Consensual acts between same-sex adults are criminalised in 80 member states of the United Nations and homosexuality results in the death penalty in six of these countries. In many countries lesbian, gay and bisexual people face execution, torture, rape and murder from people in their own community or from their government.
People who face the threat of this type of persecution can seek sanctuary in the UK but many are not granted protection because of fundamental errors of judgement and presumptions made by UK Border Agency (UKBA) staff and judges about sexual orientation.
What we know
Stonewall has published the report No going back: Lesbian and gay people and the asylum system (PDF), which is based on interviews with asylum-seekers and UK Border Agency decision-makers. It found almost systemic homophobia in our asylum system resulting in legitimate lesbian, gay and bisexual asylum seekers regularly being refused sanctuary.
The report revealed that officials rely on inaccurate information and outdated ideas about gay people and admit that they don’t know how to question them appropriately. As a result lesbians and gay men who’ve been raped, tortured and threatened with death are being returned to their countries – in many cases to face further persecution.
The report details how lesbian, gay and bisexual people seeking asylum experience significant and specific disadvantages as a direct consequence of their sexual orientation. In summary:
- Lesbian and gay asylum-seekers feel a deep sense of shame and stigma about being gay and have rarely, if ever, spoken openly about it for fear of persecution. They also have a profound fear of authority figures because of the persecution they face in their home countries.
- UKBA staff are trained to look for inconsistencies in the stories of claimants. This approach disproportionately affects lesbian and gay people who struggle to talk about the persecution that they see as being ‘caused’ by their sexual orientation. The trauma they’ve experienced affects the way they remember and recount details of what has happened to them.
- The UKBA penalises gay people if they are not immediately open about their sexual orientation. If a case reaches the appeal court, judges are also reluctant to accept that individuals have found it difficult to disclose at the first opportunity why they are seeking asylum.
- UKBA staff and judges often assume that a person can only be lesbian or gay if they have engaged consistently and exclusively in same-sex sexual activity. Questions focus on sexual activity and asylum-seekers are expected to share explicit sexual experiences.
- Officials ignore the fact that many lesbian and gay people are persecuted because they are perceived to be ‘different’, not because they have engaged openly in explicit homosexual activity. They lack confidence and knowledge on issues relating to sexual orientation and so fail to enable lesbian and gay people to talk about their experiences.
- UKBA staff and judges often conclude that gay people can return to their home country and no longer be at risk if they are ‘discreet’ about their sexual activity or identity. This approach has been condemned by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
- Gay applicants are often refused asylum because UKBA policy and guidance and case law are incorrectly applied. This leads to legitimate applications failing.
- UKBA staff rely on guidance and reports which are factually incorrect. A lack of information about what it is like to be gay in some countries is erroneously taken as evidence that gay people do not face persecution in those countries.
- UKBA staff do not have access to information on the experiences of lesbians. Issues concerning forced marriage, honour killings and marital rape are not acknowledged to be relevant to lesbians.
- Many lesbian and gay asylum-seekers are ‘fast-tracked’, meaning that they are detained and their case determined quickly. Often they are incarcerated in hostile and homophobic environments, significantly increasing the barriers they already face in talking about their experiences.
- UKBA staff are under great pressure to meet demanding targets and heavy caseloads and this disproportionately impacts on complex gay cases. Shorter timescales for a case make it less likely that gay people will be able to talk openly, leading to incorrect decisions being made.
What we have done
A large proportion of the enquiries we receive through our information service relate to immigration and asylum. Through this service we are able provide information and put people in touch with the relevant support agencies that can help them.
Stonewall has also made strategic interventions in individual cases – corresponding with government ministers in order to highlight an individual’s situation and call for action to address the situation.
What we are currently doing
Stonewall continue to lobby on the issues highlighted in No going back: Lesbian and gay people and the asylum system (2010), raising the issue with ministers, the Home Office and the UK Border Agency to ensure that the institutional homophobia and fundamental failings highlighted by the report are urgently rectified to end this profound injustice.
Stonewall has developed a series of straightforward recommendations which we are urging UKBA and judges to implement.
These include developing robust policy, guidance and training of all UKBA decision-makers to ensure legitimate lesbian, gay and bisexual asylum seekers are questioned effectively and given fairer case hearings. Home Office Country of Origin Information Services should be improved to reflect up-to-date, accurate information on the scale and nature of anti-gay persecution in many countries. Stonewall also recommends that all judges should receive comprehensive training on the unique issues in sexual-orientation based claims.
We will continue to work with government and with the relevant agencies to ensure that these recommendations are implemented.
No going back: Lesbian and gay people and the asylum system