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Tuesday, 7 July 2009

UKLGIG response to Phil Woolas’ comments on fair treatment of LGBT asylum applicants



By Anisa De Jong

The UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group (UKLGIG) welcome Phil Woolas' statement on LabourList regarding his commitment to a fair consideration of LGBT asylum applications. However, we would modify and question some of his comments, based on our experience of supporting LGBT asylum seekers throughout the asylum process:

Re: 'comprehensive training'
The UK Border Agency (UKBA) has only very recently invited UKLGIG to give short presentations on LGBT asylum issues to a small number of their caseworkers. We are very pleased the UKBA have taken this step, but more in-depth training is very much needed and we are discussing this with the UKBA at the moment. In order to achieve fair decision making, caseworkers would require detailed knowledge and understanding of not only LGBT asylum issues, but of these issues in very specific cultural contexts. We encourage Phil Woolas to monitor progress in the provision of suitable training on LGBT asylum issues to staff throughout the UKBA.

Re: 'clear instructions': currently there is no Asylum Policy Instruction (API) on LGBT issues
UKLGIG have been requesting such an instruction from the UKBA to guide their staff for a long time. We are now considering the option of getting a full inclusion (not merely a mention) of LGBT issues in the existing gender API instead. We encourage Phil Woolas to remain informed of these developments and to ensure that a proper LGBT asylum instruction will be in place shortly, whether this be a separate instruction or a full inclusion within the gender API.

Re: 'accurate, objective, sourced and up-to-date country information'
The independent governmental Advisory Panel on Country Information recently (October 2008) 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. Following this review, the UKBA’s COI Service has sought guidance on this matter from UKLGIG and we are hopeful that the new COI reports coming out will show a significant improvement. We therefore do not consider it fair to say that so far decisions have been made on the basis of suitable country information. We encourage Phil Woolas to more closely monitor the quality of the country information used in assessing asylum applications by LGBT persons.

Re: ‘discretion’
Phil Woolas claims that: “It is not our policy to require gay men or lesbians to be discreet about their sexuality”. However, the way the factors relevant to decision making are applied does create such a policy in practice. For example, in considering “the person’s previous behaviour”, the UKBA (and judiciary) often argue something along the lines of “if you kept quiet about it before, you can go back and do so again”. 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’.

Also worrying is the consideration given to the ‘social norms and religious beliefs of their country of origin’ as a factor in assessing whether an LGBT person could be required to be (more) discreet. Even the Indian Delhi High Court recently stated that arguments of cultural relativism - or indeed the views of a majority of the population - can not 'hold captive' principles of equality and non-discrimination!

Phil Woolas claims that “a degree of discretion can be required in all sexual relationships, heterosexual as well as homosexual”, which implies that the measure of discretion required would be applied equally. This is clearly not the case and in practice LGBT persons would be forced to have to live a lie. Moreover, this reference to discretion does not reflect the realities of most LGBT asylum claims: applicants simply want a life in which they can be who they are and/or have a relationship with their partner, without fearing death, violence, rape, prosecution, forced marriage or losing their livelihood or homes. Their claims are not about seeking the right to commit ‘public indecencies’. However, within the legal, social, cultural or religious framework in many of their home countries, an (open or secret) LGBT identity or same sex relationship is often, in and of itself, considered ‘indecent’.

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