Ahead of World Refugee Day on 20 June, DIVA meets two women who’ve had to navigate a “rigged” asylum system 

BY PHILIP BALDWIN

LGBTQI+ asylum claimants face unprecedented challenges in the UK, with the current government stepping up rhetoric criticising asylum claimants and migrants. 

In this piece for DIVA, I look at two case studies – a trans woman and a lesbian – who have both struggled with the UK’s asylum process. Remember this experience is within the existing asylum framework which is about to be overhauled dramatically for the worse. The proposed Sovereign Borders Bill will tear the asylum system (and the lives of those applying for asylum) apart, creating even greater challenges in a system which was already unfairly rigged against refugees.

“IT IS NOT ACCEPTABLE IN INDIAN SOCIETY TO BE TRANS”

Nisha is a trans woman from India, who after a five-year struggle was finally granted leave to remain in the UK in 2019. Nisha recounts how, although “it is not acceptable in Indian society to be trans”, she still came out to her parents when she was 14. Her parents reaction is heartbreaking. They locked her up, refused to let her leave the house and subjected her to “conversion therapy”.

Nisha was able to escape to the UK, where she studied for a Master’s degree. It was at this point that she started her transition. However, it was only once her student visa expired that Nisha realised she would have to claim asylum. The Home Office detained her for being in breach of her visa, which came as a complete shock.

Interestingly, and this is the experience of many LGBTQI+ asylum claimants, it was only after being detained that Nisha learned it was possible to claim asylum in the UK on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity. Most asylum claimants have no idea how the asylum process works or the protections they are entitled to, which is the exact opposite of how they are often portrayed to the public – as trying to “game” the asylum system. She had received threats of violence and would not be able to access the medical care she needed for her transition, so returning to India was never an option.

Released from detention, Nisha spent two years sleeping on a friend’s sofa, while her initial asylum claim and appeal were processed. Nisha did have friends to support her, but they did not know she was trans and she was forced to conceal this while living with them: “I had to revert back to where I was. I couldn’t work. I had to hide my identity, because my friends who are helping, if they knew my trans identity, they would not help me.”

Nisha had to conceal her gender identity from the people she was living with, while simultaneously trying to prove her real gender identity to the Home Office. She was made to live a double life – at her friend’s she had to present as a cisgender man, but Home Office officials had to know she was a trans woman if her asylum claim was to succeed. This is something many LGBTQI+ people can relate to, most having to conceal an aspect of their identity at some point in a heteronormative world, but Nisha’s experience could tear anyone’s sense of self-belief apart.

The appeal failed and, after two years, she was once again in a detention centre. Nisha, like many other trans women, was detained in a male detention facility. The Home Office showed complete disregard for her correct gender identity. Nisha encountered violence and sexual harassment:“I did not have a shower for the first week because it was an open shower. So someone could see me. I was on hormones before I was detained… So it was not good for me to expose myself. I had to hide.”

Nisha’s gender identity was recognised by the Home Office, she was released from detention, but there were further complications in her asylum claim. It was another three years before Nisha was granted discretionary leave to remain.

“THEY TOOK MY FREEDOM”

Karima, a lesbian asylum claimant from Morocco, encountered many of the same challenges as Nisha. Karima explains that, in Morocco, a same-sex relationship is “not just forbidden – it is a shame.”

Karima had to hide her sexual orientation, presenting multiple facades. “For years and years and years, I had to hide and I had to live as two or three personalities at the same time; with my family or with my colleagues and then with my girlfriend.”

Once Karima reached the UK, she describes how the Home Office “took her freedom” by placing her in a detention centre. “When we went to Yarl’s Wood at night time, it was scary. It is in the woods. It isn’t an urban zone. It was just a big building, with big doors and loads of security. It was horrible… it was just horrible.”

Like Nisha, Karima did not feel safe in detention, with the threat of violence and harassment ever-present. She says: “Male staff entering the room unannounced or searching female detainees. Many female detainees feel highly uncomfortable in this environment. There is no privacy.”

Karima started to experience mental health problems and stopped eating – she lost 6kg in detention over 22 days. During subsequent meetings with Home Office officials, Karima’s interpreter kept referring to her girlfriend as her boyfriend, which undermined not just her asylum claim but also her sense of identity.

Both Nisha and Karima navigated an already complex and unfair asylum process. How would they fare under the proposals made by the government this year?

The Sovereign Borders Bill may allow the government to force asylum claimants to live in large reception centres abroad, rather than in the UK. Nisha had an existing friendship network, which was very important to her. Nisha and Karima could potentially have been removed from the UK and further isolated because of the location, unable to access services or community support. When not held in detention, Nisha was able to access medical treatment for her transition – this would be unavailable to her under the new proposals.

FORCED BACK IN THE CLOSET

Nisha describes being fearful of revealing her gender identity in a detention facility and Karima reflected on the fear she felt as a lesbian in Yarl’s Wood. Held in a reception centre outside of the UK, it is likely that the situation would have been even worse.

It is crucial that LGBTQI+ asylum claimants are not forced back into the closet, just as they are trying to prove their sexual orientation or gender identity to Home Office officials. It is completely counter-intuitive and would result in the Home Office effectively setting up asylum claims based on sexual orientation or gender identify to fail.

The UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group at Pride In London 2019

The government wishes to introduce a fast-track appeals process, yet it is only on appeal that many asylum claims, such as Nisha’s, are successful. This is because it gives the applicant time to gather the relevant evidence. Furthermore, the government want to make it very difficult for an asylum claimant to add new reasons for their asylum claim and most, like Nisha, are initially unaware that they can claim asylum because they are LGBTQI+.

The Sovereign Borders Bill will probably be brought to Parliament this summer. In the meantime we must do everything we can to raise awareness about the changes to the asylum process. Asylum claimants, in particular LGBTQI+ claimants, are in danger. Donate, if you can afford it, write to your MP, or protest – help these vulnerable people.

To learn more about the challenges faced by LBTQI+ asylum claimants, check out Rainbow Migration and Rainbow Sisters at Women For Refugee Women.

Philip Baldwin is a LGBT, HIV and Hep C Awareness Activist. For more information and to follow his journey head to instagram.com/philipcbaldwin or twitter.com/philipcbaldwin.

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