LGBT asylum groups support hundreds of LGBT asylum seekers every year, but there are still no accurate statistics as to the number of LGBT asylum seekers currently in the UK.
According to refugee experts, many of the LGBT asylum seekers that they work with come from Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Jamaica, Uganda, Nigeria, Syria, Pakistan, and South Africa.
Phil Woolas, Minister of State for borders and immigration, courted controversy earlier this month when he posted an article on labourlist.org which celebrated the Labour government’s work with LGBT refugees and claimed that LGBT asylum seekers could march at London Pride “free from fear.”
However in the same article Woolas spoke of the “be discreet” policy - expecting LGBT asylum seekers to go back to the country where they are fleeing from and be discreet about their sexuality. Woolas stated: “The Court of Appeal has found, in line with our policy that whether a gay claimant can reasonably be expected to tolerate behaving discreetly is something that must be considered on the individual merits of the case."
LGBT asylum campaigners like Paul Canning of LGBT Asylum News and the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration group were quick to pick up on Woolas’ comments and drew attention to improvements that urgently need to be made in UK asylum policy and to protect asylum seekers when in the UK.
UKLGIG diplomatically welcomed Woolas' statement, but said that they would "modify and question some of his comments", based on their experience of supporting LGBT asylum seekers throughout the asylum process, and forwarded a series of recommendations.
UKLGIG highlight the lasting dangers of “be discreet”, they state “such an argument does not acknowledge that fears of repercussions along with internalised homophobia and shame usually are the - very damaging - reasons for such ‘keeping quiet’ or ‘staying in the closet’.
Kerry Maskell Project Coordinator of the Lesbian Community Project in Manchester works with many asylum seekers in the city who identify as lesbian and bisexual.
Maskell backs up UKLGIG’s stance and stresses the dangers of effectively telling people to go home and be discreet; "It is mentally damaging and stressful to have the freedom to be yourself and then have to go back to living a lie.
“Also, the ‘be discreet’ argument can often mean that people will feel forced to marry in order to protect themselves. I’m sure that many heterosexual people would not like the idea of having to pretend to be gay to fit in and certainly wouldn’t like having to marry and/or have sex with someone to hide their sexuality.
“We see people who have just arrived. They come in scared and quiet, afraid to talk to others or about themselves. We see them gain confidence and become vibrant wonderful people. Why would anyone want to take that away from them and put them back to being the people they were when they arrived?"
A female asylum seeker from Saudi Arabia who Maskell has recently worked with has been told to go home and be discreet. She fled the country when her sister, who was also gay, disappeared from a safe house in her own country. She does not know what happened to her sister, only that she is dead.
Maskell said: “Our group member fled the country with her two sons, who are not aware of her sexuality. She does not want to tell her sons or fully ‘come out’ until she knows that she can stay in the country as she fears, if people find out, she will be killed if she is sent home. She was told in court that, as she is not out in this country, she may as well go back to her own country and not be out there! She did win her case but the Home Office appealed against it and she now has to go through the whole process again.”
Canning highlights the case of Ugandan gay asylum seeker John Bosco. In Uganda gay people face a prison sentence from 11 years to a life-long sentence and in 2005 same-sex marriage was criminalized. Despite an organised anti gay campaign against Bosco in his homeland he was deported back there in September 2008. After a long and frustrating campaign Bosco has now won leave to remain in the UK.
The case of Prossy Kakooza who also fled Uganda has been well documented, she came to the UK in July 2007 after her family discovered she was a lesbian. She was arrested, ill-treated in custody, and then her family tried to kill her before she managed to escape. Kakooza was finally granted asylum in the UK 17 October 2008, 15 long months and 3 court cases after first applying.
The UK aren’t the only country who operate the “be discreet” policy. An Iranian refugee who has now been granted asylum in the UK originally escaped to Turkey, where he was sent back to Iran and told to be discreet.
However, Jacob Matthews from the Manchester based LGBT asylum support group Gay in the UK points out that the UK are currently lagging behind other EU member states in terms of LGBT asylum. He says: “countries such as Sweden and the Netherlands have reputations of a fairer asylum system for LGBT asylum seekers and refugees.”
MORE TIME & BETTER INFORMATION
Another recommendation UKLGIG encouraged Woolas to take on board was to monitor the quality of the country information used in assessing asylum applications by LGBT persons more rigorously.
In October 2008, the independent governmental Advisory Panel on Country Information published a very critical review of the quality and quantity of information on LGBT issues within the country of origin information (COI) prepared and used by the UKBA in their decision making.
UKLGIG highlighted the case of a Jamaican lesbian, who was told to go back to her homeland because she would be in no danger as she was over 40 and therefore no longer sexually attractive.
In Jamaica same sex relationships are illegal for men (punishable by ten years hard labour), for women homosexuality is legal but not surprisingly in a country that views male homosexuality as a criminal offence, lesbian and bisexual women struggle. Maskell adds: “My volunteer’s girlfriend is Jamaican. She was living in this country for 5 years as an ‘out’ lesbian. She has now had to return to her own country and is finding life very difficult. She is depressed and is finding it very hard not to be herself.”
CLEARER INSTRUCTIONS FOR IMMIGRATION STAFF
Another recommendation from UKLGIG is that there needs to be clear instructions on LGBT issues on asylum policy instruction. UKLGIG have been requesting such an instruction from the UKBA to guide their staff for a long time. They are considering the option of getting a full inclusion (not merely a mention) of LGBT issues in the existing gender API instead.
Matthews also feels that there should be clearer instructions for staff involved in the immigration process. Mathews comments: "I think refugee law should specifically state persecution on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity as grounds for making an asylum claim. I think the current category of 'other social group' is too vague, and results in asylum claims on these grounds being disregarded."
UKLGIG also suggest UK Border Agency workers need more comprehensive training around LGBT issues in order to achieve fair decision making. UKBA have invited UKLGIG to make presentations to case workers on LGBT asylum issues, and the group recommend that Woolas monitors the progress of this training and ensures that it reaches staff throughout the borders agency.
TRANSLATORS & SOLICITORS
Maskell also suggests that a number of improvements are needed to create a fairer asylum system for LGBTs, she says: “Many of our women tell us that, during their initial interview, their words are not translated correctly, they are told that they are not allowed to say they are gay or it is best not to mention it as the translators employed will often be of the same country of origin or hold the same religious beliefs as those in the country they are fleeing.
“They should also put them in touch with solicitors who are ‘gay friendly’ and aware of the rights of gay people (one of our women was told by a solicitor that she shouldn’t talk about her sexuality as it was ‘against god’!). It is hard to get legal help as many solicitors, specialising in gay issues, do not accept legal aid clients and, as asylum seekers receive no money from the government, they cannot afford to access specialist help.”
Given the government’s strong record on granting LGBT rights and equality, LGBT asylum is an area in need of urgent attention. A process must be in place where cases are given the time to explain their circumstances and build up trusting relationships with case workers and solicitors, where refugee’s evidence is taken seriously and case workers are given detailed information about the homophobic and potentially fatal situations these people are trying to escape.
LGF online has given Mr Woolas’ Office the opportunity to comment on this issue, as soon as we receive a response it will be added to this story.
LGBT ASYLUM SUPPORT GROUPS
UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group
To contact UKLGIG, click here.
Gay in the UK (MANCHESTER)
Meets at 6pm on the first Monday of every month at Refugee Action, 23-27 Edge Street, Manchester M4 1HW. For more information: firstname.lastname@example.org contact Anna Webster on 0161 831 5455.
Lesbian Community Project (asylum group)
To contact LCP and find out more, click here.
Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration, new refugee advocacy organization with a focus on LGBTs that launched in June. Visit www.oraminternational.org.