LGBTQ migrants fleeing Venezuela find refuge in Ecuador
“If it wasn’t for CARE, UNHCR, and IOM, I wouldn’t be here.”
On a residential street in Quito, Ecuador, one home has been transformed into a refuge. Red and pink flowers enliven the front yard. Milo, the resident dog, wags his tail and welcomes visitors. Inside, a traditional pride flag brings a pop of color to the minimalist, all-white space.
Dialogo Diverso is a community organisation providing LGBTQ migrants and refugees with free drop-in counseling, workshops on topics ranging from employment to LGBTQ rights, and referral services to other agencies. Since it opened last November, Dialogo Diverso has helped over 300 LGBTQ Venezuelan migrants.
They are among the 3.7 million people who have fled from the economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, and the 350,000 Venezuelan refugees registered in Ecuador. But, as Danilo Manzano, Dialogo Diverso’s director, says:
There is no data. There are no numbers. There is no information on how difficult it is to be LGBTQ and a migrant at the same time. It is one thing to be a migrant. If you’re queer and a migrant and you have AIDS, it’s very complicated. LGBTQ migrants need a safe space.
And that’s what he has created. Danilo scraped together funds to set up this inclusive space – the only official space in Quito where LGBTQ migrants and refugees can make friends in a similar position, build community, and receive advice and referrals to appropriate services – or at least, to those that are currently available.
Dialogo Diverso also lobbies for additional support for LGBTQ migrants and refugees, and trains agencies to support LGBTQ migrants. Danilo says:
These organisations don’t have experience in dealing with LGBTQ people. They may discriminate unintentionally through their vocabulary.
Bruno Martinez*, 21, a Venezuelan human rights and LGBTQ activist and professional stylist heard about Dialogo Diverso through word of mouth. It has provided a small light in his otherwise traumatic journey. As Bruno says:
It has been really tough. I thought I would find a place of peace and security and it’s been the exact opposite.
Like most Venezuelans, Bruno fled due to the economic crisis, but he also had an additional reason. As an activist, he was vocal about LGBTQ rights and being anti-government. As a result, Bruno says he was threatened by the Venezuelan army. He says:
Everyone in Venezuela is starving, but if I didn’t leave, I would have died.
Bruno – the breadwinner for his family – fled Venezuela alone, leaving behind his mother and four siblings. He first went to Colombia where he worked odd jobs to earn enough money to continue the journey to Ecuador. At Tulcan, on Ecuador’s border with Colombia, Bruno was sexually assaulted and worried that he may have contracted HIV as a result. He tested negative.
When Bruno reached Quito, he stayed at a shelter for Venezuelan migrants, where he was happy to have a bed and three meals a day. As he was settling in, he once again was subjected to violence. A staff member at the shelter asked Bruno for sexual favours. In addition, he was sexually assaulted by two other men at the shelter who also threatened to physically assault him.
Bruno found himself fleeing once again in fear of his life. A project coordinator from CARE put him in touch with UNHCR who temporarily put him up in a hotel and covered his meals for a few days until he got on his feet. He says:
If it wasn’t for CARE, UNHCR, and IOM, I wouldn’t be here.
Bruno denounced the shelter and the sexual abuse he experienced there. Although he has boldly maintained his activism, he worries that the men who assaulted him will track him down. He says the anxiety and insecurity he felt in Venezuela has not gone away. “I didn’t expect to have the same fears here,” he says.
When possible, Bruno keeps in touch with his family in Venezuela, but it is not easy:
My mom says she is fine but I know she is not. A mother cannot tell her son she isn’t well, and I do the same. Even on days when I’m lying down on the ground, I tell her I am OK.
As with so many other LGBTQ migrants, Bruno is uncertain about where he will permanently settle, how he will survive, and if he will be accepted for who he is. He says:
Life is a big desert for me now. I look out and I just see a desert.
Through various survival jobs, Bruno has faced xenophobia, homophobia, and exploitation. Danilo says this is far too common among LGBTQ migrants and refugees. Danilo explains:
We have an amazing law, but the reality is completely different.
In Ecuador, LGBTQ people are protected against violence through a law that outlaws hate crimes, including those committed on the basis of sexuality. But a 2016 study by several human rights organisations in Ecuador found that these domestic laws on equality and non-discrimination based on sexuality, were not being enforced.
And, although a range of organisations serve migrants at large, LGBTQ migrants are overlooked – which is why Danilo is so determined to continue this work:
For us, it was very important to show organisations that we are here and need special support.
*Name has been changed. Interviews and story by Jacky Habib.
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