“It’s Frustrating And Depressing”: The Experiences of LGBTQ+ Refugees in the UK Asylum System

For World Refugee Day, Politics Editor Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin explores the process for LGBTQ+ individuals seeking asylum status in the UK, speaks with queer refugees, and encourages our community to act now in support.

ILLUSTRATIONS Ella Devi Dabysing

“I don’t think the UK should be labelled a safe country, because the Home Office and the Government make it very difficult for asylum seekers to call this country ‘home’”, says Lindon, who recently fled Barbados in order to seek refuge in the UK.

Barbados is one of 69 countries, as of 2021, across the world with laws in effect that criminalise homosexuality. Inherited from the British colonial rule, the Sexual Offences Act 1992 prohibits same-sex sexual activity by criminalising acts of ‘buggery’ and ‘serious indecency’. These provisions impact both men and women, and carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. But even in other countries where same-sex relations are not criminalised, LGBTQ+ individuals are still not protected in law, and face abuse, discrimination, and threats to their lives. While some are still finding community and organising to change the future for the queer community, many are forced to leave their families behind in order to seek safety and freedom – only to be confronted by the UK’s oppressive immigration policies.

“Even as a kid, I always knew that I was gay. I used to pretend to be straight to avoid sexual harassment, bullying, and physical attacks, but there’s nothing that can stop me from being the way I am”, adds Lindon, who is a service user of African Rainbow Family.

“In Barbados, I was called names that made me feel like I’m not a human being. I was beaten, stabbed, and suffered from second-degree burns due to my sexuality. After months of attack and no help from the law, I decided to flee the place I once called home. But my experience of seeking asylum in the UK was, and still is, very difficult.”

The Home Office keeps everyone in the dark and takes months to make a decision on an asylum claim. This prevents me from being able to be an independent gay person with a full life.

Lindon, a gay asylum seeker from Barbados

Born and raised in Guyana, Lindon was racially profiled by a UK Border Force officer the moment he arrived at Heathrow Airport, where he was detained for 48 hours without any information or guidance. Since then, he has been placed in accommodation alongside others seeking asylum. Surrounded by residents who may be from the very countries LGBTQ+ individuals have fled, not only does this place queer refugees at risk of harassment and abuse, but also effectively forces them back in the closet, which has a significant impact on their longer-term mental health and sense of self.

Lindon shares that “it’s very frustrating and depressing”.

“The accommodation is horrible and the meals are disgusting. Some would say that refugees are ungrateful because we should be happy that we’re in the country, but we still have no clear route for happiness and freedom in the future. The Home Office keeps everyone in the dark and takes months to make a decision on an asylum claim. This prevents me from being able to be an independent gay person with a full life.”

The current legal process is “intrusive and degrading”

Lindon is not alone in fleeing a country with anti-homosexuality laws that have been directly inherited from British colonial rule. Out of the 69 countries where homosexuality is criminalised, 36 were once British colonies. In the face of this reality, the UK’s hostile asylum system sprinkles fresh salt in the inter-generational wounds inflicted by white supremacist colonialism.

They don’t hand out certificates for being queer, you know? I always say to people, imagine having to convince a government official of your sexual orientation, whether you’re LGB+ or not.

Sonia Lenegan, Legal and Policy Director at Rainbow Migration

The current route for individuals to seek formal legal recognition of their asylum status in the UK on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity is long, laborious, and littered with countless hurdles. In order to “prove” their sexual orientation to the Home Office, and that it places their lives at risk in the country that they have left, refugees must answer intimate questions about their sex and relationship history to multiple officers. Not only is this traumatic for those who have faced abuse associated with their identities, but many are still disbelieved. The Home Office currently refuses four out of five LGBTQ+ claims, with officials often relying on harmful stereotypes, at which point refugees are forced to attempt to convince a judge at a tribunal.

“It’s an intrusive and degrading process”, says Sonia Lenegan, Legal and Policy Director at LGBTQ+ asylum and immigration support organisation Rainbow Migration

“Often, the only evidence that people have is their own account. They don’t hand out certificates for being queer, you know? I always say to people, imagine having to convince a government official of your sexual orientation, whether you’re LGB+ or not. And now the Nationality and Borders Bill will make this part of the process even more difficult.”

Differentiated treatment of refugees under the borders bill

Despite claiming to “fix Britain’s broken asylum system, secretary Priti Patel’s Nationality and Borders Bill, which passed in April 2022, has already received extensive criticism. The United Nations’ refugee agency has stated that the Bill would undermine Britain’s commitment to the 1951 Refugee Geneva Convention, and nearly 250 human rights organisations – including LGBTQ+ groups like Stonewall and Mermaids – have signed a pledge demanding that the law be repealed. Aside from criminalising those entering the country through what the Government deems “irregular routes”, such as by boat – among other regulations – the Bill also has specific grievous impacts on LGBTQ+ individuals.

The borders bill introduces a higher standard of proof, which will make it even more difficult for refugees to prove their sexual orientation or gender identity. It also allows for differentiated treatment of refugees, which has the potential to disproportionately penalise LGBTQ+ people. Under new laws, some refugees will be classed as ‘Group 2’, providing them with a shorter grant of leave and fewer rights. Instead of receiving one grant for five years, after which they can apply for permanent status, those in ‘Group 2’ will only be granted two and half years at a time, which must be renewed every two and a half years for 10 years. Only then will they be able to apply for permanent status.

The long waiting period already places individuals at risk, especially since those seeking asylum in the UK are not allowed to receive benefits or work, exposing them to abuse and exploitation. And the new draconian laws will only make the process far more distressing and exhausting.

“It’s been really difficult figuring out what to do, especially since I was made homeless in the middle of winter by the ex-partner I moved to be with in the UK”, shares African Rainbow Family Trustee Zarith, who fled Malaysia in October 2021.  

“He locked me in his room while he was away to keep me hidden from his housemates because he didn’t want to pay additional rent on his tenancy agreement. There were many threats of violence and I had to pee in a bottle. I resisted, so he kicked me out. After that, I had to sleep rough, and in trains and buses to keep warm. And I had to find leftover food in the trash from takeaways and fast food outlets.”

It’s vital that queer people are provided with safe accommodation and other spaces that would allow them to discuss their LGBTQ+ identity.

Georgie Rae, asylum and immigration pupil barrister

One of the ways in which someone can be placed in ‘Group 2’ is if they don’t seek asylum “without delay”. With many LGBTQ+ individuals being unaware of the fact that their sexual orientation or gender identity could even serve as grounds for asylum status until they’ve started to live more openly as themselves in the UK, they’re more likely to be penalised for not claiming on arrival. While others, travelling from a country that criminalises homosexuality and faced with a hostile reception in the UK, may simply feel unsafe disclosing their identity to government officials on arrival. This can also lead to trans refugees and asylum seekers being forced to register under a different gender to the one with which they identify, thus hindering their ability to “prove” their identity during asylum procedures.

“LGBTQ+ people seeking asylum are often reluctant to ‘come out’ due to their specific life situations, cultural background, history of trauma, and the conditions of their reception”, says Georgie Rae, a pupil barrister specialising in asylum and immigration.

“Revealing their sexuality and/or gender identity can be daunting, despite this being at the heart of the persecution they are fleeing. It’s vital that queer people are provided with safe accommodation and other spaces that would allow them to discuss their LGBTQ+ identity.”

One rule for us, another rule for them 

Unfortunately, these spaces are not made accessible often to queer refugees. Like Lindon, many find themselves in unwelcoming accommodation. While others are placed in detention centres, which Stonewall and Rainbow Migration (formerly known as UKLGIG) have found to be even more isolating, and rife with bullying and abuse.

Launching their new campaign, ‘No Pride in Detention’, Rainbow Migration states that “detention deprives them [LGBTQ+ people] of their freedom and cuts them off from support networks. They are bullied and discriminated against by staff and others inside, which re-traumatises those who have fled persecution.”

I wish the public would have a bit of empathy and understanding about our journey. We just want to build our lives and call the UK our home.

Zarith, a gay asylum seeker from Malaysia

While the UK Government has recognised since 2016 that trans and intersex people are particularly vulnerable and should not be detained under most circumstances, they are yet to introduce the same laws for LGBQ+ refugees. And now it’s confirmed that it will proceed with plans to “offshore” queer individuals with inadmissible claims (including on the basis they’ve stopped in another country during their journey to the UK) to processing centres in Rwanda. This is despite the fact that, while homosexuality is not explicitly criminalised in Rwanda, its constitution does not mention LGBTQ+ people in its anti-discrimination laws, there are no legal protections for the community in relation to hate crimes, and LGBTQ+ people continue to face arrest by Rwandan authorities on superficial grounds. Moreover, the Home Office’s own review shows that LGBTQ+ people in Rwanda are among the most economically marginalised and vulnerable in the country, often being denied access to housing, employment and health services, and that trans women can face torture.

The racism in which the UK’s borders policies are steeped is almost shockingly apparent when comparing the advice provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to same-sex UK tourists visiting Rwanda with the conclusion reached by the Home Office’s review of asylum processing. 

While the FCO states that “LGBT individuals can experience discrimination and abuse, including from local authorities” and advises UK residents to check their information and advice page for the LGBT community before travel, the Home Office states that “the treatment [of LGBTQ+ people] is not sufficiently serious by its nature and/or repetition, or by an accumulation of various measures, to establish a systemic risk or to amount to persecution or serious harm”.

Once again, we must hypothetically ask: “Why is it one rule for us, another rule for them?”

Direct action saves lives

When the Government targets some of the most marginalised members of our society, we must come together with a renewed strength. Recent events have demonstrated the power of collective action and community organising, with an anti-immigration raid protest in Peckham resulting in the release of the detainee, and lawyers and activists collaborating over delaying the first flight to Rwanda, which was subsequently cancelled after an European court of human rights intervention. The Rwanda policy will now be tested in a full court hearing next month.

But Lenegan urges the public to continue to act and speak up while the status of the next flight is pending.

“Do get in contact with your MP and express concern about the Rwanda plan. And sign our ‘No Pride in Detention’ campaign”, she says. “Rwanda is a detention-based programme at the moment, so if we can get people out of detention, especially queer people, then that will hopefully hamper their plans to send LGBTQ+ refugees to Rwanda.”

Those wanting to get involved can also support the work of groups like Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants (LGSM), Docs Not Cops (a group fighting for migrants’ access to health care), and African Rainbow Family, donate to rescue and solidarity initiatives in the Mediterranean, like Operation Open Arms, and get involved with anti-raid groups, such as Lewisham Anti-Raids (or even start your own!). You can also donate to Stop Deportations, who are currently fundraising to cover legal costs for the nine activists arrested for “locking on” to the roads, and delaying the vehicles transporting people from detention to the first deportation flight to Rwanda.

Zarith signs off with these words: “I’m here to be myself – with all my shortcomings, flaws, talents, skills, experiences. And I’m always ready to contribute to the society at large in the UK and around the world. I wish the public would have a bit of empathy and understanding about our journey. Some even risk and lose their lives in the process. We just want to build our lives and call the UK our home.”

Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin
Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin

Our Politics Editor, Prishita (they/them) is a writer, editor, and LGBTQ+ community organiser. They’re currently a Trustee with Voices4 London and sit on the Advisory Board for Split Banana, a social enterprise redesigning relationship and sex-ed by bringing in the perspectives of groups traditionally excluded from the curriculum. Prishita has been published or featured in METAL, gal-dem, Hunger, and Dazed, amongst others. They also featured in ‘Soul of a Movement’, a film by British creative directors Carson McColl and Gareth Pugh that documents some of the British LGBTQ+ activists, artists and allies carrying the revolutionary fire of the Stonewall Uprising today.
Prishita‘s writing is represented by The Good Literary Agency, and they’re also a signed model and social human with CRUMB.

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