THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC has had devastating effects on most aspects of society. One consequence that’s perhaps not so obvious is that it has meant news stories that might normally have made the front page are not being reported at all.
There’s a concern that this allows governments to simply overlook matters of huge importance without anyone questioning them. The experiences of asylum seekers in the UK and the rest of Europe who are searching for safety due to their Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity (SOGI) need to be talked about.
Europe has excellent laws which are there to protect minorities like those who make up the Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgender (LBGT) community. Even so, many European towns and cities are not as liberal as say Brighton or Berlin, and there are still far too many people who are suffering the impact of homophobia or transphobia. Imagine then coming from a country where the law not only offers you no protection, but threatens you with death by stoning for simply being who you are.
Research carried out by the University of Sussex found that in the UK and throughout Europe, a third of those seeking asylum on the grounds of sexual orientation had their claims rejected because officials simply did not believe them.
In the UK, this all fits well with the government’s ‘hostile environment’ approach to immigration. It’s easy for officials to turn away those ultimately seeking British citizenship because claimants may find it impossible to come up with any evidence to back up their applications. When the law forbids you from expressing your identity, you’re hardly likely to be able to produce a huge pile of photos or intimate love letters offering proof of previous relationships, for example. Not being believed simply adds to what is already a living nightmare of fear and uncertainty.
On top of this, researchers found that the burden of proof is often unjustly slanted against the claimant. International refugee law requires that evidence-gathering is the equal responsibility of both claimants and those making a decision about their claims. And yet, it was found that immigration officials often did not start proceedings off with an open mind but instead sat waiting to be convinced.
The stories of some claimants are harrowing. One woman described how she feared for her life after being found by police in bed with another woman in an African state which offers no protection to gay people. This is a person who also had to endure a forced marriage to an abusive husband and was then raped by two men who said they wanted to ‘straighten her out.’ Her account of the seven hour grilling by a UK Home Office official is deeply troubling. Once in the UK there had been nothing to stop her from having a relationship with another woman, so why hadn’t she taken up the opportunity, she was asked at one point, and so why then did she identify as being a lesbian? Her heartfelt response was that her identity came about because of the feelings that she felt, and that in the past, she had not been given the freedom to practise her sexuality.
Having to prove something so private and intimate as one’s sexual identity to a complete stranger is in itself potentially traumatising. It is also unfair to judge the emotional journeys of those who identify as gay or transgender and who come from countries which may have very different laws and social attitudes against the experiences of those who grew up in western Europe. And yet claimants have had their applications for asylum rejected because they failed to provide any emotive language or thoughts that led to a realisation of their sexuality.
LGBT asylum seekers in the UK have had to endure further humiliation. One immigration tribunal judge rejected one man’s claim due to the fact that he did not have a gay ‘demeanour.’ This apparently was in contrast to a witness who ‘wore lipstick,‘ supposedly had an ‘effeminate’ manner and who the judge saw fit to acknowledge as gay.
To make matters worse, some claimants experience violence and abuse related to their sexual orientation or gender identity while they are held in UK ‘holding centres’ from both other detainees and staff. According to Stonewall, a UK charity that fights for LGBT rights, trans asylum seekers are especially vulnerable whilst being held in detention. One trans asylum seeker claimed she was held in multiple male detention centres, despite declaring that she identified as female. It’s claimed that trans detainees face real danger in these sorts of circumstances because they have to share bedrooms or communal showers with other detainees.
The UK has rejected thousands of asylum claims from LGBT people who’ve come from countries where consensual same-sex acts are against the law. Having their identity forensically challenged and ultimately disbelieved adds unbearable psychological strain on those who may already have been marginalised and faced the threat of violence or death in their home countries just because of who they are.
Instead of leading the campaign across the world against homophobia and transphobia, the UK Government appears to be turning its back and looking the other way. In some respects the rejection of SOGI claims seems to have become an easy and cheap ‘win’ for the Home Office in its effort to bring down immigrant numbers by shamefully resting its case on one of disbelief.
Peter Markham is a writer and correspondent for immigrationnews.co.uk, a media platform that helps to raise awareness about migrant injustices and news around the world.