As a Russian trans woman prepares to return to violence or worse if she is expelled from Sweden later this week, the latter country’s reputation as a less than welcoming place for the trans community is once more in the spotlight.
According to the woman, identified here as “Lita”, because the Russian state refuses to acknowledge her trans status, she faces a constant fear of arrest and potential imprisonment in a male prison – or mental institution – should she return.
This is borne out by documents seen by PinkNews.co.uk, which suggest that the Swedish Migration Board, responsible for hearing asylum applications, initially debated her case in terms of whether her “orientation” – as opposed to her trans status – was likely to cause her problems. This contributed to a decision that she could happily return to Russia with her partner, where they would be able to live out their lives as a gay couple “in stealth”.
Adding insult to injury, according to Lita, in hearing her case, the Board also frequently mis-gendered her, referring to her as “he” (“han” in Swedish).
Lita’s woes began in 2007, when, after a lifetime of living with dysphoria, she “came out” as a woman at the age of 21. There then followed a lengthy history of indignity, as first, the Russian state refused to treat her. Then, in October 2007, she was stopped on the street by a police officer, who took her to a police station. “State authority representatives” then made her strip nude, beat her, urinated on her. After passing out, she woke in an unfamiliar yard, to find her clothes torn and dirtied with urine and faeces.
She later lost her job when her boss at the Federal Tax Inspection Office told her: “You have a choice – resign or face big problems. Faggots are not welcome here.”
Still, Lita persevered, starting hormone treatment in 2009 and eventually undergoing gender re-assignment surgery in Thailand in 2010. Returning to Russia, however, her problems were only just beginning.
Russian streets are increasingly unsafe for anyone obviously identified as LGB or T, with violence, to which the authorities increasingly turn a blind eye, from groups calling themselves “patriotic fighters for national purity”.
An added worry for Lita is that her ID documents (national passport and travel passport) no longer conform to her appearance. This bars her from holding a job, studying, or renting a place to live: worse, the conflict between her IDs and the way she looks means a routine papers check could lead to her being arrested at any time for forgery (living under an assumed name with somebody else’s documents). Hence her fear of imprisonment or institutionalization.
However, according to Lita, attempts to regularize her position have been universally rejected by various Russian authorities, including the civil registry service, the courts and the ministry of foreign affairs.
In desperation, she and her partner travelled to Sweden, where they sought asylum in December 2010.
There, her experience at the hands of the Migration Board (Migrationsverket) may have been less openly hostile – but was nonetheless every bit as discriminatory.
In addition to viewing her case primarily as one of orientation, they also refused to permit Lita to change the name on her LMA-card (the local ID), thereby depriving her of the opportunity to find a job in Sweden. In March 2011, they refused her application for residence.
Appealing this decision to the Immigration Court in February 2012, Lita’s application was rejected again: this time on three grounds:
- The degree of persecution that Lita had experienced was not so serious as to merit asylum being granted;
- She had not made sufficient efforts to amend her documentation in Russia,
- Her inability to obtain appropriate hormonal treatment in Russia – and therefore her need to self-medicate – was not a major issue.
In March, the Supreme Court ruled that there were no grounds for further appeal. On Monday 23 April, Lita learned that the deportation process has begun: she has 7 to 10 days to lodge an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights – after which, her stay in Sweden is at an end.
As with previous controversy over Sweden’s attitude toward gender identity, and a legal requirement for sterilization before trans identities are recognized, this case possibly sheds an unwholesome light on a deeper problem in the Swedish state.
Over the last few years, a succession of statements by the UN, the EU and CEDAW have expressed concern about the status of LGBT persons in Russia. In 2011, the European Parliament called for special protection of LGBT asylum seekers, while a recent EU Directive specifies that “gender related aspects, including gender identity, shall be given due consideration” in EU protection policies.
This is all very well as long as the flow of LGBT refugees from Russia remains but a trickle: however, with the passing of increasingly hostile anti-LGBT legislation and a rise in on-street persecution of LGBT individuals, that trickle may soon turn to a flood.
Is Lita’s case unique? Or is it, as she suggests, just the first signs of the Swedish authorities cynically drawing a line in the sand. For as one of the EU nations geographically closest to Russia, Sweden is likely to bear the brunt of any future LGBT exodus. By making life difficult for refugees now, it is possibly seeking to dissuade genuine refugees from coming to their country in years to come.
This – and the suggestion of prejudice at the sharp end, within the Migration Board – is hotly denied by Mikael Ribbenvik, the Board’s Director for legal affairs. He points out that Migrationsverkert is one of the very few institutions in Sweden that has made use of external consultants to challenge the institution’s bias towards heteronormativity. He says: “I know of no other organisation in Sweden or throughout Europe that has done this.”
Equally, he dismisses talk of a “line in the sand” as “rubbish”. It would, he says, be impossible for a Minister to lay down such an edict.
He is equally unimpressed by suggestions that front line operatives are operating any sort of hidden agenda. Highlighting Sweden’s track record over asylum seekers from Iraq – Sweden had 58% of Iraqi asylum claims in the world (18,000), and gave out permanent residence permits to 94% of these.
Over the last ten years, the number of asylum applications accepted annually has doubled and it is therefore “preposterous” to say that border staff are xenophobic.
So what is going on? Muddle, perhaps – and a lack of real awareness of trans issues seems to remain at the heart of Lita’s difficulties.
The view, backed up by two independent reviews of the Board and court documentation, seems to be that officials “just didn’t get it”. They didn’t understand the nuances of trans issues – or the difficulties that a trans individual can face in a country such as Russia: so they failed to assess the case properly. Now, the courts are being asked to review a poor decision already taken, as opposed to look at evidence from scratch.
The outcome of Lita’s desperate appeal could come as soon as this week. As journalists, we are not supposed to take sides: as human beings, we are desperately worried. Because, if Lita is sent back to Russia, it is anyone’s guess what will happen to her.