Asylum Seekers in the UK: How LGBTQ+ refugees ‘prove’ their sexuality
Maria* had been waiting for a long time – and now, she was fearful.
It had been nearly a year since she made her first asylum claim in the UK, forced to flee her homeland of Pakistan after her family discovered she was gay. Desperate for the fresh start she needed to live as her authentic self, Maria was hoping the Home Office would grant her asylum.
But her hopes were dashed when she received the news that her application for asylum based on her sexuality had been rejected – meaning Maria was forced to start the lengthy and often intrusive appeals process.
Now, over 10 months on, she’s still waiting to hear whether she can legally stay in the UK: a place where Maria has been able to live as a freely and openly as a lesbian.
‘I felt totally lost when I saw my application for asylum had been rejected,’ she says. ‘I just found it very hard to process.
‘I just felt so desperate and scared. If I’m sent back to Pakistan, I will die.’
Maria’s story is just one of thousands of similar tales of refugees, who head to UK shores in a hope of a better, freer life without living of fear of persecution due to their sexual preferences. In 2020 alone, there were 1,012 asylum applications lodged in Britain where sexual orientation formed part of the basis for their claim.
While LGBTQ+ asylum seekers looking to leave their country of origin due to their sexuality only represent 3% of all asylum applications in the UK, the acceptance rate is fairly low – more than half of all applications (56%) were denied on this basis in 2020.
A wide-ranging study from the University of Sussex, released in 2020, found a ‘culture of disbelief’ in asylum systems across the UK and Europe, with applicants expected to provide ‘an impossible burden of proof’ of their sexuality.
In response to their paper, researchers are now calling for a ‘major overhaul’ in the way the asylum process treat LGBTQ+ applicants – but for people like Maria, discussion around reform comes too little, too late.
Maria fled Pakistan after a family member caught her in a tryst with another woman, who Maria was in a surreptitious relationship with. At first, Maria tried to reason with her family member, but quickly became a victim of blackmail, with the relative threatening Maria with a forced marriage to a man.
So desperate for her relative to keep her sexuality concealed, Maria even saw her kidney removed and given to her male suitor in a medical procedure she is still having problems with today. Fearing for her life, Maria fled to England after a family friend offered to help her escape.
‘I knew nothing about England,’ Maria says. ‘I didn’t really know what to do when I arrived.
‘All I knew was that in England, you can live freely and openly as a lesbian. No one could interfere with your personal matters. No one can stop you. I felt like I had a right to live like that too.’
However, it wasn’t simply a case of getting off a plane and starting a new life. Maria had to engage with the often arduous and lengthy asylum process, which consists of a screening interview, a Preliminary Information Questionnaire and a longer, thorough asylum interview – which can sometimes take more than four hours to complete.
It was this second interview that Maria found particularly troubling.
‘It was as if the Home Office had forgotten everything I’d told them from the first interview,’ she says. ‘My interviewer was obsessed with asking me whether I was a lesbian and whether I was living as an open lesbian. I had more than 300 questions, and I would say around 250 questions were about my sexuality. I repeated myself time and time again saying I wanted to live as an open lesbian.’
This type of rigorous and repetitive questioning is not unusual, says Joel Reiss, a solicitor at Latitude Law that specialises in immigration and asylum claims.
‘Your second interview can occur six to 12 months after you first claim asylum, due to delays in the process,’ he explains. ‘This interview runs for hundreds of questions and forms the core of what is that person’s asylum claim.
‘In basic terms, what anyone claiming asylum has to prove is that they are the sexuality they are claiming to be and that being that sexuality, or being perceived to be that sexuality, will lead to persecution from the country they are from.’
However, there are flaws in using interviews as the foundations for someone’s asylum case. While there are interpreters on hand to help translate questions for people who don’t have a solid grasp of English, Reiss argues it can be difficult for someone to express intangible feelings adequately to an interviewer.
‘With some clients, it’s almost as if they don’t have the language to express something,’ he says. ‘What we see in these interviews is some terms that we would implicitly understand in the English language don’t translate as well or as effectively. You sometimes get a literal translation of a phrase, which in English would be very nuanced and have a lot of subtext. It might be translated to a language, which then loses all meaning, and then the answer you get is nonsensical.
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‘We’ve also had occasions where the claimant doesn’t understand their interpreter. For example, someone may be from Pakistan and speak Urdu, and so they’re given an Urdu interpreter, but the interpreter speaks a different dialect, which can lead to disconnects in speech.
‘It can be a very intimidating environment for refugees, as they often want to be helpful and get their story across. They don’t want to make a fuss by saying they don’t understand the interpreter they’ve been given. We’ve had refugees come to us after their interview and say they didn’t really understand but they didn’t want to upset the interviewer so they carry on and hope for the best.’
It’s not just language barriers that can lead to difficulties in the asylum process, with cultural differences sometimes leading to legitimate claims being rejected.
Yew Fook Sam, from Malaysia, was forced to flee the country when his family found out he was gay – something still considered an offence and can be punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Fearing for his well-being, he came to the UK on a tourist visa in 2005, travelling around the country and working in Chinese restaurants.
After he was arrested in 2016, Sam claimed asylum – but a judge rejected his claim as Sam had not had a partner after more than 10 years in the UK, warning Sam’s supporters that they had been ‘duped’.
‘I was so upset to be told that I was lying about being gay,’ Sam explains. ‘I told the judge that I’m 67, I don’t need sex.’
Sam’s Christian beliefs, poor health and meagre finances also make it difficult for him to date, he says.
‘I’d want to date someone from my culture, but it’s tough,’ Sam says. ‘I also rely on food banks – I couldn’t afford to go for a drink.
‘If I was straight and I hadn’t had a partner for 10 years, no one would question my sexuality. More should be done to listen to people who are gay but just don’t have a partner.’
Thanks to huge support from numerous LGBTQ+ support groups, hundreds of photos of Sam at Pride events across the country, and a change.org petition that gathered nearly 5,000 signatures, Sam was granted leave to remain in the UK for five years – something Sam is thankful for.
‘If you don’t have a gay partner, you’re forced to do an awful lot more to prove you’re gay,’ he says. ‘You need optics. You need support from charities for gay people to have a chance.’
Reiss agrees that a substantial amount of evidence is necessary for claims to be approved.
‘Frankly, it’s impossible to “prove” your sexuality,’ he says. ‘Effectively, it all depends on how consistent your story is. If there’s inconsistencies, no amount of photos of you at Pride events will make a difference.
‘Photos generally are given very little weight. I’m a straight man, I could go to a Pride event and put on a rainbow T-shirt and stand next to the LGBTQ community and take some selfies, doesn’t therefore mean I’m gay. It doesn’t change anything.’
Instead, Reiss believes an emphasis on sexual partners and intimacy is what carries the most gravitas in an asylum claim.
‘Having a British partner is really strong, credible evidence because they don’t have any reason to lie,’ he says. ‘There’s more focus on sexuality and how it relates to sexual activity, which isn’t without its problems.’
Of course, asking anyone about their bedroom activity, let alone a refugee looking for somewhere safe to live, can be perceived as indelicate.
Jason was left less than impressed during his second asylum interview, when questions turned towards his intimate life.
Having grown up in Trinidad and Tobago, where LGBTQ+ relationships were previously illegal, Jason chose to leave his home country after intense scrutiny was placed on the gay community. After his parents, and grandparents, who had taught Jason to be open-minded and tolerable in his youth, sadly passed away, Jason chose to flee to the UK in 2014 – a country he opted for as he had previously planned to visit Wales with his grandfather before he died.
‘I have such love for my country embedded in my DNA,’ Jason, now 54, explains. ‘But also I felt as if I’d outgrown my life there. The humanist in me believes everyone should live freely, and I wanted to go somewhere where I could do that.’
But Jason’s romanticised ideals of Britain were quickly quashed while going through the asylum system, where he was forced to answer questions he found ‘undignified’.
‘The audacity of some of the questions she asked me,’ he recalls. ‘Her tone was very distasteful, as if she’d caught me sneaking into her backyard and stealing her gas cooker.
‘She asked me how I had sex with my partner. She asked me if I used dating sites or sex video sites. She asked if I had videos of myself having sex with men.
‘There was no humanity in it. She just went straight for the jugular.’
Thoroughly annoyed by this line of questioning, Jason had a curt response for his interviewer.
‘I said to her: “Did my mother give birth to a dog? Because why are you talking to me like I’m a dog?”’ he says. ‘I was very combative because I felt I was being targeted and the questions weren’t about me, or what I’d been through to get to the stage of claiming asylum in a country to start another life.
All they saw is a commodity of someone you need to pass or fail, almost like an exam
‘If you need to ask me the questions, ask me the questions as a humanist. If you have not experienced our pain and suffering, you can’t sit down and question us without having empathy. It’s like they weren’t seeing me. All they saw is a commodity of someone you need to pass or fail, almost like an exam.’
Reiss argues that to some extent, some sort of probing questions are necessary in order to assess whether someone is genuinely from the LGBTQ+ community – although Reiss does add the number of people who try and lie about their genuine sexuality are ‘vanishingly small’.
‘Ultimately, if you make a claim for asylum based on your sexuality, you are going to be asked about your sexuality,’ Reiss says. ‘But there certainly needs to be a sensitivity when asking these questions.
‘But there can be an issue on how narratives are structured. There has to be acknowledgement that the process of understanding your sexuality and what that looks like for each person is subjective. People don’t usually have a lightbulb moment when they realise they’re gay.
‘I think the bigger problem comes from how the Home Office considers the applications and expecting people to generate evidence they may not entirely be comfortable with.’
Joel found this element of the asylum process difficult when he arrived from Nigeria. After staging the country’s first ever Gay Pride event in 2019 – a brave feat, as homosexuality is punishable by 14 years in prison – he flew to the UK after a friend tipped him off that he was now a ‘person of interest’ to the government.
Having been to Pride events in the UK before, Joel saw the country as a ‘second home’, before adding that flights to Heathrow were the only ones he could afford before leaving Nigeria in a hurry.
While he found staying in a detention centre difficult, Joel found some of the questions he had in his second interview borderline offensive.
‘The person interviewing me was gracious for the most part, but there were some questions that he asked without being kind or thoughtful or empathetic,’ he explains.
‘It was just painful, asking questions like, “when did you know”, “what was your first experience like.” It was just hard. You don’t get to tell them the truth about being LGBT. You have to meet certain criteria.
‘It was a deeply uncomfortable thing to go through, particularly as it went on for several hours.’
Joel also found himself trying to negotiate the balance of not being, for lack of a better term, ‘too gay’, and actively tried to lean away from tropes or stereotypes in his interview.
‘It’s really difficult,’ he says. ‘You hear these stories of the Home Office where people get their asylum rejected because they’re not considered “gay enough”. But even when I was at the interview, I toned down who I was. I wore a suit and I adopted a “straight” persona because you can be seen as trying too hard to prove your sexuality. The man who interviewed me said that people wear pink to interviews to try and be believed more.’
Reiss agrees it can be a difficult line to navigate for claimants.
‘In that regard, the Home Office have their cake and eat it,’ he explains. ‘If you don’t “look” gay, interviewers may say: “Well, you don’t present as a gay man so what’s the risk? We don’t accept you are gay as claimed.”
‘But then on the flip side, a drag queen, for example, could be told: “We don’t believe this is a genuine reflection of your day to day life.” It’s really tricky.
‘What we try and do is make each case very personal. We always tell someone to wear what they want to be comfortable in because the interview is going to be stressful. If you’re comfortable in bright colours and rainbows, then wear them.’
Having been through the asylum system with varying degrees of success, both Jason and Joel believe more could be done to make the process fairer for LGBTQ+ refugees.
As someone who worked in social care in Trinidad and Tobago, Jason calls for there to be more training for people in the Home Office to express more compassion for people seeking asylum.
‘It’s just a lack of empathy that’s missing big time,’ he says. ‘Claiming anything is difficult. But if you begin the conversation rough, it will end rough. It should be mandatory for all interviewers to be trained in compassion and inclusiveness.’
Meanwhile, Joel believes having people from the LGBTQ+ community interviewing gay asylum seekers would make the process much less damaging for claimants.
‘You can never train a straight person enough to understand a queer person’s experience,’ he says. ‘The fact it was a straight person asking how I knew I was gay just created a wall of division, which led to me feeling uncomfortable about some of the questions.
‘You’re a straight person, how can you know what it’s like to be LGBT?’
For now, the asylum seekers that have been given leave to remain are enjoying the freedoms to be themselves that the UK.
‘Life here is tough,’ Joel admits. ‘But it’s reassuring that there’s hope and there’s a reason to strive on. We are free to live openly – I am lucky to do that.’
When contacted by Metro.co.uk, a spokesperson for the Home Office said: ‘The UK has a proud record of providing protection to asylum seekers fleeing persecution including individuals who are LGBTQ+.
‘Our caseworkers are extensively trained in interviewing and considering issues raised in claims based on sexual orientation or gender. All cases are considered on their individual merits.’
*Names have been changed.
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