The Plight of LGBT+ Asylum-Seekers

“The Plight of LGBT+ Asylum-Seekers”

Report of LD4SoS Fringe Meeting held on 26 September 2020

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.

 

 

Protecting Safe and Legal Routes for Refugee Children Post-Brexit.

Bradley Hillier-Smith writes:

An important amendment has been proposed to the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill 2020.

In effect, this bill will end freedom of movement between the UK and EU member states.

Yet, the important amendment to this bill (Amendment 48) would commit the UK to maintain two legal routes for refugee children in Europe to access asylum in the UK. The first legal route is Section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016 which allows provisions for the transfer of vulnerable unaccompanied refugee children from Europe to the UK. The second is family reunion provisions within Dublin III regulations, which allow refugee children in Europe to be transferred to the UK to be reunited with relatives here. The amendment therefore aims to maintain these two means for refugee children to find safety in the UK.

There are very few safe and legal routes for refugees to find safety in the UK. Refugees (in particular refugee children) also face serious dangers in Europe. Therefore this amendment is crucial in maintaining legal routes to access safety in the UK, away from the dangers of perilous channel crossings and trafficking operations for example.

There will most likely be a vote on this amendment in the House of Lords in the week commencing 28th September.

If passed, this amendment will then be voted on in the House of Commons in the week commencing 5th October.

If and when it is passed in the Lords, LD4SOS will seek to organise a letter-writing and social media pressure campaign, asking MPs to vote in favour of the amendment and thereby guarantee a lifeline for refugee children at risk in Europe.

The full text of the amendment, and subsequent debate in the House of Lords (14th Sept) can be found here: https://bit.ly/3mjTrHT

Lib Dems Peers Leading The Fight For Changes in Immigration Detention

We were all terribly disappointed last month that, despite an impassioned debate, the House of Commons rejected the amendments to the Immigration & Social Security Bill put forward by David Davis which would have placed a time limit on detention. Lib Dem Peers have picked up the fight as the Bill makes its way through the Lords and have tabled a number of amendments. The amendments, which were debated on Monday 14 September, can be seen in this link:   Sally’s speech is here.

They include setting a time limit to detention stating that individuals cannot be detained longer than 28 days unless the Secretary of State is satisfied that there is a change in circumstances and that the initial criteria for detention (set out in another amendment as: the person can be removed shortly, detention is strictly necessary, and detention is in all circumstances proportionate).

Having a time limit to detention is necessary because currently people can be detained indefinitely and, also re-detained again when, for instance, they report to the Home Office.  Unless individuals can get lawyers involved there is no oversight by the judiciary – the rule of law is effectively abandoned. In the year ending March 2020 26% (some 6000) of those leaving the UK were detained for over 28 days; 475 had been detained for more than six months. 600 people have contacted Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) for help with bail whilst in such detention.

It is terrible that anyone coming to this country is detained when they have not committed a crime. Also that anyone who has committed a crime has not been released when their sentence is spent, just the same as any UK citizen. Agencies working with victims of detention have been particularly concerned by its impact on people who are already vulnerable. The uncertainty of not having a release date is very damaging to the mental health of detainees as highlighted in recent research done by the British Red Cross (Never Truly Free; the humanitarian impact of the UK immigration detention system).   Many detainees say that they would have preferred to have had a prison sentence as at least then they would then know when they would be released and don’t have to live with constant uncertainty that, even when released, they may be detained again. People with underlying physical health conditions may not get the treatment they need when in detention.

Sally and other Lib Dem Peers have done a fantastic job of getting cross party support for these amendments.   In putting forward the amendments Sally spoke very passionately. and the next week when the debate was resumed, was supported by a range of peers, with great speeches from Sally Hamwee again, Sarah Ludford, and Liz Barker as well as cross benchers, Labour and Green peers, and the Bishop of Durham.  They made powerful speeches referring to the humanitarian, medical and practical grounds that support the amendment. They emphasised that the current system is inefficient, expensive and harmful. There was very little support for the government’s position who argued that – there was no policy of indefinite detention and that there must always be a realistic prospect of removal and various safeguards in place; a time limit would encourage abuse of the system; public safety would be compromised if serious criminals were automatically released after 28 days. The amendment will be re-tabled at the Report Stage when it will be voted on by the House of the Lords.

The fight will continue, for as long as it takes, and you can see the strong policies that Lib Dems have on immigration detention here.

URGENT NEED FOR ACTION ON SAFE ROUTES FOR REFUGEES

Since March 2020 the UK hasn’t welcomed a single refugee through its resettlement programme – the safest route to escaping war and rebuilding lives. That was understandable at the start of the coronavirus crisis, but with air travel for foreign holidays running throughout the summer there is no good reason these life-saving flights can’t resume.

Will you email your MP and pressure the Government to reopen safe routes to safety and commit to a resettlement programme welcoming at least 5,000 refugees a year? https://act.refugee-action.org.uk/page/67081/action/1?ea.tracking.id=qfqy9jch&ea.url.id=4910869&forwarded=true.

It is Lib Dem policy to “Offer safe and legal routes to the UK for at least 10,000 refugees each year by expanding the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, both to help a greater number of people from that region and to cover other conflict zones such as Myanmar.” As in our policy document here http://libdemfocus.co.uk/ld4sos/archives/1685

HOME AFFAIRS SELECT COMMITTEE ON CHANNEL CROSSINGS

Liberal Democrats for Seekers of Sanctuary have submitted evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee on Channel Crossings.

Here is the full version of the submission:

Liberal Democrats for Seekers of Sanctuary are an Associated Organisation of the Liberal Democrat Party. We support asylum-seekers and refugees who lack a formal political voice, and we urge all institutions and society generally to treat them with equal concern, respect, and dignity. Our evidence is submitted in order to draw attention to more effective, humane and economical ways of controlling the UK border.

  1. Controlling the UK border

Everything else we shall say in this submission starts from the premise that the UK should be able to have effective control over its sovereign borders, for those leaving the UK as well as those arriving, so that we are able to know who currently resides in the state and whether they do so legally with unexpired entry visas. It can and must control its borders in accordance with its international human rights and refugee law obligations.

In respect of regularised travel, the UK has effectively ‘outsourced’ much of its border control to land, sea, and air passenger carriers, who check travel documents to confirm identity and entitlement to enter the UK.

Yet, whereas the vast majority of those entering the UK do so regularly, not everyone does – as the recent channel crossings have demonstrated.

Recent governments have resorted to physical means to prevent irregular entry. The Communiqué issued after the 35th UK-France Summit at Sandhurst on 18th January 2018 devotes paragraphs 48-55 to Migration, “Modern Slavery”, Human Trafficking, and joint management of the shared border between the United Kingdom and France. Paragraph 53 refers to an additional €50m additional UK financial support for 2018. It is unfortunate that the communiqué in its paragraphs 52 and 55 speaks of illegal migrants and illegal migration when no distinction is made between economic migrants subject to the Immigration laws currently in force and those seeking asylum. It is always legal to seek asylum under the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, as stated in section 2 below.

Those crossing the Channel are using international waters; labelling such crossings as ‘illegal’ is wrong and does nothing to stop it happening. What is criminal is the activity of people smugglers and people traffickers. However, we need to reflect on the reason people smugglers operate in the Channel: it is because there are no safe and legal routes for those present in Northern France who seek asylum in the UK to do so. Hence, rather than travel on a relatively inexpensive commercial carrier across the channel, asylum-seekers are forced to pay people smugglers extortionate amounts for the pleasure of travelling in an unsafe dinghy; worse still, upon arrival, they may get trapped in modern slavery conditions, unable to leave even if they so desire.

  1. Legal framework

The UK has ratified the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol, which expanded the Convention’s application to refugees coming from outside Europe. They bind the UK in international and indeed in domestic law. The UK has also ratified European and international human rights treaties, most relevantly the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the Convention against Torture (CAT) which contain additional non-refoulement obligations constraining the scope of the UK’s deportation powers. The UK’s withdrawal from the EU does not affect the scope and breadth of these treaties. The Dublin III regulation referred to in paragraph 52 of the Sandhurst communiqué will cease to have effect in the UK at the end of 2020. In any case it is questionable whether this EU law can override the UN 1951 Convention, which does not require asylum seekers to apply for asylum in any particular safe country.

  1. The people smugglers’ market

The oral evidence recently given to HASC by the relevant officials tells us that those who have been caught crossing the Channel recently are overwhelmingly asylum seekers. Those who are coming here as tourists, students or to a job meet the requirements of Immigration law and take ordinary commercial routes into the UK. Those who wish to seek asylum do mostly come by the ordinary routes, as the number of asylum seekers recorded by the Home Office shows, but clearly not in every case.

 

There would seem to be two possible explanations for this sorry state of affairs. The first is that they cannot get the necessary documentation to allow them to buy a commercial ticket to travel, as airlines or shipping companies will not take those who do not have a valid entry document for the UK. The second is that some asylum seekers have no confidence in receiving a fair hearing when they apply for asylum. If that is the explanation, it is a condemnation of the ‘hostile environment’ created over the last ten years or more by the Home Office, and a negation of British fair play and sense of justice.

On the face of it there is a straightforward and inexpensive solution to the first explanation. The UK could enable those wishing to seek asylum to indicate their wish and present a concise prima facie case at a British embassy, consulate, or border control point. They could be asked to sign a declaration that they were travelling to claim asylum in the UK, providing their name, nationality and a statement of their ID document (including any of which they have been deprived). They could then be issued with a temporary permit to enter the UK to claim asylum which they would present on arrival.

Dealing with the second explanation requires a review of the Home Office’s current practices. The guidance to Home Office staff ‘Asylum screening and routing Version 5.0’ of 2nd April 2020 is a document which should enable the Committee to consider all aspects of current Home Office practices. Unfortunately the version available online is heavily redacted, not least in its section on clandestine arrivals. LD4SOS would welcome the Committee having the opportunity to consider in evidence an unredacted copy of this staff guidance.

 

Two aspects of current Home Office practice might, if changed, make the process of considering asylum applications more humane at reduced cost to the taxpayer. Firstly, the present significant proportion of asylum cases lost on appeal says that money could be saved by getting decisions right first time. One way of doing this would be by having a culture of belief, where any statement that could be checked was checked but where those that could not be checked were accepted for the purposes of processing asylum applications. It may also be that costs could be further saved by reducing or abandoning administrative immigration detention except perhaps for the night before a deportation when all appeals have been exhausted. Secondly, allowing asylum seekers to work while their claim is considered and thus to support themselves instead of relying on the Home Office is likely to provide an incentive to the Home Office to complete their assessment of an asylum application promptly. If in the end an asylum seeker’s claim was rejected and they left the country, their experience of work in the UK would allow them to apply for work from abroad and hope to find an employer who would support an application under the UK Immigration laws. A failed asylum claim should be no bar to this.

  1. The Dublin Regulation

The oral evidence given to HASC by the relevant officials on 3 September 2020 reveals that those asylum seekers who have been caught crossing the Channel recently have overwhelmingly been sent to other EU countries under the Dublin Regulation; they indicated that no similar return arrangements exist at present with other states. The compatibility of the Dublin regulation with international refugee law and international human rights law is a longstanding concern, and indeed ‘Dublin returns’ to certain EU member states have been previously halted by both the European Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Justice on the ground that they would breach the ECHR and EU law, respectively. As the call for evidence notes, the Dublin regulations contain certain exceptions, most notably in respect of family reunion: it is incumbent on UK authorities to inform asylum applicants, including those crossing the channel, of the existence of such exceptions. It is also important to note that, while the Regulation permits the UK – within a time limit – to request a Dublin transfer, it does not require it to do so: given that, according to the oral evidence referenced above, only 6-7% of asylum applicants in the EU submitted their applications in the UK, it would be morally right for the UK to consider carefully the need for such requests. In any event, the Dublin regulation will cease to have effect in the UK on 31st December 2020 and seems unlikely to be replaced with a similar arrangement.

 

  1. Ending Channel crossings

The measures so far proposed to reduce the attractiveness of unorthodox modes of travel to the UK require confidence among asylum seekers that they will be fairly treated on arrival. They know they are risking their lives, as the deaths crossing the Mediterranean and in refrigerated lorries show, not to mention those who have frozen to death in the hold of an aircraft. This suggests that they have good reasons not only for seeking asylum but for seeking it in the UK. What is needed to allow them to come and claim here is a reduction in the hyperventilation surrounding the issue of asylum seekers, and here Government must take the lead. The total numbers seeking asylum in the UK are much lower than those seeking asylum in France or Germany, to take but our two nearest neighbours. In terms of efforts made to settle individuals in the UK, who by definition are refugees not asylum seekers, the UK has a not trivial positive record, but is still way behind other countries. The UK has an image of itself as a country with a proud history of saving the persecuted by offering sanctuary here. It can refer to its reception of those who suffered from the pogroms of Eastern Europe in the late 19th century as well as from the Kindertransport in the late 1930s. Pressurising asylum seekers to go elsewhere is a betrayal of that proud tradition. The Ugandan Asians are just one more recent group to benefit from this welcome to asylum seekers and may be followed by some Hong Kong residents who may decide to leave given the worrying recent developments. It is up to government to show that it processes asylum claims strictly according to whether the claimants meet the requirements of the 1951 UN Convention, and to show that those who wish to work here must apply under UK Immigration law, so that there can be no question of admitting economic migrants as asylum seekers. Ensuring this distinction is maintained and that asylum seekers are greeted with a culture of belief would go a long way to ensure that Britain’s reputation as a place of sanctuary is restored, and that we benefit, like France and Germany, from the new arrivals who have sought asylum here because they want to contribute to this country.

 

SO WHO HAS RESPONSIBILITY FOR THESE CHILDREN?

There is a simple answer to that one. We are part of a global family, whilst the under 18 year old’s who have crossed the channel are in our country, we look after them.

Whilst the landings are in Kent, it is Kent County Council that has the immediate responsibility, but understandably they can only take so many to give the care needed and have made a clear plea for help, last week https://kccmediahub.net/kent-leader-announces-we-cannot-safely-meet-our-statutory-duty-as-council-reaches-capacity-for-the-care-of-unaccompanied-asylum-seeking-children745

Child detention for immigration purposes ended during the Coaltion, it was a “red line” issue for the Lib Dems, and thousands of children were detained no more. Then in 2014 they fought for it to be enshrined in law that children should not be detained, and can no longer be, apart from a necessary 24 hours for initial health checking and safeguarding issues.  It is crucial that they are not able to just go onto the streets of Dover where their smugglers or similar could be waiting for them, to use for exploitation and modern slavery.