Supporting LGBTQ+ asylum seekers through the UK asylum courts

By Tannith Perry

I am a volunteer with Pride Without Borders (PWB), a support group for LGBTQ+ refugees and people seeking asylum run by Bristol Refugee Rights (BRR). Part of my role is to attend asylum court with our members, both as a witness and to provide emotional support.

The route to gaining asylum in the UK is long and exhausting. It begins with an initial screening interview, where the person’s details, fingerprints, photograph and other physical information are collected. This is followed weeks or months later by the substantive interview, which lasts hours or, occasionally, days. During this interview the person seeking asylum is expected to justify their right to claim asylum and to provide evidence that they meet the qualifications set out by the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees.

This process, difficult for most, is harder for LGBTQ+ applicants since they have spent their whole lives hiding their identity both in their home country and their local community. Asylum claims based on sexuality have a lower acceptance rate (29% in 2018) than claims based on other protected categories (33%), almost certainly due to the difficulty of providing evidence. If the claim is rejected by the Home Office, the case can be appealed to the First-tier Tribunal (Immigration and Asylum Chamber). 

Going to court is incredibly stressful. Home Office barristers are often aggressive and behave in an intimidating manner. I’ve witnessed a Home Office barrister refuse to use the correct pronoun when referring to a transgender man from Uganda and multiple barristers speak to both those seeking asylum and witnesses with condescension and rudeness. Our Bristol Pride Without Borders (PWB) members often report rude and disrespectful attitudes from Home Office staff. During court proceedings questions run from the inane (‘Are you lying?’) to the invasive (‘Why did you have sex if you knew you could get in trouble?’).

Home Office lawyers claim that joining groups such as ours can be explained away as an attempt to work the system. But, simultaneously, they use a lack of joining such groups as evidence of not actually being LGBTQ+. They often grasp at tiny unimportant details. For example, one witness described a group of LGBTQ+ people getting together as a ‘meeting’, while another described it as a ‘hang out’. The Home Officer lawyer jumped on this wording despite both witnesses not being native English speakers and even mentioned it in his summing up of the case as evidence of our member ‘not being credible’.

This kind of focus on minutiae (which is not uncommon) gives the impression that the Home Office is not interested in the truth, but rather in finding any reason possible to deny protection to the person seeking asylum. The fact that 38% of appeals relating to rejected LGBTQ+ asylum applications are accepted after going before a judge gives further evidence of the idea that the Home Office is often incorrect and overzealous in their initial high rate of rejections.

The process is extremely stressful and long, and there are only a handful of groups like PWB in the whole of the UK providing this kind of assistance specifically to LGBTQ+ people seeking asylum. In the past three years 27 people we have supported have been successful in their asylum claim. For 17 of these applications we have had to present evidence in court. So far, every time we have provided evidence in court we have been successful, which indicates how many of the refused applications should have had positive outcomes in the first place.

For the majority of our members, this process takes between a year and three years (though sometimes longer) and has significant impacts on their mental health. Most of our members suffer from depression, anxiety and/or insomnia as they wait, their whole life on hold, unable to work or attend school, to find out whether or not they will be allowed to remain in the UK – allowed to stay safe. But joining our group has for many made a dramatic difference. As one of our members from Pakistan said, ‘Any LGBTQ+ person seeking asylum who needs help should come to this group. PWB helps you mentally, socially, medically and with accommodation. The PWB environment is like a family in which all members are equally important.’

Bristol Refugee Rights is currently running a crowdfunder for Pride Without Borders. To support the campaign please visit this webpage.

Tannith Perry is a writer, dance teacher at Easton Social Dancing and volunteer with Pride Without Borders in Bristol.

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