Big Story 10

Trans asylum seekers assaulted, abused in U.S., UK, Norway detention

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Nahia Riviera was thousands of miles from home in a Norwegian center for asylum seekers last December trying to flee the United States, where she no longer felt safe, when she said she was sexually assaulted.

Riviera, a transgender woman, said strangers’ verbal abuse, her poor mental health and U.S. administration policies such as a ban on new trans military members left her feeling she had to leave.

“I feel like I’m forced to hide,” Riviera told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone. “(It) was the only option to live.”

Trans asylum seekers have recounted assaults, harassment and abuse in immigration facilities in the United States and Britain and refugee camps in Europe, after being held with men who targeted them for their gender identity.

Of 28 U.S. facilities that held 112 trans people as of May 28, only two were designed to keep trans people separate, but even there they remain vulnerable.

In a letter sent in March by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other advocates to government agencies, 12 trans women and gay men in a U.S. immigration center reported experiencing “rampant sexual harassment.”

Sexual assaults on trans women in U.S. custody were also documented by advocacy groups Human Rights Watch in 2016 and the National Center for Transgender Equality in 2015 and 2013.

And at least one instance of a trans asylum seeker housed with men who was raped has been documented by Transgender Europe, a regional advocacy group, while media has reported on trans people being attacked in Greek refugee camps.

UKLGIG has recorded at least two incidents of trans and intersex asylum seekers being sexually harassed in British asylum accommodation, with others suffering verbal abuse.

LGBT+ people “can find themselves locked up alongside people with the exact same prejudice, hostility and harassment that they are trying to escape,” said Leila Zadeh, executive director of the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group (UKGLIG).

“These are people that are coming from horrific trauma-inducing experiences,” said Nicolas Palazzo, a lawyer at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in Texas, who represents another trans woman, Elena.

Elena (not her real name), a 27-year-old Salvadorean, said she was detained in West Texas Detention Center in the United States in February after fleeing death threats.

“There’s somewhat of a cruel irony that they come here, and they experience this,” Palazzo said.

From October through May, nearly 300 self-identified trans people, mostly women, were in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody, some 20 percent more than in the previous year.

Speaking with the Thomson Reuters Foundation from the Texas facility by phone in May, Elena she said that she was one of three trans women sleeping in a corner of a room with about 120 men.

“Some are vulgar, some are homophobic,” said Elena, who was released by ICE in June. “Others bully us.” Male guards treated her as a man and laughed at her.

Forced into prostitution when she came out as trans as a teenager, Elena was gang raped, shot and left for dead by a gang two years ago.

She agreed the center’s food and medical treatment was good, but she could not access gender transition hormones like in El Salvador. She became depressed as her body became more masculine.

Andrew Lorenzen-Strait, deputy assistant director of custody management for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, “I can tell you without one shred of doubt that ICE takes very seriously the care and responsibility of this population.”

While declining comment on specific cases, he said “Any time we hear any type of allegations of mistreatment, we look into it, take appropriate action and we try to remedy it.”

Still, a second trans asylum seeker who was HIV-positive died in U.S. custody in June. Advocates said Johana Medina Leon’s death was evidence that trans detainees suffered “severe medical neglect”.


Trans women describe similar experiences in immigration detention in Britain, where Vani (a pseudonym) was studying after leaving India, where her parents did not accept her and harassment and discrimination were rife.

Vani, a trans woman, was held in male immigration centers for two weeks in 2014 and then for more than four months in 2015, where detainees and staff targeted her.

At an immigration center in Harmondsworth, west London, Vani said she spent 15 days unable to shower safely owing to doors too short for privacy.

“It was literally like you’re confined,” she said. “You’re helpless.”

She too became depressed by not having gender transition hormones which staff said she could not access without a prescription.

A Home Office spokesman said by email, “We are committed to delivering an immigration and asylum system that safeguards against all forms of persecution, including those based on gender identity and sexual orientation.”

“Transsexual and intersex individuals are regarded as vulnerable,” he said, adding that meant they should only be detained if immigration considerations outweigh their vulnerability.

But Zadeh of UKGLIG, which supported Vani, said, “The Home Office can and does disregard people’s vulnerabilities and detains them anyway.”


Riviera arrived in Norway on Dec. 5th, her application rejected a day later. On Dec. 10, awaiting for the outcome of her appeal, she was attacked by a man who befriended, then assaulted her in her private room.

“I was only seeking to develop a friendship,” Riviera said by email of her need for a “human connection.”

“Could I have been more safe, yes. But, I am too trusting.”

The unnamed attacker was fined 10,000 NOK (about $1,200), according to an Oslo police lawyer’s emails.

A police spokeswoman said the man was convicted “for masturbating and exposing himself in front of Riviera without her consent,” adding “The punishment is considered adequate.”

Riviera, who testified remotely, answering questions from her assailant, said “I am satisfied that he was convicted. But I feel like the punishment was very slight.”

She did not hear from Norwegian authorities about the case after being deported until Thomson Reuters Foundation contacted police.

“It is our opinion that she is in no risk of harm from the authorities in the United States and therefore has no need for protection in Norway,” Hakon Fenstad, of the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration (UDI), said by email.

But Riviera feels “Norway has failed me as a whole, as both an asylum seeker and as a victim of sexual assault.”

Reporting by Rachel Savage @rachelmsavage; additional reporting by Christine Murray; Editing by Chris Michaud. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit