germany, he’s an exception to the rule: the initial refusal rate in sexual identity-based asylum appeals nears 99 percent.
Gay, lesbian and trans refugees are also oftentimes challenged with the peculiar burden of having to prove their sexuality to immigration authorities. Leaked documents showed that the UK’s Home Office requested that claimants produce footage showing sexual intercourse and asked questions like, “What is it about men’s backsides that attracts you?” and “Do you read Oscar Wilde?” In 2010, the Czech Republic came under scrutiny after having gay and bisexual male claimants undergo “sexual arousal tests” where they were hooked up to machines that monitor blood-flow to the penis and then shown straight porn. Applicants who became aroused were denied asylum.
For gay Russians on the successful side of the process, such challenges are worth the struggle. Maxim Zhuravlev preferred the homeless shelter he stayed in while waiting for asylum in Vancouver than the abuse he faced in Russia, fleeing Moscow after homophobic attackers destroyed his life.
When Pavel finally won his appeal, he cried. “It was completely indescribable. I do not know when I cried for the last time, but here it came, along with exuberant emotions that I cannot describe with words.” He now counsels fellow Russian refugees through the entry process in Berlin. Of his new reality and new town, he says, “This [is] nirvana.”