Erin Power is the Group Manager for the UK Lesbian & Gay Immigration Group (UKLGIG), a charity that promotes equality and dignity for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people who seek asylum in the UK, or who wish to immigrate here to be with their same-sex partner. The group provides legal and social support for LGBT people claiming asylum. Erin lends her voice to The Testimony Project.
Why do you do the work that you do?
As an organisation, we started out as a group that was assisting British people who had foreign partners who weren’t able to live with their lesbian or gay partner in this country. When we knew that we were going to win that battle and reach a level of equality, which came in with the civil partnership legislation, we realised that we could use the resources that we have to help with asylum. We had a reputation, we had lots of contacts and we had all these lawyers willing to volunteer their expertise so we totally shifted our focus.
For me personally, every time I meet a new asylum seeker and talk to them about their lives, they feed me with their courage and their hope. A lot of what we do is giving people hope - but they have already fought enormous battles and still they are smiling, still they will be incredibly polite, still they will ask you how your day is. They are much stronger, braver, more generous people than you meet every day in any other context. They give us a lot more than we give them.
Because the people we work with are LGBT, they don’t get support from their home communities here and they don’t get support from the LGBT community. In the LGBT community as elsewhere, there is a lot of misunderstanding about asylum seekers, a lot of antagonism towards asylum seekers. There is a lot of wealth in the LGBT community so there is a huge gap - asylum seekers can’t go to places that cost a lot of money. So they will frequently say, you (UKLGIG) are my family and they will genuinely mean that because they no longer have any other family.
What is the most pressing issue facing asylum seekers today?
There is a general one for all asylum seekers and that is legal aid and we definitely see that as our future huge challenge. There are legal aid solicitors who do a lot of work but they do not have LGBT experience and it is quite a specific field in which particular arguments have to be dealt with.
Detention is another. To make an LGBT claim you have to have certain things in place and if you are detained you can’t get them. A big part of it is telling your story and that is the work on which we spend a lot of time with people, hours and hours, getting their story. A lot of that work is about what did you feel, what did you think? You can’t do that in detention. Our stand is that LGBT claims are always too complex for fast track detention.
What change in government policy would you most like to see?
We have to acknowledge that we have been extremely fortunate and extremely successful in the last 18 months with UKBA. The government has chosen to focus on equalities through showing how great they are on LGBT issues. This is political and is something that has been hugely to our advantage.
For the government, legal aid again is the policy that needs to be dealt with but how they provide funding to enable sufficient expert lawyers to be out there, is an issue not only for us but for other organisations to work on as well.
For us [UKLGIG] - please don’t detain LGBT asylum seekers. There has to be a way of establishing this as policy without threatening the fast-track system.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give an asylum seeker?
The Home Office says you must claim asylum at the earliest opportunity and that you damage your credibility if you don’t. However, we also know that if you are going to win your claim as an LGBT asylum seeker you need time to prepare well, so there are things that have to be weighed up. If you have nowhere to live and no support and you are going to be destitute on the street, of course claim asylum. But if you are in a position where you can manage long enough to get your evidence together yourself (no longer with the guaranteed assistance of a solicitor), with our help, with us telling you what you need to do, then do that before claiming asylum. Do not go unarmed, unprepared because you will almost certainly lose. Even if you go armed and prepared you still might lose but you will have a better chance.
How can the ordinary person in the street help make a difference to improve the situation of asylum seekers?
I think something that isn’t a difficult thing for people to do, is not to remain purposefully ignorant. To actually take the initiative to be informed about what the difference is between an immigrant and an asylum seeker. Every single ‘person in the street’ has agreed to protect people who are going to be persecuted. We did it when we signed the Refugee Convention and we as a nation continue to believe that we have a responsibility to help people who are being murdered, tortured, beaten in the rest of the world for reasons that we believe are things you should be entitled to be. If I am British and I live here, or if I am not British and I live here, I am a part of that. I agree to that.
To be ignorant, unless you have inability to understand, is a choice that you make because you don’t want to know. Because with knowledge comes responsibility. Once people are genuinely aware, they take responsibility seriously.
What is the greatest challenge you have faced?
As an organisation, whatever the challenge is we have never had to deal with something we have thought we can’t overcome. We constantly see huge progress because people win. How can any stumbling block be a challenge when someone’s life has been saved? We have a huge amount of optimism and that is definitely what our asylum seekers get from being with us. Our approach is that there is nothing that you cannot overcome.
What do you regard as your greatest achievement?
Every time someone wins is our greatest achievement. There can’t be anything bigger than saving someone’s life. For most people that we deal with if they go back, they might last a while but the risk they face is that they are going to die. We are talking about countries including Iran, Jamaica, Uganda, Nigeria. No matter how much money you have, you are not going to live a full, long life if you are going to live as who you are.
Who or what has been the greatest influence in your life?
There are lots and lots of things that have influenced my life but I am going to have to say my Mum. The things that I am that I am proud of about myself I definitely got from her. That is believing that women are amazing and believing that I am responsible in some way for making the world a just place, however small my contribution. Her approach was always having a sense that other people and you are all part of something whole. Therefore if you hurt someone else, you hurt yourself; you help someone else, you help yourself.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
The advice that is most difficult for me to take is sometimes the best advice. Hard advice I struggle with but I am trying!
What is the one thing that you want to be remembered for?
I am not sure I want to be remembered. I don’t think it matters. I don’t live as though the future beyond me is relevant to my life.
Why does storytelling matter?
Within our work, for our asylum seekers, the only way you are going to be believed to be lesbian or gay, bisexual or trans is by telling your story. That is your primary and most important evidence for claiming asylum so that story is everything. In a broader sense our stories are how we connect with other people in the world.
What is your motto?
If this is about a fundamental way I want to be in the world, and a fundamental way I want people to operate with me in the world, then I would have to say, be honest.