Regular asylum seekers have problems enough when they approach the British asylum system for help. It's doubly difficult for lesbian and gay immigrants, discovers ANNA WEBSTER
‘It’s a devastating process to claim asylum on the grounds of sexuality,’ says Jill Power of the Lesbian and Gay Asylum Team. ‘I don’t think anyone is prepared for how difficult and biased the system is for gay and lesbian people.’
The recent case of Iranian lesbian Pegah Emambakhsh who fled Iran following the arrest, torture and imprisonment of her partner, has highlighted the persecution that lesbians face around the world. Although exact figures are contested, homosexuality is illegal in up to 92 countries and results in the death penalty in 12 by stoning, hanging or being thrown from a high building. The Lesbian and Gay Asylum Team (LGAT) believes that Uganda, Nigeria and Jamaica are currently three of the most homophobic countries. In Jamaica a ‘Gay Eradication Day’ was held and a group of lesbians was told they would be killed if they didn’t leave their community. In the Ugandan tabloid press, naming and shaming campaigns urge readers to ‘expose all the lesbos and rid our motherland of this deadly vice’.
Like Pegah, some lesbians living in fear of this kind of persecution manage to escape and seek asylum in the UK. Many are unaware, however, that in the process of applying for asylum they are likely to experience further maltreatment.
In 2001 Rose – not her real name – was caught, in the words of Ugandan authorities, ‘committing unnatural acts’ with her partner and banished from her home village. Arrested and detained for her political activities, she was gang-raped by three police officers. When they discovered she was a lesbian ‘they became very angry’, she recounts. ‘I got more beatings, more pointing with guns. Every single minute that was passing, I knew it would be my last one.’
Rose fled to the UK and claimed asylum. ‘It was very difficult to talk about my sexuality because I was very sensitive and didn’t know who to trust.’ The UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group (UKLGIG) find that coming out is often difficult, particularly for people who previously would have risked death for revealing their sexuality. ‘When you come in and make your first contact with the Home Office you may never have told anyone in your life that you’re gay or lesbian, and that person in a uniform is hardly the first person you’re going to tell.’ People often don’t know any positive language for describing their sexuality, and there’s also a fear of people from their home country finding out. Rose admitted: ‘I was scared about the consequences for everyone who helped me to come here. I could be putting my friends in danger.’
If people do manage to come out, they then have to prove their sexuality, which is especially difficult if they’ve spent their whole life hiding it. LGAT helps people to build up a gay profile: what places they go to, who knows them, whether they have a Gaydar profile, and so on. Some may have evidence, such as membership of underground clubs or love letters from their country, but more often people don’t carry around such evidence. Proof of sexuality often relies on people having relationships and sex lives in the UK, and this can also be problematic. According to UKLGIG; ‘They may have been detained [on arrival], they can’t afford to go out on the gay scene, and if they’ve been imprisoned, raped or tortured, the last thing they’re interested in is becoming involved with someone else.’
Even when it is possible to gather evidence to ‘prove’ homosexuality, UKLGIG reports that the majority will be refused asylum for a number of reasons. If the person seeking asylum hasn’t realised at first that they can claim on the grounds of their sexuality or have taken time to come out, their claim will be refused as ‘late and opportunistic’ or as an ‘embellishment’.
People are also refused because it isn’t believed that they are gay or lesbian. One man supported by UKLGIG lost his case when the judge decided he ‘didn’t look gay’. If they are believed, people are often refused on the grounds that they can go back and relocate to another part of their country and ‘live discreetly’. UKLGIG finds that there is ‘a lack of cultural knowledge that in some countries it doesn’t matter where you are; if you’re known to be gay, you’re known all over the country’. This is also treating being gay as ‘something people make a decision about, rather than a part of who they are’.
A Border and Immigration Agency (BIA) spokesperson said: ‘All applications for asylum are carefully considered by trained caseworkers, based on accurate up-to-date information, taking into account all the circumstances. If an application is refused, there is a right of appeal to the independent appellate authorities against that decision. We would not remove someone with an outstanding appeal.’
The problems of claiming asylum are often compounded for lesbians, who may be refused on the grounds that they have children or have been married. Florence, a lesbian from Sierra Leone, fled to the UK after being forced, through physical abuse by her family, to marry her baby’s father. Her claim for asylum was rejected because she has a child and therefore ‘cannot be a lesbian’. Rose was refused, as ‘lesbians aren’t specifically referred to under Ugandan laws against homosexuality’, so it was deemed safe for her to return. LGAT says that ‘most of the case law and evidence is collected on gay men, so the courts will say we know this is the situation for gay men but it’s not for lesbians’.
Rose’s claim was rejected at a number of appeals. ‘Every time I was refused I was deteriorating; my mental health was at breaking point.’ She was granted temporary humanitarian protection when the stress from going through the asylum process impacted on her already fragile mental health. This protection has now ended, and she fears being deported back to Uganda, where, on August 21st, the government made fresh demands for stronger implementation of its anti-homosexuality laws.
The BIA doesn’t comment on individual cases, but said, ‘The UK Government is committed to providing protection for those individuals found to be genuinely in need, in accordance with our commitments under international law. However, we consider it reasonable to expect an individual who the asylum decision-making and independent appeals processes have found don’t need international protection to return to their source country. If they don’t depart voluntarily, we may enforce their return in due course.’
Reports suggest that one of the reasons Pegah Emambakhsh was refused was that she wasn’t believed to be a lesbian. She was arrested and detained in Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre, where she was reported to be in a depressed and suicidal state, awaiting deportation to an almost certain death. On August 16th Pegah was taken to the airport. Hours before being put on a flight to Iran she was saved by a last-minute reprieve, following an urgent campaign.
The Friends of Pegah began their campaign from the point when she was first detained, gaining support from the international community through the internet and making front-page news in Italy. It was this global network of support that led to her release from detention on bail, and she is now being allowed to put in a case for appeal.
For Florence, too, it’s the support and campaign work of community and LGBT groups that make all the difference: ‘I don’t know where I’d be without the help they are giving me. They are the ones that keep me going,’ she says.
By being disbelieved, detained or told they should deny who they are, lesbians like Pegah, Rose and Florence are being persecuted in the UK by the very system that is meant to guarantee their safety.
For now, Pegah’s life has been saved, showing that awareness and action to prevent the persecution of LGBT people around the world can make all the difference. ‘This doesn’t mean that she’s out of the woods,’ says the Friends of Pegah Campaign. ‘But due to the fantastic work of those supporting her, Pegah is in a much more hopeful position. We really don’t think we would have got this far without it.’