Imagine a woman who has fled to Britain after suffering rape, torture, imprisonment and family abuse because she is in a same-sex relationship.
Maybe she comes from Jamaica, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, all of which discriminate and legislate against homosexuality.
What sort of questions do you think immigration officials and judges will ask her when she requests asylum?
How about: “Have you read Oscar Wilde?”
The assumption that if you are gay you must have read the homosexual Anglo-Irish playwright – regardless of your culture, language and age – is breathtakingly inappropriate.
But it doesn’t stop there.
Lesbian asylum seekers interviewed in recent research in Britain also said they were asked to justify why they chose to be gay when they knew it was illegal in their home country. They were asked about sexual positions, how many Gay Pride marches they attended and which gay clubs they went to.
One woman told how the immigration judge commented that she did not look like a lesbian while another was told she could not be a lesbian because she had two children.
Experts in Britain and Canada say decisions regarding someone’s claim to be lesbian or gay often appear to be based on whether they conform to Western stereotypes.
The examples above are outlined in the latest issue of Forced Migration Review (FMR), published this week, which focuses on the problems faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) refugees and asylum seekers.
Some 76 countries criminalise homosexual acts or what is termed gender-variant behaviour. In at least five of these countries the penalty can be death.
Gays and lesbians can also face high levels of persecution and violence in countries with progressive laws. Rights groups in South Africa, which recognises same sex marriage, report 10 cases a week of “corrective rape” targeting lesbians in Cape Town. And Brazil, which hosts the world’s largest Pride Parade, has the highest reported rate of homophobic and transphobic murders.
Many people who claim asylum have never admitted their sexual orientation for fear of abuse, attacks or arrest. To survive, they learn to deny their sexuality – many are married. But after years of secrecy they are suddenly forced to “out” themselves very publicly.
A repeated theme in the new FMR issue is the lack of privacy during meetings with officials and the intrusive questioning about things many of us would not tell our closest friend.
Here’s what Mzlendo, a man from East African, said about his experience of claiming asylum in Canada.
“They call you through a window. They tell you ‘Tell me your story. Why are you making a refugee claim?’ And you’re in earshot of people, some of whom are the very countrymen you are trying to get away from.
“You shout your claim through a bullet-proof glass. It is dehumanising. You are forced to shout before them ‘I want to make a refugee claim because I am a homosexual’.”
FEAR AND ISOLATION
FMR also looks at the myriad challenges faced by LGBTI people who have fled conflicts and other humanitarian crises. Their sexual orientation may not be the main reason for leaving their home, but it can exacerbate the difficulties they face in moving to a new place, accessing help and applying for resettlement to another country.
LGBTI refugees in the Kenyan capital Nairobi – home to 50,000 registered refugees – not only face harassment from the police and locals but also from their own people. A report last year described high levels of anti-LGBTI violence among refugees including beatings, abductions and even an attempt to set a gay Somali boy on fire.
Many LGBTI refugees shun their fellow countrymen, but this can compound their isolation. They may also avoid approaching the U.N. refugee agency or NGOs for help out of fear of having to wait with other refugees. The presence of interpreters from their countries of origin is another reason they stay away.
But there are signs that things are changing. Several articles look at positive steps being taken by refugee organisations working in countries including Kenya, Jordan and Iraq.
Experts say ensuring privacy and confidentiality is crucial – many refugees and asylum seekers may not have shared their sexual orientation with family members, including spouses. Others may fear they will be barred from resettlement.
In Iraq, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has put up “safe space” signs reassuring people they can speak in confidence and without fear of judgment and introduced a hotline last year during an upsurge of anti-LGBTI violence.
The violence also prompted the IOM to step up training for staff at refugee resettlement support centres it administers around the world. For many staff, sexual orientation is an uncomfortable topic both for cultural and religious reasons.
Other measures in Nairobi include providing safe shelters for LGBTI refugees who are at particular risk and setting up programmes for reaching out to LGBTI refugees who might otherwise fall through the net.
FMR also reports encouraging news from South Korea, a relatively conservative country, which recently granted asylum to two gay refugees, suggesting it may be willing to serve in the future as a country of asylum for those suffering persecution due to their sexual orientation.