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The Silent LGBT+ Refugee Crisis

It is currently illegal in 72 countries around the world to be gay. The punishment for being caught in a same-sex relationship varies from fines to public canings, to life in prison or even death. The UN Geneva Conventionstates explicitly that those seeking asylum because of their sexual orientation or gender identity have grounds for refugee status. A 2011 EU Directive further states that sexual orientation is one of only a handful of categories (including religion, race, and nationality) for which asylum seekers can claim persecution.


Yet, in the UK (and much of the Western world), LGBT+ asylum seekers are being turned away, often after humiliating and degrading “gay tests”.


Rosemary, a lesbian who fled Nigeria to the UK, is under threat of being deported back home after spending four months in  Yarl’s Wood detention centre. Despite being a leader and active member of Leicester’s LGBT community, the UK government is questioning why she would marry a man and have children in her home country if she were truly a lesbian.


“I come from a culture where you have to get married: my mother threatened to kill herself if I didn’t,” she said

“My neighbours will put a tyre around my neck and set it on fire.”

If she goes back to Nigeria she will be punished by law for having a same-sex relationship and face vigilante violence.


“My neighbours will put a tyre around my neck and set it on fire.”


Roseline, a 26-year-old who left Nigeria when she was 12, also faces deportationafter being arrested and imprisoned for false representation in an immigration case. She could be separated from her fiancée and sent to an anti-gay country she doesn’t even know.


“As an immigration lawyer, some of the most heart-wrenching cases I have dealt with have been those involving LGBTQI+ applicants,” said Gary McIndoe.


“Contrary to the rhetoric put forward by some of our more right-wing media, the UK is not full of people pretending to be gay in order to successfully obtain refugee status.


“In reality, it is extremely difficult to obtain protection through the asylum process, and for the LGBTQI+ individual applying on the basis of their sexual or gender status, the journey can be extremely traumatic, invasive and long-winded, with no guarantee of success.”


In 2016, 362,000 refugees reached Europe. While there are programmes in place to assist unaccompanied children and young women there are not enough programmes to deal with the specific issues around LGBT+ refugees.


The programmes that do exist are either crude, ineffectual, or cruel. According to Stonewall and the UKLGIG, staff in detention centres “fail to protect them from abuse, often lack basic understanding of LGBT issues, and even display discriminatory attitudes.”


Many refugees are forced to remain in the closet when arriving at these centres and often lack the support and understanding of European cultural terms to articulate their sexual orientation and specific need for asylum.


ORAM has recently published a guide meant to address this problem. The organisation seeks to protect exceptionally vulnerable refugees and with this guide aims to “create a safe space and built trust with refugees, recognise inappropriate or offensive terminology, and recognise the terms refugee applicants use to identify themselves.”


“As an immigration lawyer, some of the most heart-wrenching cases I have dealt with have been those involving LGBTQI+ applicants."

Once refugees pass the hurdle of terminology and identification they are expected to submit evidence of their sexual orientation in order to claim asylum. 


“To obtain such evidence is no easy task. It might endanger family members, previous partners, and asylum seekers themselves, especially if detained in an immigration centre with what refugees describe as ‘no privacy at all’,” said Antonio Zappulla, the Chief Operation Officer for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, a philanthropic organisation based in the UK.


Although there are no official statistics, Stonewall estimates 98% of claims put forward on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity are rejected.


Owen Jones, a columnist for The Guardian, argues the UK – and other Western countries – have a duty of care to these LGBT+ refugees, especially since they’re fleeing countries that learnt their homophobic laws whilst under control of European empires. Britain enforced anti-sodomy laws across in the globe, many of which are still imposed – India only just reformed its Section 377.

LGBT+ refugees make up part of the migrant caravan heading towards the US at the moment too. The first group to reach Tijuana contained 80 LGBT+ migrants out of the 360 that arrived. The Trump administration has done everything it can to strip back rights for LGBT+ asylum seekers even further.

“I’m not sure how the asylum process will go, but I hope that the United States lets us in,” said Loly Méndez, a trans woman from El Salvador waiting on asylum. “I have been violently assaulted, robbed, discriminated against so I can’t get work, I’ve had friends killed – I can’t go back there.”


LGBT+ refugees have been suffering in silence for too long, it’s time for their silence to end.

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