The all new
CBS News App for Android® for iPad® for iPhone®
Fully redesigned. Featuring CBSN, 24/7 live news. Get the App

"Constant fear" for gay refugees in Europe's shelters

Mahmoud Hassino a homosexual Syrian refugee and gay activist with the Schwulenberatung activist group, attends a news conference in Berlin, Germany, Feb. 22, 2016.

AP

BERLIN -- Alaa Ammar fled Syria to escape not just civil war but also the threat of persecution as a gay man. Yet when he arrived in The Netherlands last spring, he did not find the safe haven he craved.

He and four other gay travelers had to face newly arrived asylum seekers at a migrant center in the remote northern town of Ter Apel.

"After five minutes, they started looking. After 10 minutes, they started to talk. After one hour, they came to us," said Ammar, a slender 28-year-old in tight jeans and with a diamond-like stud in each ear. "After three hours, they started fighting with us."

Across Europe, gay, lesbian and transgender migrants say they suffer from verbal, physical and sexual abuse in refugee shelters, and some have been forced to move out. The AP found out about scores of documented cases in The Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Sweden and Finland, with the abuse usually coming from fellow refugees and sometimes security staff and translators.

The cases suggest a possible cultural clash: Many migrants are coming from conservative Muslim countries where homosexuality is taboo into European societies that are more open to it. In Syria, for example, homosexuality is illegal, and the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has killed more than 30 gays in those two countries over the past two years, activists say.

A similar debate, this time over cultural attitudes toward gender, was sparked after young men assaulted and robbed hundreds of women in several German cities on New Year's Eve. Police described the men as of North African and Arabic origin.

The number of migrants accused of gay abuse are just a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming into Europe. However, most abuse is likely not reported because of European privacy laws and the stigma felt by gay migrants, and there is no official tally across the continent.

In Germany, the Lesbian and Gay Federation counted 106 cases of violence against homosexual and transgender refugees in the Berlin region from August through the end of January. Most of the cases came from refugee centers, and 13 included sexual abuse.

Joerg Steinert, head of the federation in Berlin-Brandenburg, said refugees have been asking gay groups for help all over the country, reluctant to approach police for fear of jeopardizing their asylum applications. Last year, the federation placed 50 people in private homes because the migrant centers were too dangerous.

"These asylum shelters are law-free areas," he said. "When I come to our office on Monday morning, there's usually a bunch of refugees waiting outside in the hallway who need help immediately."

Charities and private shelter operators say they've simply been too overwhelmed by the huge influx of migrants to attend to some refugees' special needs. Masses of people often live in one big hall, without lockable rooms or gender-separated washrooms.