LGBT refugees are experiencing horrific abuse – there is still a massive amount of work to do

Philip Baldwin

“They beat the hell out of me. I was tied to a tree in the compound. Then they put me in the hot room and they locked me in there. I didn’t have any food or drink. I was just treated like a slave. I was there for about two months. They would send these men to rape me. Maybe they were bringing them to come and sleep with me so that I forgot about women.”

(Nigerian Asylum Seeker, speaking about experiences in Africa, No Safe Refuge)

There have been tremendous legislative advances for LGBT people in the UK. The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, was a huge step towards full equality, a landmark achievement. The theme of this year’s LGBT History Month is the fiftieth anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which made same-sex love much easier.

There is much to celebrate about how far the UK has progressed on LGBT issues. One area, however, where there is still a massive amount of work to do is LGBT asylum. The Lesbian & Gay Immigration Group and Stonewall have published a joint report, entitled No Safe Refuge: Experiences of LGBT Asylum Seekers in Detention. LGBT refugees are experiencing horrific abuse, which many people in the LGBT community are unaware of. We must do more to defend the rights of LGBT refugees in the UK.

Holding refugees in detention centres is inappropriate, especially for LGBT people. There are nine detention centres in the UK. We are the only country in Europe to hold asylum claimants indefinitely in detention centres. Many LGBT refugees leave detention centres traumatised. LGBT refugees are particularly vulnerable to intimidation and bullying. They are often alienated from their fellow asylum claimants by their LGBT identities. LGBT people are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault.

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The inappropriate nature of the detention system has now been recognised for trans refugees, who are designated as a group who are particularly vulnerable in detention. This means trans people have to be assessed before they can be held in a detention centre. If the immigration considerations outweigh the risk factors, they will be detained. This is a recent development and has yet to be put into practice.

It does not necessarily mean that they cannot be held in detention centres. Pregnant women, victims of torture and those with mental health conditions also fall into this category. At the moment lesbian, gay and bisexual people do not. I believe we should move to community based alternatives for all asylum claimants, but certainly for lesbian, gay and bisexual people. The No Safe Refuge report suggests a maximum 28-day detention limit for all asylum claimants.

LGBT asylum claimants have particularly complex cases, which detention hinders. It is important that asylum claimants have the opportunity to prove their refugee status. We must be fair in this assessment. It is very hard for LGBT people to proceed with their asylum claims in detention. There are many barriers.

Asylum claimants must meet a burden of proof in terms of their sexual orientation. We are asking them to prove their LGBT status, whilst holding them in environments which are hostile to LGBT people. Many may feel they have to hide their LGBT status in the detention camps from fellow asylum claimants, because of intimidation and bullying. This duality, where claimants have to assert their LGBT identities to those assessing their asylum claims, whilst concealing it from their fellow asylum claimants, does not give them a fair chance to prove that their asylum claim is genuine.

Holding LGBT claimants outside of detention centres gives them a better opportunity to gather evidence as to their sexual identities. For example, they can access support services and the internet. It remains illegal to be gay in 77 countries, although those countries may be safe for non-LGBT asylum claimants to return to. Many countries have stable governments, but discriminate against LGBT people.

Also, when assessing whether an LGBT asylum claimant is genuine, claimants may not have the vocabulary skills, or use expressions which we would expect, to discuss their sexuality. They may not conform to expectations about how an LGBT person would behave or dress.

There needs to be better training for the people working in detention centres, as well as for the staff assessing LGBT claims. Lines of accountability need to be clearer. Many of the people who work in detention centres are provided by contractors. Some have worked within the prison service. Many have no training on LGBT issues, which needs to be made compulsory for all people working in detention centres.

In terms of the civil servants assessing the asylum claims, a number of barriers have been encountered around LGBT claims. The high burden of proof and the hurdles LGBT people must overcome, has seen confused decision making. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that an LGBT person could not be sent back to their country of origin if this meant that they would have to conceal their LGBT identities.

Caseworkers also need to be better trained on LGBT issues and on decision making around LGBT claims. We need high quality and sensitive decision making.

We should not be holding LGBT asylum claimants in detention. Their claims are too complex and cannot be processed fairly in this way.

For further information, check out the No Safe Refuge report and the Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group and Stonewall’s websites. This LGBT History Month, as we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the decriminalisation of gay and bisexual men, spare a thought for LGBT refugees and the hardship they face. We must have equality for ALL people!

The No Safe Refuge report is available online in full, here.

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