When Usmann came to the UK from Pakistan to study law, he stayed with his brother. They hadn’t seen each other since childhood, so Usmann wasn’t sure whether his sibling’s personality had changed over the years or if he simply misremembered, but he certainly wasn’t prepared for the emotional and physical abuse he was subjected to for being gay. On one occasion, Usmann’s brother tried to stab him in the head. On another, he took a pair of scissors to his neck and threatened to kill him.
Unable to return to his home country where homosexuality is punishable by up to ten years in jail, Usmann initially did not want to claim asylum in Britain. “I was adamant that I wouldn't seek help because of the things other asylum seekers were telling me,” he says. “I thought it was better to use my own two hands and feet and not rely on the system.”
Even after starting the process of claiming asylum, Usmann slept on a friend's sofa. He knew from others that the accommodation provided by the Home Office is wholly unsuitable for LGBTQ+ people.
Almost 2,000 people seek asylum in the UK each year after being persecuted for their sexual orientation. Meanwhile, the Home Office's rate of refusing their claims is increasing, leaving untold numbers in isolation, destitution and homelessness.
Accommodation provided by the government's National Asylum Support Service (NASS) is largely in shared houses around the UK, and asylum seekers have no choice over where they go or who they live with. This removes them from their network of friends and family, as well as vital LGBTQ+ services such as counselling that are not available in every part of the country.
“Most housing is in dispersal towns where it's cheap because there is little employment,” says Sara Nathan, co-founder of the Refugees at Home charity. “They are run at a profit by contractors such as Clearsprings, G4S and Serco. We hear some grim tales about the standards. There's no incentive for the companies that run it to provide halfway decent accommodation, because nobody cares about who suffers.”
Gay and trans asylum seekers are frequently housed with people who hold the homophobic and transphobic views that they are trying to escape from, making them vulnerable to abuse. Yet reporting these incidents can make things worse. Harry Gay, campaign manager at The Outside Project, tells me of one asylum seeker who complained about homophobia from his landlord and flatmates, and was accused of being a troublemaker. He ended up losing his accommodation and sleeping on the streets.
“As queer people going through the asylum process, there's not a lot they can do,” Gay says. “People are scared that if they bring these things up, the landlord will have similar views and won't take them seriously.”
Usmann considers himself lucky for being able to stay with a friend during his ordeal. “It was minus-two degrees at the time, so it was the best thing that could have happened. I didn't have to be on the street,” he says. “I got saved through an act of kindness.”
Sofa-surfing is still a form of homelessness, albeit a hidden one. Charities point out that the 165 percent rise in homelessness since 2010 is merely the tip of the iceberg. It doesn't include people staying with friends, in temporary housing or trading sex for a roof – common situations for those who have recently been granted refugee status or had their claims refused. Others may be living undocumented because they think asylum is only for political refugees, or are afraid of Britain’s hostile immigration system. This makes finding a stable housing situation almost impossible.
Daphine spent 15 years living like this, too frightened to talk about her circumstances and unaware that she was eligible for support in the UK. Back home in Uganda, when her parents found out she was a lesbian, she was taken to a series of traditional doctors who tried to ‘heal’ her.
“I ran away because the doctors kept raping me. When I tried to explain it to my family, they didn't believe me,” Daphine explains.
In the UK, she moved between friends' houses, making sure she didn't overstay her welcome by going out early every morning and returning late at night. Last year, with help from the Say It Loud Club charity, she finally got the courage to contact the Home Office, however she has been waiting for over a year to find out when her next interview will be, after which a decision will be made about whether she can stay.
“My fear of going back is tremendous. If I go back, I'm a dead person,” Daphine says.
It's not known how many people are living like Daphine's, so the true number of homeless LGBTQ+ asylum seekers is not captured. Home Office statistics show that between 2015 and 2018, the refusal rate increased from 61 percent to 83 percent, leaving rising numbers of people with no entitlement to financial support or housing.
“We have seen demand from LGBTQ+ asylum seekers grow over the last few years,” says Michael Nastari, the director of services for Stonewall Housing. “The ‘hostile environment’ has seen an increase in demand not only from asylum seekers but from other groups, such as undocumented people and people from the EU who don’t have the right to access housing support. With the potential of Brexit, we can’t see this situation improving anytime soon.”
Hazel Williams of The No Accommodation Network, a group of organisations working to prevent destitution among asylum seekers, notes a similar rise.
"The problem with people who've been refused asylum is that they live underground, so the data for those levels of homelessness is much more tricky to estimate," she says. "However if you speak to any of our members, they'll say that they've seen an increase."
Faraj left Syria to flee his conservative Muslim family, who didn't agree with his sexuality. He almost died on the way to Europe after smuggling himself onto a lorry at Dunkirk that turned out to be a refrigeration truck. He was one of only two asylum seekers aboard who survived.
Faraj was granted refugee status after four months – a relatively fast turnaround – but his ordeal wasn't over. “[The Home Office] said I had to move out in a few days,” he explains. “I said I had nowhere to go, I wasn't able to speak English and I had no money. They told me to go and work, but how could I if I had no CV, or skills or language? They said, ‘This is your problem, not ours.’”
Faraj ended up on the streets again. “Being homeless is such an awful thing. If you want to look for a job, they ask for your home address, and I didn't have one. So they think you're probably taking drugs, or are a bad person, and say they cannot trust you. I looked dirty and couldn't shower, I was far from home and from my mum. When I thought about it, all I could do was collapse.”
This desperate situation was caused by a flaw in the government's support system. When a person acquires refugee status, they have just 28 days to find a new place to live, a job or access to benefits. However, this decision is usually communicated via post, meaning that the time frame can be considerably shorter if there are delays. The ban on asylum seekers working and the £37.75 per week they are given to live on makes it impossible to save up for a deposit or afford basic necessities. Claims for Universal Credit also take 35 days to be processed, leaving a gap during which no help is available at all.
"Since Universal Credit came in, people experience enforced homelessness and destitution for at least one week,” says Williams. “Everyone knows Universal Credit is complicated, so even if you have the best English and understand how it works, you're still going to be homeless for a week, generally a lot longer.”
After sleeping rough for two weeks, Faraj found a hostel for people with substance abuse and mental health issues, but they agreed to let him stay free of charge for a year. However one resident tried to kill him by hitting him on the head, and another attacked him with a fire extinguisher.
It's only since Refugees at Home found Faraj a place to stay with a family in Cambridge that he’s had a stable place to call home. He has been living with them for the last three years, studying to be a professional chef while taking English and Spanish lessons.
Faraj and thousands of other asylum seekers like him flee places where their sexuality or gender identity is criminalised, only to arrive in Britain – a country that prides itself on progressive LGBTQ+ legislation – and find themselves at the mercy of administrative criminalisation and even detention. But as Gay sadly points out: “If you're running for your life, you don't have a lot of choice.”
UPDATE 27/09/19: An earlier version of this article stated that the UK had 18 safe beds for LGBTQ+ asylum seekers. This figure was a misunderstanding from Micro Rainbow. The article has now been corrected.