What is behind the suicides of LGBTQ+ people in refugee camps in the Netherlands?

This article originally appeared in Holod magazine. An edited version has been republished on Global Voices under a content partnership agreement.

In mid-January, it was reported that Antonina Babkina, a transgender girl from Russia who had been granted asylum, committed suicide in the Netherlands. This marks at least the fourth reported case of suicide among Russian-speaking refugees in the country over the past year.

It matters who your neighbors are

According to Sandro Kortekaas, a spokesperson for the Dutch organization LGBTQ Asylum Support, all suicide cases have one thing in common: the victims did not receive psychological support on time. Kortekaas said, Most refugees come from countries with a huge number of problems. Ideally, there should be a medical evaluation upon their arrival in the Netherlands and another one before the refugee interview.”

Kortekaas noted that the lack of attention given to LGBTQ+ applicants is due to the large influx of refugees in the Netherlands. Temporary refugee camps essentially function as dormitories where newcomers are housed in blocks with shared kitchen, shower, and toilets. There is no systematic approach to resettlement: individuals of various nationalities, religions, and sexual orientations can share rooms. The camp administration must resolve serious conflicts. However, a Justice Department report found that employees don't always respond to complaints properly.

LGBT Asylum Support is currently working on creating blocks of rooms reserved solely for LGBTQ+ applicants in each camp.

To an even more conservative society

Hina Zakharova applied for asylum in the Netherlands in December 2022. She lived in a camp in Drachten. It’s important to note that Drachten, a small Dutch town in the northeast of the country, is much more conservative than Amsterdam.

Hina needed hormone replacement therapy, which has a long waiting list in the Netherlands, estimated at over two years. The burden of these challenges turned out to be unbearable for Hina.  She died by suicide. Residents of the camp in Drachten said that, in refugee chats, Hina asked for help, but did not receive any support: People either responded aggressively or mocked her desire to pursue euthanasia.”

 War will teach you

Anna, transgender girl from Ukraine, was acquainted with Moldovan Katya Mikhailova, who died 10 months after Hina: In Katyas case, everything happened because of a specific official who made a formal decision [to deny asylum]. He saw that Moldova was on the list of safe countries and decided that the rest of Katyas case was irrelevant.”

Mikhailova lived in the small town of Bendery with her family. However, they did not accept her transgender identity, and, after numerous beatings, she (with the assistance of the GenderDoc-M center) had to move to a temporary shelter.

Moldova is a rather intolerant, especially Transnistria, as the local government copies all Russian laws,” explained to Kholod Anzhelika Frolova, head of GenderDoc-M. In Bendery, Katya was conscripted into the army. The girl underwent a medical examination and was diagnosed with transsexualism.

It all ended with the military office saying: ‘We didnt receive any documents from the hospital, so we are taking you,'” Frolova continued. After this, Mikhailova fled the country, and a criminal case was opened against her for evading military service.

Katya Mikhailova spent more than a year and a half in the Netherlands, trying to obtain refugee status. In December 2023 the denial was confirmed.

On December 25, Katya Mikhailovas body was discovered in the hallway of a refugee camp in the city of Heerlen.

As Global Voices wrote earlier this year, Moldova recently denied refugee status  to five Russian citizens from the LGBTQ+ community. The Inspectorate General of Migration (IGM) responded to them that mere membership of a social group is not a basis” for granting refugee status. The institution concluded that the country of origin does not pose a threat to the life and safety of the applicants. It’s evident that these responses show ignorance of the realities faced by members of the LGBTQ+ community and a lack of understanding of the political context.

Behind bars

Antonina Babkina  died by suicide on January 11. She was known as a streamer who shared insights about her life. Following Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, she sought refuge in the Netherlands. At the time of her death, she had already received a residence permit and was living in state-provided apartment.

Antonina had been diagnosed with autism and schizophrenia. I pleaded with the COA and the doctors to consider her perspective,” says Sandro Kortekaas. One problem piled on top of another, and as a result she became a source of trouble for them.”

Babkina was transferred to the Enforcement and Supervision Centre (HTL) for refugees who engage in seriously anti-social behaviour. The HTL facility is surrounded by a fence with barbed wire, with guarded premises and stricter living regulations compared to a regular camp. Individuals at the center undergo a special behavioural correction program. According to Kortekaas, people with diagnoses like Antonina's should not be placed in HTL, because this could only worsen their mental health issues.

People dont understand where they are going’

Little is known thus far about the suicide of 24-year-old refugee Mikhail Zubchenko. According to LGBTQ Asylum Support, he applied for refugee status as a bisexual man from Russia.

The founder of psychological assistance project Without Prejudice Polina Grundmane told Holod that many refugees need psychological help but can’t get it in time. Although specialists are available in Holland, they predominantly speak Dutch, while newcomers to the country do not speak either Dutch or English.  Unfortunately, people do not always understand where they are going,” explains Grundmane. They flee their country thinking that there is something much better out there. Dont expect that upon arrival, everything will align with your expectations.”

Bright future or not so bright

Transgender girl Sasha, a friend of Katya Mikhailova's, believes that the Netherlands is the most favorable country for LGBTQ+ refugees from Russia to obtain asylum. If successful, two years of waiting will pay off: the applicant will be given an apartment to live in, an allowance, the opportunity to get an education with favorable loan terms, and citizenship after five years of residency.

However, Salim Aleulov, a former neighbor of Mikhail Zubchenko's, holds a different perspective: potential refugees really face problems that become factors for suicide — and which could have been prevented.

Research indicates that high risks of suicide exist among those living in refugee camps around the world. The main reasons are socioeconomic disadvantages, traumatic experiences, increased levels of anxiety and depression, and limited access to medical help.  
The number one cause of suicide is untreated depression. Depression is treatable, and suicide is preventable. You can get help from confidential support lines for the suicidal and those in emotional crisis. Visit Befrienders.org to find a suicide prevention helpline in your country. 

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