Current Affairs

Tatchell attacks Labour over gay asylum seekers

Tony Grew May 19, 2008
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The UK’s asylum system is riddled with the “homophobic and transphobic bias,” a Green party candidate for Parliament has claimed.

Peter Tatchell, who is one of the most prominent human rights activists in the country, made his remarks at the London International Day Against Homophobia event last Friday.

The event was hosted by Amnesty International and the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association.

“Labour’s claim to be a LGBT-friendly government rings hollow when it continues to fail genuine LGBT refugees,” said Mr Tatchell, the Green party candidate for Oxford East at the next election.

“We must insist on an asylum system that is fair, just and compassionate – for LGBT refugees and for all refugees.”

Mr Tatchell, who is also a leading member of the LGBT human rights group OutRage!, praised the progress seen under the premiership of Tony Blair.

“Since 1999, the Labour government has repealed most of Britain’s anti-gay laws and introduced new legislation to recognise same-sex partnerships and protect LGBT people against discrimination,” he said.

“These positive lesbian and gay rights measures are being undermined by Labour’s failure to tackle the homophobic and transphobic bias of the asylum system.

“The government seems more interested in cutting asylum numbers than in ensuring fairness and justice for LGBT refugees who have fled arrest, imprisonment, torture, vigilante attacks and attempts to kill them.”

Mr Tatchell called on the government to implement five key policy changes:

“First, all asylum staff and adjudicators should receive sexual orientation and transgender awareness training.

“Second, the government should issue explicit instructions to all immigration and asylum staff, and to all asylum judges, that homophobic and transphobic persecution are legitimate grounds for granting asylum.

“Third, the official Home Office country information reports – on which judges often rely when ruling on asylum applications – must be upgraded and expanded to reflect the true scale of anti-LGBT persecution.

“Fourth, legal aid funding for asylum claims needs to be substantially increased.

“Fifth, the Home Office needs to issue official instructions to asylum detention centre staff that they have a duty to stamp out anti-gay and anti-trans abuse, threats and violence.”

The plight of gay people seeking asylum in the UK has become a big news story in the past six months.

There have been high-profile campaigns in Scotland and England to prevent the deportation of gay and lesbian asylum seekers to countries where they could face violence or death.

In April a decision to deport Mehdi Kazemi, a gay teenager from Iran claiming asylum, was resisted by more than 60 peers.

They successfully petitioned the Home Secretary to reconsider his case.

Mr Kazemi, 19, was studying in England and applied for asylum after his boyfriend was arrested and reportedly executed in Tehran.

The boyfriend named Mehdi as a homosexual, and police turned up at his father’s house with a warrant to arrest him.

His asylum application was unsuccessful in the UK, so Mehdi fled to Holland. The Dutch authorities ruled he should be returned to the UK.

Although the decision to review his case was met with support, gay activists have warned that there are many similar cases which are being overlooked by the government.

The Home Office says it is not aware of any individual who has been executed in Iran in recent years solely on the grounds of homosexuality, and we do not consider that there is systematic persecution of gay men in Iran.

Human rights groups claim that as many as 4,000 gay men and lesbians have been executed by the regime in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

In March a commission established to examine asylum policy and practice in the UK has concluded that it falls below the standards of a civilised nation.

The 12-member Independent Asylum Commission’s findings have been rejected by the Border and Immigration Agency, who claim they treat people with “care and compassion.”

The volume of people seeking asylum in the UK has fallen sharply and last year there were just over 23,000.

The commission concluded:

“Objective country evidence plays an important role in the determination of asylum claims and particularly in the assessment of credibility as it can provide context and understanding to a claim.

“However, a number of concerns have been raised in recent years over the quality and bias of country information.

“As a result of debates during the progression of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 the Advisory Panel on Country Information (APCI) was established to revise and make recommendations to the Home Secretary on the content of Home Office produced country of origin information.

“The Advisory Panel prepares detailed comments on the content of country information reports. Particular attention is paid to how accurate, balanced, impartial and up-to-date the reports are.

“There is an ongoing debate about the establishment of an independent documentation centre for the provision of country of origin information.

“Many NGO observers feel that such a centre would increase the actual (and perceived) objectivity of the country information made available to decision makers.

“They have also argued that there would be fewer disputes at the appeal stage about the reliability and accuracy of information between the appellant and the respondent.”

The commission, whose members included a former chief inspector of prisons, two members of the House of Lords, a Roman Catholic bishop, a former High Court judge and the president of the Association of Muslim Lawyers, spent a year researching their report.

It concluded that the UK asylum system is improved and improving, but is not yet fit for purpose; the system still denies sanctuary to some who genuinely need it and ought to be entitled to it and is not firm enough in returning those whose claims are refused; and is marred by inhumanity in its treatment of the vulnerable.

Lord Ramsbotham, a former chief inspector of prisons, told the BBC:

“We are concerned at the level of the treatment of children, the treatment of women, the treatment of those with health needs, particularly mental health needs, torture survivors.

“The system is improving all the time, and we commend the strenuous efforts by Border and Immigration Agency to deal with these claims more effectively.”

The Tory Shadow Home Secretary David Davis called the report a “shocking indictment of the asylum system under Labour.”

Lib Dem spokesman on Home Affairs Chris Huhne said: “The asylum process combines incredible complexity with systemic incompetence and is not fit for purpose.”

The head of the Border and Immigration Agency, Lin Homer, told the BBC: “I totally refute any suggestion that we treat asylum applicants without care and compassion.

“We operate a firm but humane system, supporting those who are vulnerable with accommodation and assistance.

“But we expect those that a court says have no genuine need for asylum to return home voluntarily, saving taxpayers the expense of enforcing their return.”

Last month members of the Scottish Parliament called on the government not to deport a gay teenager to Syria.

A cross-party motion in the Scottish Parliament in support of Jojo Yakob called for an immediate moratorium on the deportation of gay and lesbian refugees was backed by 23 MSPs.

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