The UK immigration system is a harsh and brutal environment for all migrants. It is designed to be a treacherous journey through a cruel and intricate jungle of tests, detention, interrogations and application processes; all trying to prove authenticity and deservedness. However, it is clearer now than ever that LGBT+ migrants, especially those seeking asylum and refuge, are being treated as ‘bogus’ and endangered by the doubts of immigration officials.
Many LGBT+ individuals seeking asylum are fleeing from countries in which they would be persecuted, harmed and even killed for their sexuality and gender identity or expression. In 2021, there are still 69 countries in the world that criminalise homosexuality, with nearly half of these being in Africa. Interestingly, 36 countries that are currently in the Commonwealth also still have such laws against sexuality. These laws stem from colonial times, in which British law included the punishment of LGBT+ individuals and was therefore promoted in such countries. However, since the UK has put in place laws to decriminalise being LGBT+, it has not heavily urged the Commonwealth countries to follow suit as much as it responsibly should.
With this in mind, it does not come as a surprise that the UK immigration system is not too supportive of LGBT+ individuals seeking asylum and refuge. The laissez-faire attitude of the current British government to LGBT+ rights extend to those originating from other areas of the world.
Studies by the University of Sussex have found that it is getting increasingly harder to win asylum in Britain based on sexual orientation. Government data has shown that only 22% of claims by LGBT+ individuals in 2017 were approved, down from 39% in 2015. With some 2000 people every year applying for asylum based on persecution of their sexuality and gender identity, that is around 1500 people returned to their country of origin after rejection.
It has been identified that there is a widespread “culture of disbelief” and an “impossible burden of proof” which is haunting the UK immigration system in every area for migrants. However, when it comes to LGBT+ individuals, this has resulted in 4 out of 10 people being rejected because decision-makers did not consider the risk of persecution in the claimants’ country of origin and more than a third of those seeking asylum feeling interviewers were not listening to their stories or asking the right questions. The team from the University of Sussex have called for a major overhaul of the system, with the issues being epitomised in the fact that one in three LGBT+ asylum seekers are rejected simply because officials do not believe their sexual orientation of their gender identity.
Moira Dustin, leader of the University’s four-year project has stated that:
“These findings of course sit within a broader picture of the ‘hostile environment’ to immigration. But it’s even easier for officials to turn away people applying for asylum on sexual orientation and gender identity grounds, because they are even less likely than other claimants to have evidence to support their claim; what can they produce, when they’re in danger and fleeing? How likely are they to have with them photos or letters proving past relationships?”.
This is exactly the issue. It is both cruel and dehumanising to expect an LGBT+ individual to have to prove a part of their existence, which by law, they have been required to hide for the safety of their own wellbeing. In many instances, the UK immigration system tilts the burden of providing proof on the individual applying for asylum. However, under international refuge law, the process of evidence-gathering is the equal responsibility of both claimant and decision-maker, indicating that many officials either do not want to help the migrant or do not know how to.
This mindset of not particularly wanting to help a LGBT+ applicant manifests itself in other areas of the immigration process, which makes convincing officials of authenticity even harder. Leila Zadeh, executive director of the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group stated that they have “seen people whose claims have been refused in part because they didn’t use enough emotional language” in interviews. She went on to say, “It’s incredibly difficult for somebody to tell the Home Office about this aspect of identity that they have never ever spoken about and that they feel ashamed to talk about”.
It becomes evident in cases such as these, that a possible theme resulting in the difficulties that LGBT+ claimants experience is the lack of awareness and education of LGBT+ issues in immigration officials. As already discussed, many of the interviewers failed to even consider the persecution that a migrant may face if returned to their home country. It then makes one wonder whether such decision-makers even know whether it is illegal to be homosexual in the migrants’ country of origin? Do they know how many people are killed a year for being LGBT+ in that migrants’ country of origin? Do they have awareness beyond stereotypical representations of what a LGBT+ person looks, sounds and acts like?
It is hard to believe that if officials could answer all these questions in detail, that more humane approaches could not be taken such as the “burden of proof” being eased to relieve claimants of the stress and humiliation of proving their sexuality or gender.
Some accounts of experiences of LGBT+ individuals in the UK immigration system are truly harrowing, and this is why changes must be made immediately. The UK should be standing up against homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and any other form of discrimination against sexuality or gender expression not only within the country, but around the world too.
In response to the University of Sussex’s findings, a spokesperson for the Home Office said the UK “had a proud record of providing protection for asylum seekers fleeing prosecution because of their sexual orientation or gender identity” and rejected their findings and data. This was the easy way out for them, avoiding accountability and the necessary steps that were needed to be made to invoke real change.
It is imperative that not just immigration officials, but all people, are made aware of the challenges that LGBT+ migrants face not only in their own country but in the immigration processes they are forced to take part in. The way forward is with education, and it is the responsibility of the UK government to ensure that all their Home Office employees receive training that informs them of how to deal with LGBT+ issues with more sensitivity, and more importantly, with humanity. We must all continue to apply pressure to the Conservative government to overhaul the cruel immigration system they have in place and ensure that the LGBT+ migrants arriving in the UK are provided with the necessary protection they deserve every time, so they can make it onto the pathways of refugee status, indefinite leave to remain and citizenship.