Between July of 2015 and March of 2017, there were 3,535 requests for asylum filed by LGBTQ seekers – only 838 of which were accepted. This translates to an acceptance rate of just 31 percent, much lower than the 56 percent of more general asylum claims accepted last year.
Not all of these claims were filed on the basis of sexual orientation; we only know these "experimental" statistics because PinkNews filed a Freedom of Information (FOI) request. They wanted more transparency from the Home Office; they wanted to know how many claims were made, where the claimants came from and how many were rejected – but even these questions took 13 months to answer. More recent statistics have since been published, but their introduction still explains that they should be "interpreted with caution".
Then there's the actual process itself, recently slammed by Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable as "humiliating" and "Dickensian". Much has been written in the past about the Home Office's "culture of disbelief", which has previously resulted in interviewees being expected to whip out dick pics and Grindr screenshots to "prove" their sexuality. Women have even been told that they can't possibly be lesbians because they have kids.
The government has promised that things will improve, but a recent report – Still Falling Short, compiled by the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group (UKLGIG) – shows that questioning was still inappropriate in one of ten cases. Interviewers still expect claimants to "prove" their sexuality, which is difficult to do in any tangible way. It doesn't help that we live in a culture which stereotypes LGBTQ identities so intensely, solidifying the myth that there's any one way to be "gay enough" to pass the test.
"LGBTQ+ people who are seeking asylum face multiple layers of discrimination," explains Leila Zadeh, the UKLGIG's Executive Director. "They are often marginalised by people from their diaspora communities because of their sexuality or gender, but also within LGBTQ+ communities because of racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia. Many have also been rejected by their families."
Plenty of people internalise this discrimination or stifle their sexuality out of fear, which can make it understandably difficult for them to open up in asylum interviews. "These people have to show the Home Office that they're LGBTQ+, but a lot of people have never spoken openly about it. It's extremely hard to start doing so all of a sudden, [especially] to a stranger who is going to decide your fate," says Zadeh, citing the Still Falling Short report as proof that the standard of "evidence" needed is still too high. Stereotypes are also relied on frequently by interviewers, and spontaneous pop quizzes can be weaponised against interviewees. The research cites one interview in which a respondent said the "T" in LGBT stood for "trans". The correct answer, according to the interviewer, was "transgender". Their request was denied.
In his aforementioned speech, Cable also underlines that almost a third of cases are overturned on appeal, which he chalks up to "poor decision-making". These mistakes make a difference; seekers looking to appeal can be held for longer periods of time in detention centres, where Zadeh explains that they're vulnerable to harassment and abuse by staff. This abuse is highlighted in another report – No Safe Refuge, in partnership with Stonewall – which makes for harrowing reading.
But what about the people behind the stories? Well, we don’t know. Many people approached by VICE refused to be quoted even anonymously for fear of repercussion, while some charities struggled to facilitate interviews as they were understaffed and overstretched.
One interviewee who did open up was Kaira, an intersex asylum seeker speaking out publicly to support All Out's joint campaign with Micro Rainbow International (MRI). They fled El Salvador in fear that they were at high risk of sexual violence, but once they were granted asylum in the UK they were placed in a hostile home for male seekers due to the "male" marker on their passport. "I had high hopes for my new life in the UK, but when I did get here I experienced even more violence and fear," they recall. "I was bullied, sexually abused and attacked – and I don’t want other people to go through what I had to go through, which is why I decided to tell my story for the campaign."
MRI rehoused Kaira in LGBTQ-specific accommodation, which has sheltered them from sexual violence over the last few years.
Other headline-worthy cases tend to expose key flaws in the official advice given by the Home Office. Deportees have been told to "act straight" in countries which literally persecute their existence by law, and 43-year-old Adeniyi Raji made headlines this year for publicly revealing that he was facing deportation from the UK. He fled his home country of Nigeria after being beaten severely on numerous occasions, fired for being gay and threatened with imprisonment. Activist Bisi Alimi, himself a Nigerian asylum seeker now settled in the UK, summarised: "In Nigeria, people put a tyre around your neck and burn you, and no one cares; or beat you until you die, and no one cares. The Home Office doesn't believe in the impact of threats from non-state actors."
Even after being placed in accommodation, trans and intersex asylum seekers in particular often tell stories of sexual violence not dissimilar to Kaira's. A recent investigation found that LGBTQ asylum seekers were being pushed into shared rooms with little thought for their safety. "We have seen people who have been sexually assaulted by their housemates, and where the accommodation provider has failed to take appropriate action," Zadeh corroborates. "We've also heard from people who've tried to hide their sexuality but been outed when housemates opened their letters."
This is arguably the most commonly discussed topic when it comes to LGBTQ asylum seekers, but only because the details are horrifying and, therefore, headline-grabbing. The self-confessed inaccuracy of government statistics seems to indicate that these people aren’t a priority, whereas the relatively high success rates of appeal indicates that there’s a need to iron out creases in the application process and eradicate the current "culture of disbelief" which forces already vulnerable people into humiliating or violent situations.
Queer people are being persecuted in around 70 countries worldwide, including the UK, where – despite being supposedly one of the world’s most progressive societies – we're currently riding a wave of intense transphobia fuelled by mainstream media. Telling LGBTQ asylum seekers to "act straight" isn’t a solution, nor is asking them to dive deep into their Grindr archives to "prove" their sexuality.
Zadeh argues that there needs to be more visibility: "We need to invite LGBTQ refugees to speak at events about the issues they face on the way to achieving protection, and [we need] people with large platforms to use them and talk about these issues." All of this could facilitate more transparency and help us pinpoint exactly what's going wrong with the asylum process. After all, these people are already fleeing death, violence and persecution; the least we could do is give them a fair chance at safety in the UK without re-traumatising them along the way.