Tories’ reviled Borders Bill will only add to ‘trauma’ of vulnerable LGBT+ asylum seekers
Olivia Blake, Labour MP for Sheffield, warns of her concern for LGBT+ asylum seekers if the government’s Nationality and Borders Bill is passed in its current form.
I’ve spoken with many campaigners advocating on behalf of LGBTQ+ asylum seekers and refugees and every organisation I’ve contacted is appalled by the Nationality and Borders Bill. They’re appalled because LGBTQ+ people seeking sanctuary in the UK are already met with a system full of obstacles and challenges.
In a world where homosexuality is illegal in 70 countries – and punishable by death in 11 – it is shocking that across Europe, one in three LGBTQ+ asylum applications are refused because officials simply do not believe the applicant. According to the University of Sussex, 4 in 10 people report being rejected because decision-makers do not consider they are persecuted, or at risk of persecution, in their home country. More than a third felt interviewers didn’t listen to their story or ask the right questions.
In the UK, the story is no less bleak. Around 2,000 people fleeing persecution for their sexual orientation seek asylum here each year. Only about a quarter of these applications are granted by the Home Office. When this is challenged, almost half of those who are refused win their appeal.
LGBT+ asylum seekers face ‘hostile environment’
Those numbers alone tell you that something is very wrong at the Home Office. They speak to what researchers at the University of Sussex have described as a “culture of disbelief”. That culture is a symptom of the wider “hostile environment” for migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. And, as ever, it’s the already vulnerable who suffer the most.
You’re compelled to prove your sexual orientation to Home Office officials who have been told to be intensely suspicious of anything you say to them.
To understand why, government ministers should put themselves in the shoes of someone running from violence and abuse for their sexuality or gender identity.
Currently, under UK law, to be granted asylum you must demonstrate that – if you were forced to return to your country of origin – there’s a “reasonable degree of likelihood” you’d be persecuted. You’re compelled to prove your sexual orientation to Home Office officials who have been told to be intensely suspicious of anything you say to them.
Now imagine you’re an LGBTQ+ person who lives in one of those countries where homosexuality is illegal – or even that you live where it’s punishable by death.
You live in constant fear of being outed. Every day is a struggle to erase any evidence of your identity. And if you fail – if you slip-up and accidentally reveal that you’re gay or bisexual, or that you don’t feel at home in the gender society has assigned you – you’ll face horrific consequences.
You finally manage to escape and – after what has probably been a traumatic journey – you find yourself in an interview room in the UK. What will you say when you sit down with the Home Office officials, and they ask you to produce evidence of your identity – the same evidence you’ve been erasing your entire life? How will you prove anything to them?
You might think of contacting former romantic partners from your country of origin – but what if they’re unwilling to provide evidence, for fear of being outed, too? Or worse – what if they’ve already been murdered for their gender identity or sexuality?
You can’t even rely on family members, who often don’t feel safe enough to write a statement for the Home Office. They may even have disowned you.
‘Traumatised’ LGBT+ asylum seekers can’t always adequately express what they’ve been through
Instead of seeking to right these wrongs and address this impossible situation, the Nationality and Borders Bill increases the burden of proof on asylum applicants. Clause 31 in the bill says that instead of a “reasonable degree of likelihood” that you’ll face persecution, the threshold should be at the far higher level of “balance of probabilities”.
And what if you don’t even have the language to describe your own sexuality or gender identity? What if you’ve come from a culture which describes it in very different terms?
I recently heard from a woman who’d been accused of witchcraft in her home country for having relationships with other women. After violence and intimidation, she fled to the UK. When she said she’d faced persecution for witchcraft the officials looked on in confusion and denied her application. It was only after living here for some months that she had the words to say that she’s a lesbian.
Evidence is evidence – you don’t stop being LGBTQ+ over time and the threat to your wellbeing in your country of origin doesn’t diminish either.
These are not isolated stories. People who come here have been brutalised and traumatised. They often can’t immediately find the words to describe what they’ve been through and why. In many cases, they’re explaining those difficult and complex experiences in a language that isn’t their own and that doesn’t easily translate.
Proposals in the bill will make the life of people like this woman – and countless others – much harder. Under new measures, people could be forced to produce relevant evidence by a fixed date. If they miss the deadline, the new legislation allows for it to be given ‘minimal weight’.
Evidence is evidence – you don’t stop being LGBTQ+ over time and the threat to your wellbeing in your country of origin doesn’t diminish either. Any new legal pretence that it does will have devastating impacts on the most vulnerable LGBTQ+ people. There are also may reasons why you simply wouldn’t want to immediately disclose your sexuality or gender identity to people you don’t know and don’t trust.
Nationality and Borders Bill will create ‘another chapter of trauma’ for LGBT+ people
The asylum system is not a hospitable place if you are openly LGBTQ+. As we process asylum applications, it is bitterly and cruelly ironic that we often incarcerate people who, in their country of origin, face prison sentences for their identity and sexuality. LGBTQ+ people already face disproportionate levels of abuse in the asylum centre system. Detaining more people who make asylum claims will only make that worse.
After all, why would you disclose your sexuality or gender ID if you knew you could be deported?
The new rules for so-called “Group 2” refugees also discourage LGBTQ+ people from telling their stories. The UN has already said that the distinction in the Bill between Group 1 and 2 refugees undermines the 1951 Refugee Convention. By giving one group of refugees lesser, temporary rights and ratcheting up the uncertainty they face, it could also force LGBTQ+ refugees to continue to hide their identity. After all, why would you disclose your sexuality or gender ID if you knew you could be deported? It could be used to press charges against you once you’re sent home.
I know the government are aware of these issues. Organisations like Rainbow Migration – a group fighting for LGBTQ+ people in the UK immigration system – have been loudly sounding the alarm. In September 2021, the equality impact assessment for the bill admitted that it risked indirectly disadvantaging protected groups, including LGBTQ+ people.
Every day, LGBTQ+ people flee from violence, threats, and abuse – but they can’t flee who they are. The government has a choice: they can either allow those horrific experiences to follow LGBTQ+ people here, inscribing yet another chapter of trauma into the lives of people who have already suffered enough; or we can turn a page and write something new. I hope that’s what government ministers choose to do as the bill comes back to the House of Commons in the coming weeks.