On Sunday 17 May, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people around the world will celebrate the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT), a worldwide celebration of gender and sexual diversity. This week, the United Kingdom was declared the most LGBT-friendly place in Europe and yet there is one group of people in this country who have little to celebrate: LGBT asylum seekers. Five years ago, the Conservative Party promised that it would protect LGBT asylum seekers fleeing persecution. So far they have failed.
LGBT people around the world continue to suffer discrimination and violence on a daily basis. In at least 78 countries homosexuality and same-sex acts are illegal and in a number the death penalty is enforced. The last Labour administration had little sympathy for LGBT people who fled to the UK in search of sanctuary. In 2010, my organisation, the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group, exposed that 98-99% of gay and lesbian asylum seekers had been refused asylum and told to go back, often to violently homophobic countries like Iran and Uganda, and be 'discreet'. Unknown numbers were forcibly removed from the UK and effectively consigned to a life 'in the closet'.
Prior to the 2010 election, the Conservatives rejected this policy and pledged to 'change the rules so that gay people fleeing persecution are granted asylum.' On coming into office with the Liberal Democrats, the Coalition Agreement promised:
We will stop the deportation of asylum seekers who have had to leave particular countries because their sexual orientation or gender identification puts them at proven risk of imprisonment, torture or execution.
This pledge was quickly followed by a ruling from the Supreme Court, which found that compelling a person to suppress or deny their sexuality is a denial of their fundamental rights. Despite this legal progress, the standard of asylum decision making has been notoriously poor in recent years and LGBT people continue to face significant obstacles in navigating the complex and frequently unsympathetic asylum system.
In assessing these claims, civil servants have too often relied upon false stereotypes and humiliating questions which have led to many genuine people being refused asylum as they have failed to 'prove' their sexuality or gender identity. In one infamous case exposed by the Observer, a bisexual asylum seeker was subjected to an appalling interrogation about his sexual affairs, including: "Did you put your penis into x's backside?" and "When x was penetrating you, did you have an erection? Did x ejaculate inside you. Why did you use a condom?"
The home secretary, Theresa May, ordered an investigation into the Home Office's handling of such cases, which found a fifth of asylum interviews contained stereotyping and a tenth contained inappropriate questions likely to elicit a sexual response. These abusive practices have corrupted the asylum system for too long and need to stop, once and for all.
Furthermore, the use of immigration detention spiraled out of control under the Coalition Government. The UK now detains more migrants than any country in Europe apart from Greece, which is in the process of releasing many of those it detains. Alarmingly, the UK is alone in detaining migrants indefinitely. Seeking asylum is not a crime, it is a right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in domestic law, yet LGBT people fleeing persecution are incarcerated indefinitely in brutal immigration detention centres where bullying, abuse, and harassment are rife. As Johnson, a former client from Jamaica, described:
The whole place is vile, it is homophobic, one of the guards called me a poof and then there were the Jamaicans who kept hurling some abuse at some Iranian guys--calling them batty men. I was terrified thinking: "Oh my God, I hope they don't know I am one of them.
The Home Secretary accepts that the asylum system is broken and has repeatedly said that LGBT asylum seekers must be treated with "dignity and respect". Is it dignified to subject desperate people to humiliating questions about their sex lives? Is it acceptable to incarcerate them indefinitely in immigration prisons? Can we justify allowing LGBT people seeking sanctuary to be bullied, spat upon, slapped and sexually harassed by those with whom they are detained?
The Prime Minister has been described as the UK's 'international ambassador for LGBT people'. He deserves credit for fighting to introduce equal marriage and for standing up for LGBT rights abroad, including by raising concerns about abuses against LGBT people in Russia with President Putin, but the deplorable treatment of LGBT asylum seekers in this country undermines his efforts and the UK's international standing on LGBT issues.
The Conservative Party's 2015 Manifesto pledged:
Our historic introduction of gay marriage has helped drive forward equality and strengthened the institution of marriage. But there is still more to do, and we will continue to champion equality for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people.
There is certainly more to do improve the lives of LGBT people in the UK and the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the progress we have made as a society and the challenges we still face. If this government wants to demonstrate a real commitment to equality, the treatment of LGBT asylum seekers has to be on the agenda. Given the persecution LGBT people suffer around the world, these cases are frequently matters of life and death. Five years ago, the Tories admirably promised to protect LGBT asylum seekers fleeing persecution but so far, they have failed. Now it is time to deliver.