“The Plight of LGBT+ Asylum-Seekers”
Over 80 people attended our online Fringe on the Plight of LGBT+ Asylum-Seekers. Our speakers were Leila Zadeh (Director of UK Lesbian & Gay Immigration Group – UKLGIG), Alistair Carmichael MP and Christine Jardine MP (current and former Home Affairs spokespersons), in moderated discussion with LD4SOS council member Dr. Ruvi Ziegler (Associate Professor in International Refugee Law, University of Reading). Gareth Lewis, Chair of LGBT Lib Dems (which co-hosted the event) chaired the event.
Setting the Scene
Ruvi Ziegler (RZ) kicked off by suggesting focusing on 3 themes – the challenges facing LGBT+ asylum seekers in proving their case because of the ‘culture of disbelief’ in the Home Office (HO); the additional challenges posed by Covid-19; and what Lib Dems can do. He shared a map which showed that 70 countries in the world discriminated against individuals who were LGBT+, and 12 of those countries inflicted the death penalty on these individuals. He noted that many countries which generated high numbers of asylum seekers namely Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Eritrea also persecuted LGBT+ individuals. He presented Home Office experimental data suggesting that, in 2019, only 1,211 asylum applications noted LGBT+ as a ground for their application, roughly 3% of the total number of applications (45,000). He posed the question whether this is an under-representation driven by the stigma and shame that some applicants feel and whether they are safe to do so within their diaspora communities.
Challenges faced by LGBT+ asylum seekers
Leila talked powerfully of “the layers of marginalization” that LBGT+ asylum seekers experience in addition to those experienced by the refugee population in general. As well as being discriminated against because of their immigration status they may also face discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender characteristics. Unlike many migrants they can be very isolated here as they often can not count on the support of their families – their own families may have threatened them. We discussed how challenging it was to demonstrate that you are LBGT+ and convince the HO you were at risk of persecution, particularly for individuals who have grown up needing to conceal their identity. Criminal laws create horrific environment as not just the police, but families and friends may also persecute someone who is LBGT+. The HO has stereotypical pictures of how LBGT+ people behave and will ask very intrusive questions about sexual behavior and practices. They can’t recognise that the reason the individual is seeking asylum is that these behaviors are persecuted and, therefore, aren’t practiced. It is also assumed that all LGBT+ people behave the same way – individuals may be refused asylum because their emotional and development of identity does not fit the HO stereotype. They can’t describe their journey (using a second language or an interpreter) in a way which satisfies the HO. But not everyone behaves the same way particularly in an environment of fear. Christine Jardine (CJ) stated that “logic and compassion does not appear to be applied to (HO) policy”. Priti Patel has acknowledged the problem of attitudes in the HO and that people needed to be retrained or moved on. But CJ felt this was unfair as attitudes came from the top. Alistair Carmichael (AC) said that the barrier (for acceptance) had been set very high by the current government making it particularly hard for LGBT+ asylum seekers but they were building on what had been in place for decades. It will be a massive effort to turn it around not least because the HO is always getting hammered by the right-wing press and that feeds into a culture of disbelief. He told a shocking story of one applicant he had assisted who was told by the HO official “not to bring any stinking food with you”. It’s a toxic culture.
Impact of Covid-19
Accommodating asylum seekers in hotels had been a positive move but it has also be dangerous because people could be trapped in buildings with homophobic individuals, Asylum seekers live on less than £40 and didn’t benefit from the increase of £26 in universal credit – they only got 26p. UKLGIG had had to deliver food, buy clothes etc. for people in need. Loneliness has also increased, and more people need more emotional support. The HO had suspended face to face interviews so there will be a lot of interviews to catch up on. Worryingly they are going to contract private companies to do the interviews. This highlights a key problem – the HO thinks the interview are simply evidence gathering exercises; but they need skilled people to encourage people to open up – not ticking off the stereotypical standard type of proof.
What can Lib Dems do ?
Ruvi asked whether the Lib Dems should be more proactive in supporting LGBT+ asylum seekers given their special predicament, including through support for private schemes (like in Canada) and prioritizing them in the UK resettlement programme through special quotas. AC felt the root problem is poor decision making and the root cause the culture of disbelief so that any ambiguity is constructed to the disadvantage of the applicant. There are multi layers of contradictions in our foreign policy – Saudi Arabia still uses the death penalty for people convicted of sexual acts; our government excuses this because of wanting to sell them arms. We shouldn’t underestimate the importance how the Tories have changed – they have translated into the Republican Tea Party. We need to call out the hostile environment. CJ said we had to recognize that the media will jump on us – some people want to hear tough language, but we have a duty to call it out. Quotas can be a double-edged sword and used against us. A number of people called for cross party working – could Lib Dem AO and SAO organisations complement each other and work together on this issue. AC said it was up to all of us to give it priority – LD4SoS, the LGBT+ Network, ALDC should all look at it. We can also look for allies in other places, for instance there were examples of cross party working with SNP on asylum issues.