UK detention centres offer LGBT asylum seekers “No Safe Refuge” say Stonewall

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UK detention offers little sanctuary from homophobic, biphobic and transphobic abuse according to new research from the LGBT charity and the UKLGIG.

The UK’s ability to process and protect LGBT asylum seekers has received major criticism from LGBT charity Stonewall and the UK Lesbian & Gay Immigration Group [UKLGIG] in a new report.

No Safe Refuge – which was published today reveals the everyday discrimination and violence that LGBT asylum seekers can face through 22 in-depth interviews with detainees.

“Those who are open about their sexual orientation or gender identity often experience harassment and abuse from other detainees,” the report explains. “Many feel forced to hide their sexual orientation and gender identity while in detention as they fear bullying and discrimination.”

The report also highlights the difficulties trans asylum seekers face in the system – with one trans interviewee telling researchers she was “placed in multiple male detention centres,” despite making clear that she identifies as a woman.

“Trans detainees face particular danger in having to share bedrooms and communal showers with other detainees,” the report continues.

During one of the 22 in-depth interviews carried out by Stonewall and UKLGIG, Gasha, a Cameroonian asylum seeker, explained exactly how difficult and distressing living in a detention cell can be. “I got flashbacks of everything I’ve been through in Africa,” Gasha said, “I’ve been free for two or three years and then here I am back in a cell.”

“I was crying the whole night. I could not eat. I had serious headache. I had to request for a paracetamol or anything,” Gasha continued. “They said they couldn’t provide me any medications and I could not sleep the whole night. I didn’t sleep for 48 hours. I didn’t eat for 48 hours because I was so scared.”

While Miremba, a Ugandan asylum seeker, added: “It felt like I was betrayed because if somebody seeks asylum, they’re just trying to get some protection, but then you’re detaining them. It’s like you’re putting them in prison for having come to you for help. It didn’t make sense to me.”

Recounting when he was being taken to the airport to be forcibly removed, a Zimbabwean asylum seeker called Maiba told researchers: “One officer said to me: ‘I noticed while we were going through your bags you have a lot of boxers and you have a lot of hats, you wear a lot of men’s clothing. We’re here to protect you and when we go to Zimbabwe we don’t want you to draw attention to yourself. So we’re going to stop over in Kenya and we can maybe buy you some appropriate clothes in the airport before we leave for Zimbabwe. Maybe we can lose the boxers.’

“At that moment I said to him: ‘Do you know that this actually shows how corrupt your system is? You’ve just met me and you know that you can’t take me where you’re trying to take me while I am who I am. You’re trying to change me so that I don’t have difficulties!’”

Stonewall and UKLGIG say that people who are detained are given no information about the length of their stay and that this lack of information causes severe stress in the detainees. The duration of detention in facilities around the country can vary widely, from a couple of days to years.

“This research contains deeply troubling findings and paints a distressing picture of life for LGBT people inside UK detention centres. Asylum seekers are seeking refuge from persecution and abuse but unfortunately, as this report shows, UK detention centres offer little respite,” commented Stonewall’s CEO Ruth Hunt.

“Without doubt, the way the asylum system deals with people who are persecuted for their sexual orientation and gender identity has improved since we released our 2010 report, No Going Back. Yet there is still significant work for the Home Office to do to improve the lives and experiences of LGBT people, and to improve conditions in detention centres in general.

“To create this report we had to rely on the bravery of individuals who were willing to speak out and we are eternally grateful to them. They have shown true courage in sharing with us what are clearly upsetting memories and experiences in the hope that it will create change.”

The report and those who feature in it also allege that some detention officers act inappropriately towards LGBT asylum seekers, with some detainees saying that they had been the victims of intimidation and punishment techniques.

“One of the officers said that we’re criminals. That it is his detention centre. That he’s British, and it’s his country,” said Achebe, a Nigerian asylum seeker. “There was this night when they wanted to lock me in and I was like: ‘Officer, I have been asking for my medication, are you guys going to lock me up and not let me have any?’ I was just trying to understand what’s going to happen. And then he just pushed me. All I was asking for was my medication.”

Other interviewees said they didn’t feel safe or protected by detention staff. “The guy grabbed me saying he’s going to break my soul,” recalls one detainee, while another explained: “I had my head rammed through a door. I was bullied. The guy they put me with was a nightmare, the guy was a bully. I reported that but nothing was done about it.”

Commenting on the results of the research, Paul Dillane, executive director at UKLGIG, said: “The UK has one of the largest detention estates in Europe and detains more migrants and asylum seekers than the vast majority of other countries. Shockingly, it is alone in detaining them indefinitely. In July 2015, the High Court found that the process was ‘systemically unfair and unlawful’. However, the UK Government has consistently stated its intention to introduce a new detained procedure.

“The UK is a country that proudly seeks to promote human rights including those of LGBT people on the world stage yet it has for too long detained those who flee to our shores in search of sanctuary. In order to ensure LGBT refugees are respected and protected, the use of indefinite immigration detention must end.”

The conditions that detainees face in the UK also takes a toll on their mental health as well, according to the report. After fleeing countries where they have been persecuted for the sexuality or gender identity, many asylum seekers exhibit signs of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I am having very difficult moments. I get flashbacks of exactly what happened in Uganda. I get bad nightmares. When I was in detention I even heard voices of this man that raped me who would try to tell me I am worthless,” explained one interviewee, while another said: “When I was in detention I tried to commit suicide. That was a period whereby the whole situation in detention really got to me. I never thought I would be in that situation where I would think of taking my own life.”

Concluding the report, Stonewall and UKLGIG call on The Home Office to end the detention of LGBT asylum seekers and “develop and implement alternatives to detention as a matter of priority”.

They also call for all staff at detainee centres to be trained to identify and tackle homophobia, transphobia and biphobia.

A Home Office spokesperson told GT: “We remain committed to improving the asylum process for those claiming asylum on the basis of their sexual orientation and decision-makers are provided with dedicated guidance and training on the management of such claims.

“In September, the Government introduced the ‘adult at risk’ concept into decision-making on immigration detention with a clear presumption that vulnerable people who may be at risk of particular harm in detention should not be detained, building on the existing legal framework.”

The Home Office also clarified that all asylum claims lodged in the UK, including those on the grounds of sexuality, are carefully considered in accordance with international obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights. They also point out that they have “worked closely” with Stonewall,  the UKLGIG and  UN High Commissioner for Refugees to improve the asylum process. And that “Detention and removal are essential elements of an effective immigration system and we take our responsibilities towards detainees’ welfare extremely seriously.”

You can read the full No Safe Refuge report at stonewall.org.uk

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