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Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Breakthrough: UK to record sexuality-based asylum claims

By Paul Canning

LGBT Asylum News has learned that information on sexuality-based asylum claims have been imputed into the Central Information Database of the UK Border Agency (UKBA) since 1 July.

The UK joins only five other countries which record data on the number of LGBT persons benefiting from
asylum/subsidiary protection due to persecution on the ground of sexual orientation: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Latvia and Estonia.

Correction: This information from the EU Fundamental Rights Agency is incorrect, according to research currently being conducted on LGBT asylum in Europe. Researchers say that only Belgium and Norway records sexuality-based asylum claims.

The Home Office say as well that:
"We are also reviewing all first asylum decisions in these cases taken between 1 April and 30 June to evaluate the success of our new guidance and training."
After the Supreme Court decision one year ago that ended 'go home and be discrete', the UKBA said they would collect data on LGBT asylum but Immigration Minister Damien Green said earlier this year that this wouldn't happen because of "disproportionate cost".

UKBA has made no official announcement but we understand that retiring manager Bill Brandon (Deputy Director, NAM+ Quality and Learning; Refugee Integration and Resettlement) told a event organised by the law firm Mischon de Reja last month about the developments on data and auditing.

UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group (UKLGIG) Group Manager Erin Power said:
"I don't know why UKBA didn't say publicly that they were trying to find an accurate way to do this."
LibDem peer Lord Avebury has pressed the Home Office on the issue of recording data and auditing.

UKLGIG, which works with LGBT asylum seekers, have been lobbying on the issue for some time and in the last 12 months has held discussions with the Home Office on several occasions.

Power said that following the announcement last year that UKBA would record data attempts were made but failed because of IT problems and "because different areas of the country collated different stats."
"We were aware of the initial attempt to record LGBT claims that did not work well and of subsequent work on ensuring that recording was practicable and consistent.  We were also aware of the audit and will, like many others, be interested in the outcome."

"Of course we are delighted that UKBA is looking at the quality of decision making on LGBT asylum claims and we are hoping that it will reveal an improvement in initial decisions."
Anecdotal evidence is of increasing disbelief that applicants are lesbian or gay and this website has documented poor decision making in a number of cases. Power has acknowledged that this is a concern for UKLGIG, telling The Guardian: "It has always been difficult to prove but more frequently now, people are not being believed."

Last October, as a result of the Supreme Court decision, the UKBA introduced new Asylum Instruction guidance and at the beginning of this year ran a one-day 'case owner training' session for UKBA staff. The training was run by UKBA which consulted with UKLGIG, Stonewall and UNHCR

The Home Office say that:
"The government has made it clear that it is committed to stopping the removal of asylum seekers who have genuinely had to leave particular countries because of their sexual orientation or gender identification."
However data recording and the completed audit will only look at new claims and concerns have been raised about the treatment of cases already in the system. As well, there are serious concerns about a decreasing availability of specialised legal advice due to legal aid cuts and the collapse (due to those cuts, it is claimed) of the two biggest providers of legal services to asylum seekers.

The Immigration Law Practitioners Association told The Guardian that:
"The sensible thing to do would be to review cases of removal. When you get to a point where you have to put someone on a plane for removal, you should get their file out and make sure there's nothing of concern. They should check they have not claimed on the grounds of being gay, because they know that there was an important decision in the court which may be relevant."
Says Power:
"Obviously there is no point in collecting the stats if they don't look at them and see if there has been any change in decisions - hence the audit."

"There are still some concerns which we can look at when we see the results of the audit."
The government has specifically ruled out other measures which would help LGBT asylum seekers. It will not exclude sexuality-based claims from 'fast track' decision making - as some other categories of claim are - despite Damien Green in a letter to Dr Hywel Francis MP, the Chair of the House of Commons Joint Committee on Human Rights, accepting that they "can raise complex and specific issues based on cultural differences and the possible trauma of the individual concerned."

'Fast track' claims are far harder to win because legal options are dramatically reduced and people - often traumatised from torture and other bad treatment, as Green acknowledges - are invariably detained.

In the letter to Francis, Green refers to Stonewall's report 'No Going Back' - however that report made 21 recommendations, which went far beyond training of staff. For example, the report discusses the effect of the dispersal system on LGBT asylum seekers who are sent to towns where it is impossible to access appropriate and safe support. They are often forced to live with people who do not accept them and several reports have found that they can be at risk of violence. We are aware of  cases where UKBA has been asked to move LGBT asylum seekers closer to sources of support but has refused.

Green does acknowledge criticism of the crucial 'country information' on which many case decisions hang. In particular, he acknowledges the criticism made by the Shadow Foreign Secretary in the 'BN' Ugandan case that that country's information was two years old and made no reference to LGBT. In the letter he notes that at the time of writing only three country reports made any reference (since he wrote new Uganda guidance has been published which does include LGBT issues, however problems remain with its contents).

Green says in the letter that other work is "in hand" to address the (wide ranging) issues raised in Stonewall's report - but it is not in any of the plans published by the Home Office (and the department's business plan covers the entire life of this parliament).
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