12:22, July 09 49 0 theguardian.com

2019-07-09 12:22:04
The UK must stop persecuting people who seek asylum based on sexuality

Last week, the high court ordered the Home Office to bring back a Ugandan woman to the UK after ruling that she was treated unfairly in her asylum appeal in the now defunct detained fast-track (DFT) system.

This might be the first time such an obligation has been placed on the Home Office in the case of an LGBTQI+ claimant in the DFT, but it’s far from the first time that an LGBTQI+ person has been treated unfairly in the UK’s asylum system.

The woman, referred to in court documents as “PN”, was removed six years ago to Uganda where her sexuality exposes her to serious risk of persecution and violence. PN came to the UK in 2010, aged 17, and remained in the country after her visa expired. She applied for asylum, saying she feared she would be killed if she returned to Uganda – but her claim was rejected because the Home Office said there was insufficient proof to show that she was a lesbian. Given just two weeks to appeal, she was eventually removed after being unable to produce the extra evidence needed in time.

Around 2,000 people claim asylum each year based on sexual orientation and a fear of persecution in their home country. The Home Office refuses close to four out of five of these claims – a figure that has increased in recent years. We do not know about the number of trans and intersex people claiming asylum or the decisions on those claims because the Home Office does not record this information.

What we do know is that the asylum system is difficult for every single LGBTQI+ person who goes through it. To be recognised as a refugee, they have to prove that they are LGBTQI+, something nobody is required to do at any other time or in any other space. In many cases, the only “evidence” someone has to prove this is their own testimony. They have to talk about the most personal or intimate aspects of their lives in front of a complete stranger, who then decides if they believe them or not. Opening up in such a way is extremely difficult if you have never spoken about your sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression or sex characteristics; on top of that you may have been bullied, harassed and abused for years, or been rejected by your family.

We know of people whom the Home Office has refused because they interpreted the person’s shame and embarrassment when they were in the interview room as lying. The Home Office has also disbelieved descriptions of relationships that applicants have had in their countries of origin.

As well as her own testimony, PN had evidence that she had had lesbian relationships in Uganda, but she struggled to obtain this in the timescale set out by the Home Office. Many of our clients at the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group (UKLGIG) tell us they had partners in their countries of origin, but that the person is too afraid to write a witness statement. Even worse, sometimes those partners or ex-partners are no longer contactable and our clients fear the worst has happened to them. Other evidence such as photographs, letters or text messages may also have been left behind or destroyed when the person fled the country.

Even when evidence is available, the Home Office sometimes dismisses it. We have seen the Home Office disregard corroborating statements from friends and partners and ignore supporting evidence from LGBTQI+ organisations. One person was told that the 90 photographs with their partner submitted as evidence were “self-serving”, yet at the same time it was noted that the couple didn’t have a joint utility bill. Another person submitted screenshots of a dating website they had used, but the Home Office thought that an LGBTQI+ person would have made “more use” of such sites and refused their application.

These challenges become even harder to surmount if the Home Office places you in a detention centre and makes you prepare your asylum claim while locked up, as PN was. When you are cut off from your support networks, old friends and the wider LGBTQI+ community, it can be extremely difficult to get evidence or statements. You certainly can’t attend any clubs, support groups or social events organised by the LGBTQI+ community – things the Home Office often expects LGBTQI+ people to do in order to believe them.

In addition, LGBTQI+ people are at high risk of homophobic, biphobic and transphobic harassment inside detention centres. People have been verbally abused and even physically or sexually assaulted. It’s an environment that’s reminiscent of the persecution from which they have fled.

It is unreasonable of the Home Office to expect LGBTQI+ people to make asylum claims from within such an intimidating environment. An LGBTQI+ person will often struggle to talk to their lawyer – if they even have one – about their claim when at the same time they are trying to hide their sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression or sex characteristics from everyone around them.

We do not know how many people are in this predicament as the Home Office doesn’t have the statistics. PN was among the few people able to show that she was able to obtain evidence from a former partner in Uganda after the DFT time constraints expired. She could therefore persuade the high court that more time would have made a difference to her case. Many LGBTQI+ people who were once in the DFT system might not be able to do that – yet they too will have gone through this unfair process.

It is good news that PN may finally receive justice and be protected in the UK. The Home Office now needs to ensure that nobody else has to go through the injustice of being returned to a country where they face persecution. While detention of LGBTQI+ people continues in any form, they will struggle to be recognised as refugees. The Home Office needs to stop detaining LGBTQI+ people under immigration powers and to lower the bar to granting refugee status.

Leila Zadeh is the executive director of the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group

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