By Peter Markham*
An unfortunate effect of COVID-19, to include on the already long list, is that news stories which would usually make the headlines are either not being reported or are consigned to the back pages. What can happen is that governments then feel able to ignore important issues safe in the knowledge that they may be less likely to be challenged. The tales coming from those seeking asylum in the UK and the rest of Europe due to their Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity (SOGI) are ones that need relating.
European laws are there to offer protection to minorities such as those who make up the Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgender (LBGT) community. However, some towns and cities may not always be as liberal as Berlin or Brighton, and far too many people in relatively ‘liberal’ Europe still endure homophobia or transphobia. It’s worth reflecting then on what it must be like for those who may be fleeing countries that not only offer them no legal protection but actually threaten them with death by stoning just for being who they are.
Researchers at the University of Sussex in the UK discovered that in Europe, around thirty percent of those seeking asylum on the basis of their sexual orientation had their claims dismissed because officials claimed not to believe them.
In Britain, this all fits in well with the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy with regard to immigration. Officials seem to have an easy excuse to turn away some of those who may ultimately be seeking British citizenship because such claimants may find it very hard indeed to come to a Home Office interview armed with a stack of evidence to back up their claims. If you’re fleeing a country that doesn’t let you express your identity, you’re hardly likely to bring with you a bag full of photos and love letters as proof of previous same-sex relationships, for example. When a person is not believed this can simply add yet another psychological burden to what has already been a traumatic experience.
As well as this, researchers discovered that the burden of proof is often unfairly slanted against the applicant. The legal requirement of international refugee law means that evidence-gathering is the equal responsibility of both applicants and those who decide their cases. However, it was often noted that decision-makers did not begin interviews with an open mind but rather sat and waited to be convinced by the claimant.
The testimony of some claimants is distressing. That goes for what they may have left behind, their journey to Europe and also their experience when their asylum cases are heard. Take the case of a woman from an African state which offers no protection to gay people and who faced the brutality of the police when she was caught in bed with another woman. She had already had to suffer at the hands of an abusive husband in an arranged marriage and had been raped by two men who said they intended to ‘straighten her out.’
Once in the UK she had to go through a seven hour grilling by a UK Home Office official. Her account of this interrogation is troubling. She was asked a whole string of intrusively personal questions. It was then put to her that, once in the UK, there had been nothing to stop her from having a relationship with another woman. Why then had she not embarked on a same-sex relationship? Why then did she identify as a lesbian?
Her responses are moving in part because of their raw honesty. She explained that her identity came about due to the feelings that she felt and that in the past she didn’t have the freedom to express herself as she might have wished.
Being put in the position of having to offer proof to back up one’s sexual identity to a total stranger has all the potential to be traumatic and humiliating. There is a sense of injustice when the emotional journeys of claimants who identify as gay or transgender and who may fled from countries with very different norms and cultures are compared with the experiences of those who have always lived in Europe. However, immigrants are still having their applications for asylum thrown out for failing to use enough emotive language or not being able to describe the thoughts that led to the realisation of their sexuality or gender identity.
And in the UK, LGBT asylum seekers have had to suffer yet more distress. An immigration tribunal judge, for example, dismissed one man’s claim because he did not have a gay ‘demeanour.’ This was in apparent contrast to a witness who ‘wore lipstick,‘ allegedly had an ‘effeminate’ manner and who the judge saw fit to believe was gay.
To add insult to injury, some claimants suffer violence and abuse because of their sexual orientation or gender identity while they are held in detention in the UK. This is at the hands of both other detainees and members of staff. According to Stonewall, a UK charity and pressure group which fights for LGBT rights, trans asylum seekers are especially at risk. One trans asylum seeker recounted how she had been held in several male detention centres despite letting the authorities know that she identified as female. Trans detainees can encounter real danger in these sorts of situations because they may have to share bedrooms or ‘open’ showers with others in detention.
The UK’s dismissed thousands of asylum claims from LGBT people who’ve arrived from countries where consensual same-sex acts are against the law. Having one’s identity forensically challenged and then disbelieved puts intolerable psychological strain on those who may already have been vilified and faced violence or the threat of death in their countries of origin just because of who they are. Instead of being trailblazers in the fight against homophobia and transphobia the UK government seems to be looking the other way when it comes to asylum seekers. In some ways, the rejection of claims by asylum seekers on the grounds of SOGI may have become a cheap and quick win for a Home Office intent on reducing immigrant numbers by resting its case on one of disbelief.
Peter Markham is a writer and correspondent for immigrationnews.co.uk. This is a media platform that helps to raise awareness about migrant injustices and news around the world.