By Kevin McKeever, Labour candidate for Harborough, Leicestershire
Over the past decade, the Labour Government has made great progress in dismantling the legal discrimination faced by the gay community. From the equalisation of the age of consent to workplace anti-discrimination legislation Labour’s record on gay rights is a proud one. Unfortunately, the same progress and enlightened leadership has not been shown in extending protection to our oppressed brothers and sisters through the asylum system. Asylum and immigration has always been a highly contentious area of policy for successive British governments. Indeed, until a 1999 House of Lords ruling, persecution due to sexual orientation was not even grounds for being granted refuge in the UK. Today therefore – and forced by the Courts – the Home Office now accepts that if a person does have a well founded – and evidenced – fear of persecution because of their sexual orientation then they can begin to qualify for asylum. However, the Home Office makes it as difficult as possible.
In common with other asylum seekers, the Home Office deploys a ‘robust ‘ approach in determining gay asylum claims. The individual must demonstrate the harm they fear and demonstrate that the fear is justified. Most asylum seekers flee their country without documents, often because their departure is sudden and rushed. Further, accumulation of evidence is often hard to collect and even harder to export. The Home Office issues country-specific guidelines to immigration officers to assist in determining the likelihood of persecution on the grounds of sexual orientation in given countries. Whilst there are many countries that publicly persecute gays individuals, the Home Office often fails to acknowledge this real risk in its guidelines. Last year in an infamous case involving an 18 year old asylum seeker from Iran, the Home Office's own guidance issued to immigration officers conceded that Iran executes homosexual men but, unaccountably, rejected the claim that there is a systematic repression of gay men and lesbians.
Where the Home Office issue guidelines, the Courts held that two gay asylum seekers – one from Iran, the other from Cameroon – should be returned to their country of origin. The Court argued that the decision to grant refugee status to the men depended on the social context in which homosexuality was viewed in their home countries, with one of the judges stating that “a degree of respect for social norms and religious beliefs in other states was appropriate.” It was ruled that the men’s applications for asylum should be denied on the basis that they would not face persecution in Iran and Cameroon if they carried out their lives “with a tolerable level of discretion.”
Quite what those judges deem to be tolerable is unclear. Iran has a highly disturbing record on LGBT rights. As President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed there were “no homosexuals in Iran”, Human Rights Watch reported the execution of two more men for ‘homosexual conduct.’ That the United Kingdom should deem it acceptable for our LGBT brothers and sisters to face persecution daily and then to compound that insult with the admonishment that they should “be discreet” when rejecting their asylum claims is shameful.