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The Importance of Encryption for LGBTQ+ Refugee Communities

Updated: Nov 8, 2023

Depending on where you are from, and where you plan on going, the average asylum process can take anywhere between six months to several years. Now, imagine that you are sitting in a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos, or just south of the U.S. border in Tijuana, waiting and waiting for your hearing. The only connection you have with your family, that you haven’t seen in months, is through Whatsapp on your cell phone. You’ve also relied heavily on your cell phone for the maps application and coordinating travel, which has managed to get you this far. Since you live in a camp, you don’t have a mailing address, which means that you rely on email and Whatsapp to communicate with your lawyer and receive updates about your asylum case. You had to pull your kids out of school indefinitely when you fled your country, but fortunately their school switched to virtual learning because of the pandemic and they have been able to share the family cell phone to continue attending classes when there is stable enough internet to do so. There is a doctor in the camp, but they don’t speak your language and there isn’t always a translator available. However, thanks to telehealth, you were able to work with a nonprofit that connected you with a doctor who not only speaks your language, but also specializes in the transgender-specific healthcare services that you need. Your appointments with them are held over Zoom. Your family sends you money via a payment app when they can. Since you can’t legally work, your days are essentially spent just waiting. You spend your time on social media and watching videos and movies on YouTube, and virtually connected with a queer support group, which makes the boredom slightly more bearable as you wait.

For the many refugees who are lucky enough to have access to a device, data, and internet, these essentials are game-changing, if not life-saving. Not only are their emotional needs largely dependent on this connectivity, but also their overall health and safety, since many depend on connectivity to navigate difficult and dangerous journeys, and their compliance with the asylum process is dependent on it. Not only is access to technology and connectivity crucial for refugees, but given that refugees are amongst the most vulnerable of populations means that encryption is also especially important as they use these tools to navigate their lives.

Access to end-to-end encryption technology and knowledge about encryption is crucial for refugee and immigrant communities for a variety of reasons.

The asylum process is tedious and traumatic. The process marks an indefinite period of time spent in limbo not knowing if you will be given the opportunity to build a new life, or if you will be sent back to where and what you were forced to flee from. In order to be granted asylum, one must prove that they have a “well-founded fear” of persecution in their home country. This proof must be provided to a lawyer who will provide it to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. It is important that both the process of collecting and providing this evidence is done using good security practices, especially during the pandemic when most meetings, communication, and even court hearings have transitioned to being virtual. This is also especially relevant regarding the “Remain in Mexico” policy, or title 42, originally instituted by the Trump administration, which the Biden administration decided to reinstate this week, which requires asylum seekers to wait in Mexico until their immigration court hearings. Title 42 has proved to be especially dangerous for LGBTQ+ refugees at the border. Because refugees are being forced to wait outside the U.S. for their hearing, this means that a majority of communication with lawyers and sending sensitive case evidence will happen electronically.

Without encrypted methods of communication, this could put asylum seekers doubly at risk. This could look like an asylum seeker who fled the 71 countries in which LGBTQ+ people are criminalized due to fear of persecution for who they are. It’s very possible that this person was not out publicly in their country because of safety concerns; however, they will have to prove their queerness in order to prove their “well-founded fear” of persecution to be considered for asylum. If the documentation they provide ends up in the hands of their home government, or those who pose a threat because of lack of cybersecurity, this could mean prison or even a death sentence should their asylum case be denied.

Encryption can also protect refugees when it comes to the ‘safe third country’ principle. Article 31 of the 1951 Refugee Convention underscores the fact that people fleeing persecution should not be penalized for entering a country undocumented if they are arriving directly from a country in which they were under threat. However, left up to interpretation this has led many countries to adopt a ‘safe third country’ principle. This means that if a refugee who is fleeing Syria to seek asylum in Europe passes through Turkey in order to get there, that if there is proof of them having been in Turkey before Europe they could face deportation to Turkey on the basis that Turkey is a “safe third country”. The European Union also implements this via the Dublin Regulation, which seeks to manage asylum flows throughout the EU by forcing refugees to start their asylum process in the first country they land in in Europe, causing countries like Greece and Italy to be highly overwhelmed with the burden of sheltering mass amounts of asylees while their asylum applications are processed.

If an asylum seeker makes it to Germany to reunite with their family, they could become ineligible for asylum there if the government were to get a hold of any proof showing that they had been in another country prior to arriving in Germany. This proof could be in the form of photos that an NGO had taken of them in Greece and then uploaded to their website, or with friends while passing through Austria that were then shared via a non-encrypted messaging application. This also raises the security issue that facial recognition technology poses for refugees.

Different countries have different levels of data protection regulation, meaning that many refugees are vulnerable to surveillance by state and non-state actors. Sudan, for example, has no legislation to secure the protection of data and privacy, and also hosts over 1 million refugees, the second highest refugee population of any African country (ninth highest in the world). If refugees’ data is accessed by someone in their home country, their families could be at risk of retaliation. If their data is obtained by the country in which they are asking asylum, their request could also be rejected if the data shows that they were working with a smuggling network in any capacity (as the majority of people are forced to do out of concerns for safety and lack of alternatives). Refugees arguably have some of the highest stakes when it comes to their data protection. End-to-end encryption is often the most accessible tool to keep their data secure.

Data privacy for refugees is an internationally connected issue. For Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, which is often referred to as the world’s “largest open-air prison” due to it’s high number of internally displaced residents (7 out of every 10 are registered as refugees), surveillance is a major part of daily life. Though Israel prides itself on its data protection and privacy legislation, the majority of Palestinians are not eligible for Israeli citizenship and therefore these protections do not apply to them. The same surveillance technology developed by Israeli companies is commonly tested by the IDF on Palestinian refugees, is then used by by other countries, including by U.S. law enforcement and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The shared use of this technology by ICE and the IDF is concerning for anyone who cares about human rights.

This surveillance technology can even play a role in creating refugees. Take for example the spyware, Pegasus, developed by Israeli NSO Group which was recently exposed to have been used to monitor citizens in over 50 countries including Saudi Arabia where being LGBTQ+ can be punishable by death, and Mexico where the targeting of activists and journalists is epidemic. These are the conditions that force people to flee their countries, and repressive governments having these surveillance tools makes conditions much more dangerous. This technology is developed in an attempt to break encryption. While this technology is incredibly powerful, using encryption technology is the first step that refugees can and should take to protect their information.

Technological tools have played a role in making the lives of refugees both easier and more difficult. As technology continues to advance, the universal use of end-to-end encryption platforms becomes more important in protecting peoples’ data, especially those who are in vulnerable situations and whose lives very literally depend on the privacy of their information. Encryption is one of the most important tools for protecting our data privacy. For some, it is life-saving technology.

To learn more about how Encryption works, and its importance for the LGBTQ+ community, check out our Encryption One-Sheet.


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