A new report titled No Safe Refuge explores the experiences of LGBT asylum seekers inside the UK’s detention and asylum processing system. It calls for the Home Office to end the use detention of LGBT asylum seekers and in the short term implement more robust training and education to avoid further harassment and abuse for those currently seeking refuge in the UK.
Stonewall, the “leading charity for lesbian, gay, bi and trans equality” and the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group (UKLGIG), a charity that promotes equality and dignity for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) people who seek asylum in the UK, investigated the experience of people seeking asylum driven by persecution for their sexual orientation or gender identity.
It is based on 22 in-depth interviews with those held in detention while their claims are processed. Participants originate from 11 different countries in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean as well as Russia. The duration of their detention varied from 3 days to 18 months. While there have been numerous calls for a legal time limit, the UK is alone in detaining people indefinitely in Immigration Removal Centers (IRCs) – a process described by the High Court as ‘systematically unfair and unlawful’ in July 2015.
Interviewees who took part in the research have faced severe discrimination and violence in their country of origin, leading them to claim asylum in the UK. The report explores their experiences through seven sections – beginning with their home country; seeking asylum and being detained; their relationship with other detainees; experience of detention centre staff; mental and physical health in detention; having their identity and orientation put on trial and their experiences post-detention.
The findings bring into sharp focus the failings of the Home Office to live up to its stated standards. Many of the asylum seekers have suffered rape and torture yet remain in detention in the UK, despite Home Office assurances that detention will not be used for people who have suffered such abuse.
Dembe, a Ugandan asylum seeker was retraumatized during detention and told interviewers:
“I am having very difficult moments. I get flashbacks of exactly what happened in Uganda. I get bad nightmares. When I was in detention I even heard voices of this man that raped me who would try to tell me I am worthless. I have tried twice to take an overdose when I was at detention because I couldn’t take it anymore. The voice of this man would drive me mad.”
Gasha from Cameroon said:
“I got flashbacks of everything I’ve been through in Africa. I’ve been free for two or three years and then here I am back in a cell.”
Interviewees reported being denied access to medication, including anti-depressants and HIV drugs as well as feeling forced to hide their identity because staff were ill-equipped to protect them from harassment and abuse from fellow detainees.
One trans interviewee described her experience of being placed in multiple male detention centers, despite making clear to staff she identifies as a woman. The lack of private changing facilities and showers as well as having to share bedrooms made detainees vulnerable to abuse and threats of violence.
Maiba, a trans man from Zimbabwe recalls comments from an officer while on the way to the airport to be forcibly removed: “We’re here to protect you and when we go to Zimbabwe we don’t want you to draw attention to yourself. So we’re going to stop over in Kenya and we can maybe buy you some appropriate clothes in the airport before we leave for Zimbabwe. Maybe we can lose the boxers.”
Maiba then said to him: “Do you know that this actually shows how corrupt your system is? You’ve just met me and you know that you can’t take me where you’re trying to take me while I am who I am. You’re trying to change me so that I don’t have difficulties!”
Director of Campaigns, Policy and Research at Stonewall, Paul Twocock reflected on the report:
“Firstly, we are calling on the Home Office to ensure all staff are trained in identifying and tackling homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. Many of the detainees we spoke to said they felt staff failed to protect them from discriminatory abuse. LGBT detainees were also reluctant to talk to staff about problems they were experiencing, and some heard inappropriate remarks and behavior from staff based on their sexual orientation or gender identity… The Home Office must [also] ensure that all private firms contracted to run detention centers provide robust training, and have a zero-tolerance approach to discrimination and abuse. Solitary confinement is also a totally inappropriate way of ensuring the safety and protection of LGBT people, and this should be stopped immediately.”
Executive Director of UKLGIG, Paul Dillane, said:
“Our research finds that LGBT asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable in immigration detention… they experience discrimination, harassment and violence from other detainees and from members of staff. The detention environment has serious long-term effects on their mental and physical well-being.”
Miremba, a Ugandan asylum seeker perfectly critiqued the use of detention for asylum seekers:
“It felt like I was betrayed because if somebody seeks asylum, they’re just trying to get some protection, but then you’re detaining them. It’s like you’re putting them in prison for having come to you for help. It didn’t make sense to me.”
The report is powerful for its centering of asylum seekers’ voices, giving space to their experiences while reflecting on detention in the UK more broadly. Their stories bridge the gap between detention center and the reader, something that has been such a hindrance to understanding in the past. As Chief Executive of Stonewall, Ruth Hunt notes:
“To create this report we had to rely on the bravery of individuals who were willing to speak out and we are eternally grateful to them. They have shown true courage in sharing with us what are clearly upsetting memories and experiences in the hope that it will create change.”
The full report can be read here.
Image: Simon Blackley