Q&A with Dennis Castillo Fuentes, Founder and Executive Director of IRCA CASABIERTA

In 2012, Dennis Castillo Fuentes was forced to leave Honduras and seek protection in Costa Rica after receiving threats of violence because of his activism on behalf of LGBTQ+ people. He was the first person to be granted refugee status in Costa Rica because of his vulnerability as an LGBTQ+ person. One year later, he founded an organization based in Costa Rica to continue fighting for the rights of his community.

Today, IRCA CASABIERTA, is an internationally recognized non-profit organization providing advocacy, training, and psychosocial assistance to better the quality of life and opportunities for displaced LGBTQ+ populations in Central America.

He is the 2021 recipient of Refugees International’s Richard C. Holbrooke award for his unwavering dedication to defending human rights. Refugees International spoke to him about his personal experience and his work. The following has been translated from Spanish.

When did you leave Honduras for Costa Rica? What was it like adapting to life when you first arrived in Costa Rica?

I arrived in San Jose Costa Rica in 2012. Immediately upon arrival, I received support from human rights organizations that transported me to a safe place in San Ramon de Alajuela. I immediately started the  process to be recognized as a refugee. My case was emblematic of many others, and today I assist other LGBTQI leaders and people who are persecuted in Central America to be protected by the Costa Rican state.

Nine years ago, I came to San Jose, leaving behind my country, family, and friends. I was alone and had nothing. One of the things that hurt the most was leaving behind my cause and leadership. I thought that I needed to retake that leadership, and the best way I could do so was by continuing my activism on the Internet.

Arriving to Costa Rica, I had the opportunity to meet people who were in solidarity with me and who opened their arms to me. It wasn’t easy adjusting to a new culture, a new country, alone and without family. Resilience has been key to finding ways to adapt to a new environment and integrate into the country.

How did you start CASABIERTA?

IRCA CASABIERTA started as Comunidad Casabierta (Casabierta Community) in 2013. It was a project to create protection and support for people who defend the rights of LGBTQI people who are forcibly displaced in Costa Rica. That was my fundamental objective as a gay Honduran man who was forced to seek protection in Costa Rica after facing persecution for my activism on LGBTQI issues and witnessed the homicide of another member of the LGBTQI community. I became the first person to be granted refugee status in Costa Rica because of my vulnerability as an LGBTQI person.

In the last few years, IRCA CASABIERTA not only is registered officially as a formal organization, but it also occupies an important role in highlighting the experience of displaced LGBTQI people, through our own investigations and reports on the realities people face in their countries of origin and, above all, the knowledge of people impacted. Today, IRCA CASABIERTA is leading nationally and internationally to generate action to protect the human rights of forcibly displaced LGBTQI migrants.

What additional challenges do you see LGBTQ+ people face when they are forced to flee their homes and seek asylum in a new community? How does CASABIERTA address those challenges?

Violence against the LGBTQI population that migrate to other countries is difficult to stop. People also face huge challenges in accessing health services, stigma, discrimination, hate speech and attacks, lack of access to work and livelihoods, and vulnerability to violence and exploitation.

IRCA CASABIERTA is a guide for real integration that permits migrants and asylum seekers to live in dignity. Costa Rica is a signatory to the Refugee Convention and subscribes to a series of international and national norms that obligate the country to provide security and protection to all refugees. These norms include the right to health, education, work, and to be a part of the cultural and social life of the country.

Although the Constitution supports the rights of refugees, institutionally we see several violations of the rights of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in the country, particularly against LGBTQI people. This is partly because of xenophobia, homophobia, and transphobia and partly because of ignorance of the laws. Similarly, many LGBTQI migrants and refugees are not aware of their rights, rights that have historically been denied in their countries of origin.

What is most rewarding about your work?

The most gratifying thing about my work is to see the people served by IRCA CASABIERTA achieve true integration in their host country of Costa Rica—from documentation, to dignified work opportunities, to access to education and health. Our work is based on gratitude and positive energy, and our efforts are centered on playing the game of life and allowing our true voice to illuminate the path for others. Without a doubt, dreams can bear fruit, and the more we give the more blessings we receive. Our work has permitted us to add our little grain of sand to the construction of new goals. To the people who accompany us, we thank them for their stories of bravery, resilience, and love.

What do you hope to see CASABIERTA accomplish in the future?

IRCA CASABIERTA is advancing steadily to offer real opportunities for integration and development aimed at LGBTQI migrants and forcibly displaced people, with special interest in people with high economic and social vulnerability. In this same spirit, it combines strategies to strengthen its institutional response capacities, through articulation with the public, private, and civil society sectors, to promote the recognition of all human rights towards LGBTIQ populations.

In a concrete way, the vision would be to continue strengthening our regional presence as a reference organization in matters of LGBTQI migration and refuge, contributing our experience to other organizations.