Friday, 22 May 2009

New research by Refugee Support highlights the plight of lesbian asylum seekers in the UK

By Sarah Walker and Dr Charlotte Keeble, Research and Consultancy Unit at Refugee Support, Metropolitan Support Trust

The Research and Consultancy Unit at Refugee Support, the refugee services arm of Metropolitan Support Trust, has launched its most recent research report Over Not Out: The housing and homelessness issues specific to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender asylum seekers. This groundbreaking research was launched at an event hosted by Baroness Gould at the House of Lords in Westminster on the 12 May 2009.

The research, commissioned to Michael Bell Associates, focused upon accommodation and
homelessness issues facing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) asylum seekers living in and returning to London. A project steering group consisting of representatives from Refugee Support, the United Kingdom Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group, Amnesty International and Stonewall Housing provided direction throughout the duration of this project.

The research was conducted in three separate phases:

  • phase one involved a desk based literature review;
  • phase two focused on undertaking fieldwork, including: recruiting and training community researchers drawn from LGBT communities and principal refugee ethnic groups; undertaking 40 face-to-face interviews with LGBT asylum seekers, which included nine lesbians.
  • The final phase of the project focused on refining the findings and developing policy recommendations. Discussions with the steering group and further interviews with 19 stakeholders were undertaken to test and refine the findings.
A sample frame was developed for interviewees which included a larger number of gay and bisexual men than lesbians/bisexual women in order to reflect the greater number of men in the overall refugee and asylum seeking population.

Key findings from the report

LGBT asylum seekers in the UK are encountering high levels of homelessness, discrimination and exploitation due to their sexuality or gender identity. Whilst asylum seekers generally face difficulties with poor accommodation and discrimination, the report finds that LGBT asylum seekers not only experience these problems, but their sexuality or gender identity can add significantly to the problems they face adding layers of multiple disadvantage, arguably more
acute than for other asylum seekers.

The report found that many lesbians living in shared housing, (either in United Kingdom Border Agency (UKBA) accommodation or in the private sector) feared harassment and abuse from those they live with and relied on their landlords to be sensitive to their needs. This is rarely the case and they are forced to leave their accommodation rendering themselves homeless, placing themselves in vulnerable situations, relying upon friends or ‘casual acquaintances’ to provide them with a place to sleep. Discrimination was a particular issue as described by a research
“Whilst living in the NASS/UKBA accommodation I have been called a bloody lesbian by one of the French girls; I just had to live with it. I was harassed all the time because of my sexuality, which is sad really, it was not because of my race because we are all black and the only thing they could pick on was my sexuality.”
Gambian lesbian 30-44 years old
Respondents described how homophobia could sometimes translate into violence:
“I was assaulted by one of my flatmates, a Nigerian guy, who found out about my sexuality because he saw me in Soho. When I returned home he tried to rape me along with his friends. I reported it to the police.”
Nigerian lesbian, 35 years old
“I was placed in Leeds [in UKBA accommodation] but felt isolated and two guys tried to rape me so I ran away and came back to London. Because I did not report it I was not offered any more accommodation again by NASS.”
Pakistani lesbian, 30-44 years old
Thus, levels of transience in housing were high with 60 per cent of LGBT asylum seekers surveyed experiencing ‘hidden homelessness’ and either being forced to ‘sofa surf’ at friends, partners or casual acquaintances or living in multiple occupation housing. Further, interviewees were often forced to perform unpaid labour and sometimes sexual favours in return for accommodation. The precarious nature of informal living arrangements and the necessity of relying on the whims of others put many respondents in vulnerable positions where refusing labour demands would mean homelessness or destitution.
“Because I don’t have my own place, I am treated like a slave at some of the places I stay. I have to sleep on the kitchen floor and do the washing and cleaning.”
Pakistani lesbian, 30-44 years old
One of the most salient findings of the research is the multiple vulnerability of lesbian asylum seekers. Unlike other asylum seekers, lesbians are often unable to rely on family and ethnic support networks and must rely on personal relationships and social networks. Many who had disclosed their sexuality to family members had become estranged because of it:
“My father don’t know. My father used to say before I was out that he don’t want any lesbian in his family. And he has passed away. My two brothers in Jamaica don’t know and my two brothers in the UK know and don’t talk to me because of it.”
Jamaican lesbian, 30-44 years old
Furthermore the traditional mechanisms of support for refugee and asylum seeking communities are not necessarily receptive to the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender asylum seekers. Refugee Community Organisations that traditionally provide the backbone of support for refugee and asylum seeking communities can perpetuate negative attitudes from their home countries to LGBT asylum seekers. Additionally, many of these organisations are often led by men which means that lesbian and transgender asylum seekers would never contemplate accessing this support. Faith based organisations, both Christian and Muslim, may also perpetrate similar attitudes and prejudices regarding sexual orientation and gender identity.
“I don’t socialise with them because although I am Muslim I don’t embrace them and the Pakistani culture. They look at me scornful.”
Pakistani lesbian, 30-44 years old
Experiences of detention highlighted additional concerns with respondents experiencing bullying, abuse and harassment by the detainees and detention centre staff due to their sexuality and/ or gender orientation.
“Yes – Detention Centre Yarlswood and also in Scotland … When they find out you’re a lesbian people discriminate you and try to take advantage of you and even try to rape you.”
Nigerian lesbian, 30-44 years old
Sadly, as the report highlights, lesbian asylum seekers are seeking asylum in the UK on the grounds of their sexuality, but many are not able to disclose their sexuality or gender identity and are unable to be fully ‘out’, facing difficulties finding a place of safety away from hostility and homophobic discrimination.


In seeking to address the problems faced by LGBT asylum seekers, the report made over 30 recommendations that included:
  • LGBT voluntary and community organisations need training and funding so they can meet the needs of asylum seekers.
  • Public and charitable funders should provide more support and challenge Refugee Community Organisations (RCO’s) about the accessibility of their organisations to LGBT people.
  • UKBA should review and refine the guidance and contractual requirements it imposes on landlords providing accommodation to ensure that LGBT asylum seekers are safe and can live lives free from homophobic or transphobic harassment.
  • Third party reporting centres for hate-crime should be encouraged to develop awareness and support programmes for LGBT asylum seekers to ensure that they are aware of their rights to safety and the recourse they have.
The full report and executive summary are available to download from the Refugee Support website.

For further information or for a hard copy of the report, please contact the Research and Consultancy Manager, Dr Charlotte Keeble:
Tel: 020 7501 2214

Source: Woman's Asylum News


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