The couple had gone to the town of Molyvos, which is on the island’s northern coast, for what Poglajen described as a “normal vacation.” The two men soon found themselves on the frontlines of Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II.
Poglajen told the Washington Blade on Monday during a telephone interview from his home in the Slovenian town of Brezice, which is near the country’s border with Croatia, that he and his partner began working with volunteers to provide medical care to some of the nearly 800 people who were arriving in Molyvos each day. The two men soon began providing them food, water and clothing.
“We had to take care of them, like giving them new clothes because they were mostly wet,” said Poglajen. “Their boats were sinking.”
Serbians ‘know what war is’
Lesbos — separated from Turkey by the narrow Mytilini Strait — is often the first stop in Europe for refugees and migrants who are fleeing Syria, Iraq and other countries.
The International Organization for Migration notes that 481,612 migrants have entered Europe by boat so far this year, including more than 351,000 in Greece. The organization reports 2,852 migrants have either died or gone missing in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas.
European advocates with whom the Blade has spoken in recent weeks said it is exceedingly difficult to identify refugees and migrants who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. They have nevertheless joined efforts in their respective countries to provide assistance to them.
The Lesbian and Gay Federation in Germany — the ultimate destination for many of the refugees and migrants who have made their way to Europe — has opened a center for LGBT refugees in Berlin. Jovanka Todorović of Labris, a Serbian LGBT advocacy group, told the Blade that members of her organization have offered assistance to those who have passed through her country.
“We in Serbia know what war is,” she said, referring to the two conflicts in the 1990s that ravaged Serbia and neighboring countries that were once part of Yugoslavia.
András Léderer, a gay man who lives in Budapest, has worked with refugees and migrants in the Hungarian capital and in camps and detention centers throughout the country since June.The Hungarian government in recent weeks has faced increased criticism over its response to the crisis, which includes the construction of a barbed wire fence along the country’s border with Serbia in order to prevent refugees and migrants from passing through. Prime Minister Viktor Orban earlier this month said these people — the majority of whom are Muslim — “threaten Europe’s Christian identity.”
“The Hungarian government hasn’t responded to the refugee situation at all,” Léderer told the Blade.
Léderer said his country’s government has “absolutely abandoned” LGBT migrants and others who are vulnerable. He told the Blade that volunteers — and not Hungarian officials — have coordinated relief efforts.
“I guess those LGBT asylum seekers that are still in Hungary are in constant fear and have to stay in the closet 24/7 precisely because there will be no one to protect them in the camp,” said Léderer.
Gay men fleeing ISIS reach out to Macedonian group
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees late last month said there are more than 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and other neighboring countries. Many of these people have fled areas under the control of the Islamic State and other Islamic militant groups.
Subhi Nahas, a gay man from the Syrian city of Idleb, told the U.N. Security Council last month during its first meeting on LGBT-specific issues that he fled to Lebanon in 2012 after Jabhat al-Nusra, a militant group affiliated with al-Qaida, took control of his hometown. He later moved to Turkey where he remained until UNHCR granted him refugee status.
The U.S. then allowed Nahas to resettle in San Francisco.
“For my compatriots who do not conform to gender and sexual norms, the 11th hour has already passed,” Nahas told the U.N. Security Council. “They need your help now.”
Todorović told the Blade the primary reasons that migrants have tried to enter Europe are the fear of war and what she described as “damn ISIS.” Bekim Asani, chair of LGBT United Tetovo Macedonia, a Macedonian LGBT advocacy group, said two gay Syrian migrants recently contacted him through Facebook about whether they would have “problems” traveling through the former Yugoslav republic.
The two men fled the Islamic State, which claims to have executed dozens of men whom members of the Sunni militant group accused of committing sodomy.
U.S. urged to accept 500 LGBT refugees
German Chancellor Angela Merkel earlier this month announced that her country would accept up to one million refugees by the end of the year. British Prime Minister David Cameron has said his country will allow up to 20,000 Syrian refugees to settle in the U.K. over the next five years.
“The current refugee crisis is a serious test for EU unity and its founding principles,” ILGA-Europe Executive Director Evelyne Paradis told the Blade on Monday in a statement. “It can only be resolved with a coordinated plan, one involving all EU member states. EU members must act in solidarity with people in need and with each other.”
Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday announced the U.S. will admit 85,000 refugees from around the world in fiscal year 2016 that begins on Oct. 1 and another 100,000 in fiscal year 2017.
President Obama earlier this month said the U.S. will allow at least 10,000 Syrian refugees to resettle in this country next year. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Monday announced the U.S. will provide an additional $419 million to the roughly $4.5 billion in humanitarian assistance it has provided since the Syrian civil war began more than four years ago.
Neil Grungras, executive director of the Organization for Refugee, Asylum and Migration, which works with LGBT asylum seekers, has called upon the Obama administration to set aside 500 of the 10,000 “slots” for Syrian refugees for those who suffered persecution because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Paul Dillane, executive director of the U.K. Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group, a London-based organization that also works with LGBT asylum seekers, also stressed the importance of providing assistance to the aforementioned people.
“One might say these mass of Syrians who are coming into Europe; does it really matter if they’re LGBTI because everyone who is Syrian is fleeing civil war, barrel bombs, poverty,” Dillane told the Blade on Monday during a telephone interview from London. Does their sexual orientation or their gender identity really matter? It does matter.”
State Department spokesperson John Kirby on Monday told the Blade during his daily press briefing that he was unaware of any plans the U.S. may have to increase the number of LGBT refugees it will allow to resettle in this country.
“We try to be flexible, obviously, based on what’s going on on the ground anywhere around the world,” said Kirby. “We don’t break it out by religion or gender. It’s about who needs the help the most and coming from what situation. And that will continue.”
As for Poglajen, he and his partner are now helping migrants who are entering Slovenia from Croatia after Hungary closed its border with Serbia. The two plan to return to Lesbos this fall with Adra Slovenia, a Protestant relief group that is raising funds to respond to the refugee crisis.
“Now there’s more need,” Poglajen told the Blade.