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Migration, refugees: what forms of solidarity ?

in UNITED KINGDOM, 13/08/2013

Eurolesbopride, 19 July, Marseille 2013-08-13

Text presented by Erin Power, UK Lesbian & Gay Immigration Group


I would like to thank the organisers of this forum for providing an opportunity for us to discuss with other lesbians the challenges we constantly face in working with lesbians seeking asylum in the UK.

Our first challenge was in reaching lesbians and I can share what we did to address that. As that does not really promote discussion, I would much rather talk about the other issues with which we have problems and that we would like the opportunity to discuss with other women.

Other challenges
To get asylum in the UK you must:

• Prove you are LGBT or I

• Prove that your country is dangerous

• Prove that you will not be safe anywhere else in your country – as though some part of a country with a homophobic regime is going to be an enclave offering basic human rights to LGBTI people.

Proving persecution in your home country can be difficult but proving your identity is the primary hurdle and the grounds on which most LGBTI asylum seekers are refused.

How do you prove your sexual or gender identity? The short answer is that you can’t.

You could present evidence of sexual relations, like our client who managed to jam the Home Office’s fax machine he sent so many photos of himself having sex – but anyone can have sex with someone of the same gender.

You can use the evidence of those who know you – but they could be lying for you.

You can use medical evidence of torture, for example, but as I heard a judge say to a woman who had had bleach poured over her by police because she obviously wanted to be white, her scarring could be self-inflicted.

Many of our clients have married because of family pressure, making them far less able to fit the narrow and rigid box we – the government, the Home Office, the courts – create that defines a “genuine” LGBTI asylum seeker.

Ultimately, it comes down to credibility – is your story one that I can believe?

In our work we constantly struggle with, and have many lengthy, wine fuelled discussions about the damage done by being forced into a sexual or gender identity at all, let alone the narrow and limited view of what that is, that is imposed on our clients.

There is no room in the law, the courts or government policy for the complexity that is LGBTI identity.

The definition of sexual and gender identity used to assess how genuine an asylum seeker is, is only marginally more subtle than the oft-quoted Home Office case worker’s idea that all gay asylum applicants will have read Oscar Wilde or the reference to gay men as lovers of Kylie and colourful cocktails used in jest by a judge in the landmark Supreme Court ruling.

If we insist on such a restricted view of identity, we have no choice but to agree with the African leaders who regularly refer to homosexuality as an imported Western disease.

We have a young African client who is well educated and from a middle class and comfortable background. She was married by her family in her late teens to a man of social and political influence. She has a child. In her home country she met a lesbian tourist and had a brief infatuation.

Her husband regularly beat her and raped her. It became so serious that her mother decided to pay an agent to get her and her child out of the country. When it came time to leave the agent refused to take the child so she left him with her mother. Her husband has since taken the boy and refuses to allow her family any contact with him.

The agent took her first to Denmark where he raped her repeatedly and sold her for sex. Travelling across Europe she was passed from agent to agent who all raped her and sold her. When she arrived in the UK, she was arrested for entering with false papers and sent to prison. In prison she was surrounded by lesbians and knew for the first time a sense of understanding and belonging. Sadly, she says that the safest she has ever felt in her life was in a UK prison.

In appearance, she is indistinguishable from any pretty, young, straight woman. How does she prove her sexual identity?

We worked with a Muslim couple for nearly two years before one of them accepted that to get asylum she would have to admit to her nine year relationship with a woman and her lack of desire to be in any other kind of relationship. That’s about as round-about as you can get about saying I’m lesbian, nonetheless, that admission resulted in a breakdown that had her admitted to a psychiatric ward and released on heavy medication.

To ease our guilt, and we do feel the responsibility of encouraging our clients into the law and policy box of LGBTI identity, she said the only good thing in her life is the Babel project.

The Babel project is part of what we have done to oppose the identity constraints imposed on LGBTI asylum seekers.

For a long time we have provided social support to those we work with, going on trips and having parties and these things are important. Last December, a counsellor for one of our clients told us that the prospect of going on our pre-christmas trip on the London Eye was the only thing that in the preceding week kept this woman from killing herself.

But the first major project we carried out, Staying, convinced us that to offer alternative ways to express sexual or gender identity is a vital part of our work.

Staying is a book, a performance, photos, written stories, pictures and much more based on alternative selves that women expressed in the project. It was called Staying because one of the participants when asked where she was living said “I’m not living, I’m staying in Brixton – I won’t be living until I know if I have been given asylum.”

The artist Oreet Ashery says about the project: “I wanted to facilitate processes whereby the writing and performing of oneself and one’s experiences are freed from the need to ‘prove’ anything, to be true or accurate, to remember dates and details, to account for over and over again gaps that might appear in memory and recalling, in which you are interrogated like a suspected criminal. I wanted the participants to be able to tell their stories and perform their identity in a way that allows for gaps, slippages, repetitions and new structures of embodying and imagining the self. I did not want them to create, perform, speak or write fiction, I wanted them to express themselves and their authentic experiences in new-to-them and performative ways.”

Babel was our second major project carried out in conjunction with The Young Vic theatre. In May 2012, Babel was performed as part of London Stages 2012.

When I asked a couple of the men who were participating in Babel how they were feeling about it, one of them, who incidentally has no evidence that fits the required criteria to prove he’s gay, said to me “It’s fantastic! At Babel I forget who I am.”

Is he forgetting who his country of origin, society, community, family, see him as?

Is he forgetting who the government, the Home Office, the courts, UK society including the LGBTI community see him as?

Is he forgetting who he sees himself as?

Is he for 2 hours a week able to be anyone and anything he momentarily desires to be?

What better definition and expression of identity is possible?

So the questions I would like to raise for those working with asylum seeking lesbians are:

How do we deal with the fact that we only ever see the privileged? Women who are not well-educated or who don’t have money or who don’t have independence, seldom have the opportunity to leave their COI.

Associated with this question is the issue of facing the conflict between activist organisations and people in country, and those who have left.

I would like to discuss the moral issues around “judging” who is genuine. It is a fact that in the UK people are pretending to be lesbian and gay to get asylum.

This raises the associated question of conflict with individuals and organisations in UK that encourage people to tell false stories.

Reaching Lesbian Clients

In 2007 recognising that the majority of our clients were gay men we decided to push lesbian issues in all areas of our work:
• By finding lesbian clients
• By bringing lesbian issues to the Home Office and Immigration Judges

• By including lesbian issues in the country of origin information (COI) reports

• Raising awareness within training packages.

Why did we do this?
Before 2006 Home Office and court refusals generally stated that lesbians were not persecuted in the same way that gay men and therefore not entitled to protection.

If lesbians were not recognised in laws that criminalize ‘homosexuality’ it was deemed that they were not being persecuted by the state.

Lesbians were not believed to be members of a “particular social group” (PSG).

Lesbians were not believed to be “genuine” lesbians (particularly when forced to marry or have children).

Lesbians were told more often that they could be discreet about their sexuality and relocate to a different area of their country.

In June 2011 the courts recognised that all lesbians in Jamaica are at risk – this was a huge step forward recognising gender-based persecution as persecution. It took 6 years between the UK accepting that Jamaica was a dangerous place for gay men and accepting that it is also dangerous for lesbians.

What is specific about lesbian asylum claims?
Things are much more difficult for women, both in the home country, and as asylum seeking women in the UK.

• Gender based persecution - as opposed to penal persecution.

• Double discrimination- accused of not being proper women.

• Rape - sexual violence - to punish or cure.

• Lone women - lack of male companions in macho cultures.

• Health related issues with being raped.

• FGM.

• Emotional issues.

• Forced marriage - forced pregnancy (not believed to be lesbian if married).

• Threat of honour killing.

• Shame and stigma to family if not married.

• Isolation – not having a ‘scene’, cruising areas, clubbing, gaydar, and internet websites.

• Home countries oppression of women more severe. Reasons why fewer lesbians flee. Less mobile, less money from the family, fewer chances of obtaining student or visitors visas

• Often leave children behind.

• Lesbian identities- western concept of what is a lesbian identity. Not being believed in court because is not perceived to be butch, or too femme to be lesbian.

• Western concept of what is a relationship or partnership.

• Less access to money in the UK. No asylum seekers allowed to work but fewer cash jobs available to women.

• Lack of information about lesbians in COI reports. Not acknowledged that lesbians are being persecuted.

• Less positive chances of success than gay men.

What steps were taken to raise visibility?
• It required support of the whole organisation to do this – we are not a lesbian organisation and therefore needed to ensure the gay men understood.

• Finding clients – word of mouth, e.g. we asked clients to spread the word in the Jamaican and Ugandan underground lesbian communities.

• Asked gay clients to bring their women friends, asked existing women clients to bring their friends.

• Spoke to women’s organisations.

• Spoke to refugee support groups.

• Spoke to LGBTI groups.

• In our open meetings we pushed a lesbian agenda.

• We set up lesbian support meetings.

• Our support groups have not been just about asylum.

• Have made them fun, exciting, hopeful, focused on peer support and service user led.

• We have invited a number of speakers to attend the meetings, looking at issues around lesbian health and wellbeing, and reconciling religion and sexuality.

• Arranged trips out, picnics, theatre and film nights.

• Continue to take part in a number of theatre projects but the first in 2009 the ‘Staying’ project was women only.

What is the Staying Project?
• An art project facilitated by the artist Oreet Ashery and arts company Artangel.

• 14 lesbian asylum seekers attended workshops to talk about their experience of being asylum seekers. The women created an alter ego to tell their stories.

• Characters such as Treeman, Bin, Cloud, Rebel With A Cause, Dream, Super Lover and CameraGunMan expressed themselves around issues that related to their sexuality such as immigration, flight, religion, politics and sex.

• The project was a chance for the women to express themselves other than their perceived identities as merely asylum seekers.

• They portrayed their real identities of strong, vibrant women with their own talents and achievements.

• We have used this publication in training and in group work to facilitate discussion around issues that are specific to lesbian asylum seekers.

• The project was a huge success, with a massive launch that brought together the arts world and the refugee world.

• Lesbian asylum seekers were in the media. Covered in national papers and magazines such as The Times, Guardian and Time Out.

• 500 copies of the project book were printed.

• The whole project can be downloaded from www.artangel.org.uk

Other work to raise lesbian profile
In 2010 UKLGIG published a review of treatment of LGBT asylum seekers in the UK called 'Failing the Grade'. Although not entirely about lesbians there is a chapter dedicated to lesbian issues and why lesbians were failing to be granted the right to remain.

Additionally we were also the main contributor to the Stonewall report 'No Going Back'. Again not solely about lesbian asylum seekers but we pushed for lesbian issues to be covered.

• We have managed to raise lesbian visibility within our client base. Client representation is now almost 50-50.

• We have continued with lesbian focused work.

• Input to COI from our lesbian case load experiences.

• Input into Home Office case worker training. Took part in the writing of training, delivery and pilot training to case worker and included a lesbian agenda in the training that is different from a gay man’s perspective.

• More lesbians are winning their cases. It is generally accepted that lesbian persecution comes from society and the state is unable to offer protection. June 2011 lesbian country guidance case (SW Jamaica).



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