UK

‘Sinister’ Tory anti-refugee bill treats people seeking asylum as less than human, says gay refugee

Lily Wakefield December 14, 2021
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Afghan refugee Gulwali Passarlay addresses the audience as they attend a "Refugees Welcome" rally in Parliament Square. (Getty/ Leon Neal)

A queer refugee from Ethiopia has explained how the government’s “anti-refugee” borders bill would catastrophically impact LGBT+ people seeking asylum.

LGBT+ people seeking asylum already face huge barriers in escaping to the UK to avoid persecution, violence and death because of their identities.

But the Conservative Party’s Nationality and Borders Bill, widely dubbed the “anti-refugee bill”, has been described by Refugee Action as “the biggest attack on the refugee protection system that we have ever seen” and could make things even worse.

Bahiru, a gay man, fled Ethiopia – where homosexuality is published with up to 15 years in prison and LGBT+ people are at huge risk of violence and persecution – and successfully claimed asylum in the UK in 2016. He told PinkNews that the UK has completely ignored the “human side” of seeking asylum.

Since arriving in the UK, he has founded House of Guramayle, an organisation that supports LGBT+ Ethiopians, and works with Rainbow Migration, which helps queer people through the UK’s asylum and immigration system.

Growing up gay, Bahiru did not know any other queer people and suppressed his sexuality to keep himself and his family safe.

Eventually he managed to connect with a few members of the LGBT+ community, and they met as a secret, underground group. But Bahiru was shocked at the lack of knowledge of LGBT+ issues, especially safe sex, and took it upon himself to teach his peers.

Bahiru and his friends began procuring lube and condoms from those travelling back from abroad, as they were unavailable in Ethiopia, and distributing them to LGBT+ folk. But the project began to snowball, putting Bahiru at greater and greater risk.

Eventually, when someone threatened to out him and release his photo and personal information, Bahiru knew his life was in danger and he had to leave.

“I was lucky,” he told PinkNews. “I had been in and out of the UK already, and I had the support of organisations that we were working with, so I had an active visa.”

But most people forced to flee their homes in fear of their lives have no chance of accessing the “official” routes prescribed by the government’s Nationality and Borders Bill.

Proposed by home secretary Priti Patel, the bill would restrict protection to refugees who arrive through difficult-to-access “official” routes, like refugee resettlement programmes or on a visa.

Anyone arriving by any other means could be criminalised and deemed “inadmissible”, as could those who don’t claim asylum immediately upon arrival, which might mean being barred from accessing public funds, and even receiving a jail sentence of up to four years.

They would also be deemed “inadmissible” if they passed through a “safe” country on their way to the UK, and expected to make an asylum claim there instead.

An activist from Amnesty International wears a mask depicting Britain's Home Secretary Priti Patel
An activist from Amnesty International wears a mask depicting Britain’s Home Secretary Priti Patel. (AFP via Getty/ ADRIAN DENNIS)

Even if they manage to claim asylum after arriving in an “unofficial” way, the bill would introduce a two-tier system for refugees, treating them differently based on how they arrived in the UK. The second group would be “regularly reassessed for removal”.

Those who knowingly arrive in the UK illegally will have committed a criminal offence. Under the Borders Bill, the punishment for this crime could increase from six months to four years in prison.

Part of the problem with the bill, Bahiru says, is that fleeing the country is often a “last minute decision”. Accessing “official routes” is an issue of time – but also, of social class.

Of his own experience, he said: “Once I knew my picture was being posted on different platforms, saying this is the group of members who are advocating for LGBT+… I knew I had to escape.

“I could not even hide in my own parents’ house, because the violence could have come from any side.”

Having an active visa, he was able to quickly flee, but the complicated and lengthy visa process makes it “very hard for people who urgently have to leave the country.”

“I would not have had time to do that,” he said. “And also I don’t think I would have had the mental capacity to even go through it.”

Bahiru continued: “The second thing is the class element – who are the people who would be able to access and afford to pay for the visa?

“Also, who will qualify, according to the expectations that the UK Government requires?”

Although Patel has claimed that the Nationality and Borders Bill will “deter” dangerous migration and “break” the business of people-smuggling, human rights groups disagree.

According to Amnesty: “The bill will do the exact opposite of what ministers claim, allowing smugglers to thrive.

“It will only increase the reliance of people, already vulnerable to exploitation, upon the gangs that remain the sole source of any prospect that people may have to ultimately escape their situations of insecurity, exploitation and deprivation by reaching a place of safety.”

Some LGBT+ people seeking asylum are forced to ‘prove’ that they are queer

Because the UK government does not provide specialised housing for LGBT+ people seeking asylum, Bahiru spent months fearing for his safety in accommodation with people who had brought their prejudice with them from homophobic countries.

“The homophobic tendencies, the tensions, the passing comments that people make and jokes about sexual minorities, it was awful.

“I was sick and tired when I got to the UK, mentally, physically, emotionally, I was exhausted, I was burnt out.

“I did not have any capacity to fight back, to teach, to challenge [their views].

“I didn’t even know if it was safe for me to do so, because I was literally almost in the same situation I escaped from in my country, when I was put in the house under Home Office accommodation.”

Priti Patel has proposed opening “basic full-board” accommodation centres for people seeking asylum to live in, and doing away with the current limit of six months on their stay.

The Conservative government has already launched similar centres, for example in the disused Napier army barracks in Kent which, according to The Guardian, has at times housed 400 people in a 28-bed dormitory.

According to Rainbow Migration: “Large accommodation centres pose particular risks for LGBT+ people seeking asylum.

“We are concerned that housing people in such centres outside the UK would result in systemic verbal, violent and sexual abuse of LGBT+ people who are in need of protection, high rates of self-harm and suicide.”

The new bill even introduces provisions for offshoring accommodation centres, housing those seeking asylum outside of the UK.

Protesters gather outside the Home Office
Protesters gather outside the Home Office to protest against the Nationality and Border Bill and its implications for refugees. (SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty/ Hesther Ng)

When he was finally able to attend an asylum interview, as one of the first people to claim asylum on the basis of sexual orientation from Ethiopia, Bahiru had to create a country profile to outline the treatment he had faced there.

The Home Office immediately believed that Bahiru was gay because of his work in LGBT+ advocacy, but many others have a different experience.

He said: “I am honestly one of the lucky ones… Because asking someone prove their sexuality is the most ludicrous thing that I’ve ever heard in my life.”

Bahiru continued: “It shows you how the system is very, very heteronormative. And that it’s very cis-oriented and led, because it’s only heterosexuals that could ask you to prove you are gay.

“No queer person would ever ask anyone to prove they’re heterosexual.”

Currently, those seeking asylum must prove that there is a “reasonable degree of likelihood” of persecution were they to return to their home country.

Under the new bill, this standard of proof will be raised to on the “balance of probabilities”, despite the fact that most LGBT+ people only have their own testimony as evidence.

Bahiru knows of people who took “pictures of them having sex with other people to provide as evidence”, and he said: “It was heartbreaking and shocking to see someone be degraded to that point when they thought that this is a safe haven they were claiming asylum to.

“We come all the way from different countries to feel safe in a country where they highly publicise championing LGBT+ rights, then you come here and they ask you prove your sexuality.

“I’m like, ‘How do you want me to do that? You want me to sleep with the interviewer?'”

The Nationality and Borders Bill is a product of a media that ‘paints refugees as criminals’

To understand the Conservatives’ new Nationality and Borders Bill, Bahiru said, we must look at “how we got to where we are now”.

He said: “Painting refugees as illegal migrants, talking about refugees or people seeking asylum as if it’s a criminal act, is how we got sensationalised [enough] for people to accept [this bill].

Bahiru pointed to that the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights lists seeking asylum as a human right, and added: “The right to life is the priority. It was about the right to life for me… I tell people: ‘I left my home country because I didn’t want to die in a place I called home.'”

It’s hard to know “where to start” when listing the problems in the “sinister” bill, Bahiru said.

He pointed out that the proposed rule of being people seeking asylum being inadmissible if they have passed through a “safe third state” makes little sense because there is “no way in hell that someone can arrive in the UK first”.

“If we were to make it harder for people who are crossing through other means, not directly flying to the UK, it would be inhumane… I think in the bill, the human element is missed.” 

Even if people seeking asylum make it to an interview in the UK, the focus on “official” routes and legal documentation would make the process close to impossible.

“When people arrive here and they do their first interview, you expect them to give you whatever information and supporting documents they have,” Bahiru said.

“That is assuming when human beings are smuggled that they would be able to carry a document to hand it to the Home Office, which is very, very untrue and unrealistic.

“Then as a queer person, when you are outed, when you have been persecuted, when you have been in intimidating situations by the police, or by any force, your tie with your home country is kind of broken, or shaky.

“The people who would be keeping your documents might not be on speaking terms with you… So I think it would be like added pressure for queer migrants who are coming to this country.”

Protesters hold up placards as they demonstrate against the government's Nationality and Borders Bill outside Downing Street
Protesters hold up placards as they demonstrate against the government’s Nationality and Borders Bill outside Downing Street. (AFP via Getty/ BEN STANSALL)

The ‘anti-refugee bill’ makes the future ‘hazy’ for people like Bahiru

Bahiru has been in the UK for five years, and is currently in the process of applying for indefinite leave to remain.

But for him, and for other refugees who are already here, the new bill creates a sense of uncertainty that is preventing them from “expressing themselves in a fully happy manner”.

He said: “Even if I want to live my happy, full, out, proud life, what happens to me after five years, if the government decided you don’t need protection, your country is fine?

“I don’t know how that is even measured. But what assurances do we have for us to actually experience the life we paid such a high price for, to get here in the first place?”

The Nationality and Borders Bill is set to have its second reading in the House of Lords in January, 2022.

More: conservatives, lgbt asylum

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