Aderonke Apata is a courageous lesbian who experienced barbaric persecution in her homeland of Nigeria. Following her near one year incarceration, she has been a high profile case of LGBT asylum injustice and was recently honoured for her contribution to human rights in the Independent's Top 100 Rainbow List. As reported recently in the Independent, immigration officials continued to insist that Aderonke was not a lesbian. She has spoken out vociferously and heroically about her treatment at Yarl's Wood, the notorious immigration centre in Bedfordshire, and continues to fight for the rights of LGBT refugees. At Yarl's Wood some LGBT detainees experience mental health breakdowns, as described in "Missing the Mark", a groundbreaking report from the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group.
For UK citizens the story is very different. This year marks the eight hundredth anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta. Magna Carta sought to enshrine better access to justice, guarantee freedom from incarceration and place fiscal limitations on the Crown. It is seventy years since the liberation of Auschwitz. For the first time this year there was a significant acknowledgement of the suffering of LGBT people during the Holocaust. We have also just seen the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Sir Winston Churchill, one of Britain's greatest heroes and a guardian of liberty. These momentous landmarks offer an opportunity to reflect on the state of Britain today. I can live and love as I choose, despite being co-infected with HIV and Hep C, more opportunities available to me than ever before. I want to highlight a lesser known, but no less important, anniversary and think about a segment of the LGBT population who are sometimes overlooked, but just as valuable as the rest of us. Last week I caught up for coffee with Paul Dillane, the head of the UKLGIG, to chat about LGBT asylum. He spoke passionately about the plight of LGBT refugees in this country and it was clear to me that this is an area where the whole LGBT community needs to unite.
In 2010, the five year anniversary referred to above, the Supreme Court ruled that LGBT asylum applicants could not be sent home on the presumption that they could be discreet about their sexuality in their homelands. This means the outlook of the judiciary towards LGBT asylum claims has become more nuanced and perceptive. I am proud and happy to be gay, HIV positive and Hep C positive. I am open about who I am and, as I have written previously, the acceptance I receive is empowering. It is terrible to ask anyone to conceal who they are. Self-expression is a vital part of identity. LGBT refugees face a double prejudice-one against their sexuality and one against their asylum status.
However, whilst the attitude of the judiciary has created an appropriate legal framework for determining refugee status, the way in which they are processed has deteriorated. Though seeking asylum is not a crime but a right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, increasing numbers of LGBT asylum seekers are being confined in detention centres during the course of their asylum claims. It is an increasing trend that more people have been kept in detention centres than ever before. Refugees are locked up indefinitely for weeks or months whilst waiting for their applications to be processed.
Detaining refugees in this way can be a scarring experience. Conditions are oppressive. Experience shows that LGBT refugees are more at risk than others, UKLGIG having encountered much abuse, as outlined in "Missing the Mark". There are many instances of homophobic and transphobic bullying, verbal abuse, physical violence and sexual harassment. Often refugees are subjected to what we, in the UK LGBT community would perceive as hate crimes. "Missing the Mark" evidences that civil servants have a poor track record of making the correct decision on LGBT asylum, the judiciary overturning the decisions on appeal of twice as many LGBT applicants as for other asylum applications. In detention centres it is harder for individuals to corroborate their identities. They are forced to conceal their LGBT identity from their fellow asylum seekers, whilst seeking to prove this to civil servants, which amounts to a dual attack on identity. Access to computers and legal advice is also restricted within detention centres.
Although the practicalities of applying for asylum are unpleasant, central government is receptive to change. Teresa May has sought to defend the rights of LGBT refugees. In 2010 May noted that the way in which LGBT asylum claimants are treated was wrong. In 2014 she commissioned an independent review, accepting all of its recommendations. This was a significant step in the right direction. We must all put our prejudices aside and take a more thoughtful approach to migration. There are lots of myths about asylum claimants. Government statistics show that the UK is, in fact, far from overwhelmed, with only 25,000 applicants a year, a quarter of the number trying to claim asylum in Germany and a small percentage of the fifty million refugees worldwide. I think it is appalling that the UK continues to hold many refugees in detention centres. As opposed to persecuting and stigmatising asylum seekers, we should celebrate our impressive human rights history by taking a more sensitive approach to LGBT refugees.