Double jeopardy: LGBTI refugees in Britain

Issues facing LGBTI refugees are receiving unprecedented attention in Britain yet many still face a ‘double jeopardy’ of racism and homophobia. We need to make the most of the current support for LGBTI rights in order to ensure long-lasting change.

Alasdair Stuart
16 October 2012

As of 2012, over 80 countries have laws which criminalise consensual sexual conduct between adults of the same sex, with the expression of their identity illegal and punishable by imprisonment, and in the case of five countries (and parts of Nigeria and Somalia), death. Almost weekly there are reports of LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex) people being persecuted and in some cases killed because of their sexuality or gender identity. One gay man, whose age and country are undisclosed said, “... I was forced to flee because there was a big chance that they [would] kill me. In my culture it is not possible to be gay. … I was arrested and beaten. … [Someone] tried to rape me.”

This criminalisation and persecution of people on the basis of their sexual or gender identity naturally leads many to flee their country of origin in search of protection from the international community. Unfortunately persecution and discrimination rarely stops at borders and LGBTI asylum seekers face a continued struggle for sanctuary, dignity and humanity having left their country of origin behind.

In 2009 MBARC completed the first nationwide study of LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees in the UK. The study, Over Not Out, represented the first substantial insight into the experiences of LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees in Britain. The report highlighted the range of complex issues faced by this often overlooked and isolated group, exacerbated by ignorance, prejudice and indifference from the agencies responsible for their care and welfare, the LGBTI community, the ethnic communities they belong to, and society more broadly. From the asylum claim process, detention and dispersal through to accessing healthcare and support services and networks, LGBTI asylum seekers were found to face a ‘double jeopardy’ of both racism and homophobia.

For many the treatment of LGBTI refugees may seem a marginal issue, but research indicates that as many as 2,000 LGBTI asylum seekers arrive in the UK each year, a figure which represents the third highest population group to seek refuge in the UK. Furthermore, the issue of human rights and equalities has never been about numbers; it was, and is, about respecting every person’s dignity and humanity, including ensuring that no person should fear persecution because of real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

MBARC have recently completed a report examining progress against the original recommendations made in Over Not Out, outlining where the situation has improved and highlighting where it has worsened, as well as refreshing the recommendations. Over Not Out Refreshed highlights that there have been a number of significant developments in public policy and practice within the UK, but that there are also a number of areas of concern.

Significantly in 2010, five UK Supreme Court Justices announced their judgement that gay and lesbian asylum seekers should not be expected to ‘exercise discretion’ (i.e. hide their sexual orientation) in their home countries to avoid persecution. This was accepted by the Home Office which has since changed its practices. While this legal development was most welcome, access to specialised immigration advice for LGBTI asylum seekers has reduced since the original report was published, as legal aid changes have resulted in key legal advice agencies closing down as their funding was cut. In addition, the new interpreting service for asylum claimants has led to widespread complaints about the quality of the service, and interpreters have not been trained on LGBTI issues.

Since 2009 UK Border Agency (UKBA) has accepted that Country of Origin Information Reports, used by asylum decision makers to help understand the human rights situation in countries of origin, should reference ‘social sanctions’ as well as legal sanctions, however internal guidance enacting this change is still being reviewed. They have also started to provide training on Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual issues for staff in the asylum decision making chain of UKBA, however this training does not extend to cover Trans or Intersex issues. The Government Equalities Office has published two action plans on LBGT equality and transgender equality, which include actions for UKBA to develop and audit their training for asylum decision makers for cases based on sexual orientation, and UKBA has begun to record data on asylum claims based on sexual orientation. Regrettably UKBA is currently not planning to publish this data. The lack of accurate data on the numbers of LGBTI asylum seekers in the UK (and elsewhere) negatively impacts informed debate on this subject and there should be a sustained call for its publication.

On issues of detention and housing, progress is scant indeed. The detention of transgender asylum seekers for immigration purposes continues to lead to severe isolation, and the report points to specific concerns about the number of victims of rape and torture being detained, as well as the lack of LGBTI training for staff in detention centres. The issue of bullying and abuse in detention was raised as a key area of concern in the 2009 report. A 35 year old lesbian from Nigeria explained, “when they [other people in detention centres] find out you’re a lesbian people discriminate you and try to take advantage of you and even try rape you. Even where I live now they try to discriminate me. I get verbal abuse, especially people from my country.” There is little evidence to suggest that the risk of such treatment has been removed.  

There is also on-going concern that the needs of LGBTI asylum seekers are not being taken into account when they are being dispersed to UKBA accommodation, and that this accommodation lacks support services for LGBTI asylum seekers. Housing was also raised as a pressing issue in MBARC’s initial report. A 30-44 year old lesbian from Pakistan explained that she had been “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 [National Asylum Support Service].” Many housing strategies, such as the London Housing Strategy, continue to ignore specific issues faced my migrants, let alone the needs of LGBTI asylum seekers. Furthermore, there remain few support networks for LGBTI asylum seekers, with neither LGBTI organisations nor asylum seeker and refugee organisations used to dealing with the unique issues faced by LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees. 

There have been some improvements in terms of access to healthcare, with asylum seekers now entitled to secondary health care services and the Department of Health announcing that refused asylum seekers will become entitled to free HIV treatment and care services from 1st October 2012. However many asylum seekers and refugees continue to have difficulty accessing mental health services due to issues with GP referrals and the provision of interpreters, and there remains a lack of sufficient targeting of LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees from national, regional and local HIV prevention programmes. New health commissioning structures in England may provide an opportunity to lobby and pressure for better provision of health services for LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees, however it remains to be seen how this will work in practice.

There has certainly been growing interest and awareness of these issues over the last few years at a local, national and international level, including new research, international conferences and work towards an international declaration of human rights for LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees. This leaves much room for hope. The public can play a key role in helping to pressure the government to deliver concrete policy improvements for LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees, as they are currently doing in other areas of policy impacting the LGBTI community, for example, in relation to gay marriage.

Possible steps have been outlined in various forums, for example the recent international conference ‘Double Jeopardy 2012’, held at the University of Greenwich, which aimed to build on the findings of the Over Not Out research and discuss many of the topics affecting LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees, including mental health, HIV, partnerships between refugee and LGBTI NGOs, tackling homophobia and prejudice, housing needs, determination of claims based on sexual orientation, the specific needs of transgender people and building partnerships between the global north and south. However in order for things to change these issues need to be raised beyond the community of those directly affected and those campaigning for improvements in this area.

Introducing more progressive policies for LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees at a national level would complement Britain’s commitment to improving conditions for LGBTI people abroad. Indeed it provides an opportunity to harmonise British migration and development policy. The need for such harmonisation has been raised previously on openDemocracy in relation to other policy areas. The relevance of this debate to the discussion of the treatment of LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees is demonstrated by a number of recent political developments. In October 2011 Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron made a speech in which he threatened to withhold UK aid to governments refusing to reform legislation banning homosexuality, and for the first time the issue of discrimination against LGBTI people was raised at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth, Australia.

While these developments suggest that the issues facing LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees in Britain are certainly further up the agenda in 2012 than they were in 2009, there remains an urgent need for further dialogue and action from activists, campaigners, civil society organisations, academics, NGOs and governments from around the world in order to highlight and tackle the issues faced by LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees. We need to make the most of the current support for LGBTI rights and in particular gay rights expressed in Britain, whether in relation to widespread support for gay marriage domestically or in relation to development policy abroad. This will help ensure that LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees no longer face a ‘double jeopardy’ and that we, as a nation, practice what we preach.

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