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Comment: How very dare he! Woolas claims UK fair on LGBT asylum

Paul Canning July 6, 2009
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In a shameless piece of bandwagon climbing, immigration minister Phil Woolas has published a piece on LabourList claiming that his department is fair on LGBT asylum. He says he is “proud” that people were at Saturday’s London LGBT Pride march who have won asylum.

Practically nothing written in the article matches the actual experience of LGBT asylum seekers at the hands of the Home Office and the UK Border Agency (UKBA).

Woolas claims that his department does not tell people to ‘be discreet’ and send them home – that’s the Court of Appeal.

He writes: “From time to time we are accused of expecting gay men and lesbians to be discreet, effectively to suppress their sexuality in order to avoid persecution. This is not an accurate representation. The Court of Appeal has found, in line with our policy that whether a gay claimant can reasonably be expected to tolerate behaving discreetly is something that must be considered on the individual merits of the case.”

This is so barefaced it takes my breath away.

Following an eight year ordeal the Ugandan gay asylum seeker John ‘Bosco’ Nyombi has finally won asylum in the UK.

Despite a well-documented media and government anti-gay campaign in Uganda, which has included articles and photos of Bosco, he was deported in September last year. The UKBA made its usual claim that LGBT people can be safe in such countries if they are ‘discreet’. However the method of his deportation, which involved deception, violence and rule-breaking, led to a historic decision by a British court following which the Home Office was forced to return him to the UK in March, where he was immediately put into a detention centre due to an ‘error’. John finally got leave to remain a few weeks ago.

It took a major international campaign to secure leave (which was exceptional and outside the department’s strictures) for Mehdi Kazemi, the 19-year-old Iranian whose boyfriend had been executed.

A spokesperson for the Iraqi LGBT group told me that Home Office evidence submitted in all cases of Iraqis in the UK says they can return and “be discreet”. This in a country where death squads are actively seeking out and torturing and executing gays in large numbers.

The UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group (UKLGIG) wrote in a letter responding to Woolas’ article:

It stated: “The UKBA (and judiciary) often argue something along the lines of ‘if you kept quiet about it before, you can go back and do so again’. Such argumentation does not acknowledge that fears for repercussions along with internalised homophobia and shame usually are the – very damaging – reasons for such ‘keeping quiet’ or ‘staying in the closet’.

“Also worrying is the consideration given to the ‘social norms and religious beliefs of their country of origin’ as a factor in assessing whether an LGBT person could be required to be (more) discreet. Even the Indian Delhi High Court recently stated that arguments of cultural relativism – or indeed the views of a majority of the population – can not ‘hold captive’ principles of equality and non-discrimination.

“Phil Woolas claims that ‘a degree of discretion can be required in all sexual relationships, heterosexual as well as homosexual’, which implies that the measure of discretion required would be applied equally. This is clearly not the case and in practice LGBT persons would be forced to have to live a lie.

“Moreover, this reference to discretion does not reflect the realities of most LGBT asylum claims: applicants simply want a life in which they can be who they are and/or have a relationship with their partner, without fearing death, violence, rape, prosecution, forced marriage or losing their livelihood or homes. Their claims are not about seeking the right to commit ‘public indecencies’. However, within the legal, social, cultural or religious framework in many of their home countries, an (open or secret) LGBT identity or same sex relationship is often, in and of itself, considered ‘indecent’.”

These are policy decisions – not court ones – and nothing to do with the ‘merits of the case’, unless Woolas seriously believes Iraqi gays should just ‘be discreet’.

Woolas claims that there are “clear instructions” to caseworkers that homophobic and transphobic persecution are legitimate grounds for granting asylum. But the UKLGIG reports that currently there is no Asylum Policy Instruction (API) on LGBT issues, despite repeated requests.

Woolas says country information used to make decisions is accurate and up to date. Well, in the case of Iraq the UNHCR “advises favourable consideration” for persecuted the LGBT minority two months ago. Human Rights Watch and others have been reporting the pogrom of Iraqi gays for several years. Woolas claims country information comes from such sources and “does not contain any Home Office policy or opinion”. If that was the case why are his lawyers’ opinions saying gays can be safely sent back to Iraq?

Here’s why – the independent governmental Advisory Panel on Country Information recently (October 2008) published a very critical review of the quality and quantity of information on LGBT issues within the country of origin information (COI). UKLGIG say they are hopeful that new COI reports “will show a significant improvement”.

LGBT asylum seekers are not safe in the care of Woolas’ department, in accommodation provided for them or in detention centers as a recently published groundbreaking report found out. They suffer high levels of homelessness, discrimination and exploitation. Cases of rape are described in the report.

Asylum staff and adjudicators receive race and gender awareness training but, again contrary to Woolas’ claims, have only just started extremely limited training for a few caseworkers on sexual orientation issues. Lack of training results in them often making stereotyped assumptions: that a feminine woman can’t be a lesbian or that a masculine man cannot be gay. They sometimes rule that someone who has been married must be faking their homosexuality.

Cuts in the funding of legal aid for asylum claims means that most asylum applicants – gay and straight – are unable to prepare an adequate submission at their asylum hearing. Most solicitors don’t get paid enough to procure the necessary witness statements, medical reports and other vital corroborative evidence.

It is left to groups such as UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group and campaigners and hard-working solicitors. They are the people responsible for those asylum seekers on the Pride march – not Woolas.

For him to claim otherwise is nothing short of outrageous and not to be believed, and isn’t by many, including many members of his own party.

LGBT Labour passed a motion at its recent AGM which said that “the experience of LGBT people in the system does not often match the up to the high standards of treatment we would expect from the UK”. It added: “The UK government should not return people on the pretext that they will have to ‘hide’ their sexuality on return to their home country.” It mandated its executive to question the Home Office.

And amongst those who signed a petition on this issue to Gordon Brown were Labour MEPs Eluned Morgan, Claude Moraes and Glenys Kinnock, Mick Houghton, secretary of the Greater London Association of Trade Union Councils, Labour MP Celia Barlow and former minister Stephen Twigg.

It is great that Labour members are finally waking up to this issue. Perhaps Woolas’ brazenness will finally provide the push for the changes in LGBT asylum which are so desperately needed for those that I know most right-thinking people believe deserve our protection.

Paul Canning has been an gay activist in two continents for more years than he cares to remember. He is the webmaster for

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