LGBT migrants fear disclosing sexuality

 

LGBT asylum seekers fleeing persecution risk being turned back by denying their sexuality

IT’S A bureaucratic loop worthy of Kafka. Seeking asylum on basis of sexual orientation requires applicants to “out themselves” while in the process of fleeing homophobic persecution.

Many refugees are too fearful to disclose their sexual identity in the initial screening process when they could just as easily be forced back home if their case is refused. And yet this reluctance to disclose the basis of their claim is commonly cited by immigration authorities as a reason to doubt the asylum seeker’s credibility.

While “political asylum” is the generic term that covers asylum sought on the basis of nationality, race or religion, the term also covers claims made on the basis of membership of a particular social group, which has latterly been interpreted to cover sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service does not provide figures for the number of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) refugees seeking asylum here.

Youth organisation BelongTo, which works with LGBT people, says it has been dealing with a string of cases involving young people fleeing homophobic persecution in Africa and the Middle East. It will today formally launch a pilot project aimed at giving asylum service providers in Dublin and Meath the skills to deal with LGBT refugees.

The two-year programme, funded by the European Refugee Fund, the Health Service Executive, the Department of Justice and the community group Pobail, will also fund a support service for LGBT migrants.

BelongTo director Michael Barron said LGBT refugees were not afforded the protection of the State’s equality legislation and were often unaware that they could claim asylum on the basis of their sexual orientation. Many refugees came from countries where homosexuality was illegal or taboo and where admitting one’s sexuality was not only dangerous but “an alien concept”, he said. As a result of what he called “internalised homophobia”, it was common for LGBT refugees not to disclose the nature of their claim until later in the asylum process when they were more confident, which often counted against them.

The landmark Fleeing Homophobia study, published last year, found there were considerable differences in how European member states evaluated LGBT asylum claims.

It singled out several EU countries, including Ireland, where it said LGBT refugees were being turned back on the basis of “discretion” or “reasonable tolerability” tests. In other words, while the host country acknowledged that the LGBT individual was at risk of persecution in his or her own country, that could be avoided if they were “discreet” or if they concealed their sexuality.

In a significant ruling in 2010, the UK’s supreme court ruled it was wrong for its immigration authority to apply these tests, as asking individuals to hide their sexuality represented a fundamental infringement of their basic rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.

The case had been taken by two men, from Cameroon and Iran, who had initially been refused asylum in the UK on the grounds of their homosexuality.

According to the head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees Ireland, Sophie McGuinness, the UK ruling has convinced authorities here it is no longer appropriate to apply the “discretion” test to LGBT asylum claims. A person cannot be expected by the State to conceal their sexual identity in order to avoid persecution, she said.

The commission is updating guidelines for decision makers dealing with LGBT claims in response to what gay rights groups have described as an upsurge in homophobic persecution in parts of the world.

Last December, a Malaysian man living in Dublin sparked a controversy in his home country when pictures of him attending a civil partnership ceremony in Dublin with his gay partner were posted on the internet. At the time, several Muslim groups called for the man to be brought home and prosecuted under the country’s Islamic laws, which prohibit homosexuality.

CASE STUDY: 'I HAVE BEEN HIT, SPAT ON AND BULLIED'

Steven (not his real name) does not want to reveal his nationality, age or where he is working, so fearful is he of being identified. He came to Ireland from sub-Saharan Africa in September 2010 and applied for asylum on the grounds of his sexual orientation.

Homosexuality is a criminal offence in his home country, punishable with jail terms of up to 14 years.

Although he never admitted his sexuality to anyone before coming to Ireland, Steven says he was singled out as “different” from an early age.

“I have been hit, spat on and bullied. If you try to say something about it you run the risk of having more people turn on you, so you just keep quiet about it.

“Homosexuality is a taboo subject in my country. For many people, it’s equated to prostitution.”

Being openly gay is simply not an option, he says. “I would not only put myself in danger but also my family. People regularly take the law into their own hands and attack gay people.”

He says he initially blamed himself for not being what he calls “normal” and has tried to kill himself. “There was absolutely no one I could talk to.”

“Coming out” for the first time in Ireland after suffering so much prejudice, in tandem with trying to navigate a tricky asylum process, has exacted an emotional toll on Steven.

He has not told his parents the circumstances under which he applied for asylum in Ireland. He is afraid that if he returns home someone will expose him.

“The only thing that is separating me from my family is my sexuality.

“The difference between homophobia here and where I come from is that you can’t stand up to it back home, no matter how powerful you are.

“It’s different here: if somebody calls me ‘faggot’, I feel I can stand up for myself because the law is on my side.”

Steven was granted refugee status in Ireland on the grounds of his sexual orientation late last year.