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Shunned and disbelieved: The threat of the new asylum laws to bi and lesbian women

Women seeking asylum in the UK to escape homophobic communities already face unique obstacles. Now, they might be sent to countries that are patently unsafe. 

March 31 2023, 14.36pm

Growing up in Nigeria, Anu* was raped at the age of 10, a harrowing trauma that would go on to haunt her for decades. Even now, at 40, Anu finds this assault difficult to speak about. 

At 13, Anu began a relationship with another girl in her community. “I didn’t know what that was called, and I didn’t know the word lesbian,” she tells The Lead. “The year we spent together was the happiest time I ever had.”

Seeking asylum in the UK isn’t easy, but for lesbian and bisexual women who have escaped from homophobic cultures, it’s even harder. 

It isn’t certain exactly how many lesbian and bisexual women are currently seeking asylum in the UK, or how many have been granted or refused asylum, as people seeking asylum aren’t required to disclose their sexual orientation unless they’re applying for asylum on that basis. Even though the Home Office now releases ‘experimental statistics’ on LGB claims, the charity Women for Refugee Women says the statistics aren’t as reliable as other stats. In addition, there are no gender breakdowns to see how many lesbian and bisexual women are claiming or being granted/refused asylum. It makes it nearly impossible to evaluate the impact of Home Office policies on lesbian and bisexual women.

“I suppressed my sexuality because some people are homophobic. Even now, most of my friends don’t know I am lesbian because I know how they feel”

Even though official statistics are lacking, anecdotal stories of struggles lesbian and bisexual women face seeking asylum abound.  At Women for Refugee Women, there are 120 lesbian or bisexual members who have said they have and continue to face triple discrimination of racism, sexism, and homophobia from the Home Office, solicitors, and their communities. The culture of disbelief regarding their backgrounds and sexuality is used as a tool to deny their asylum claims. 

Anu remembers the day her mother came home and found the two girls together. “She was so angry,” she says. “She started shouting, calling me an abomination. I felt so exposed. The violence started that day, and it grew.”

Her mother used to beat Anu with a cane, a bat, or anything else she could get her hands on. Then one day, her parents brought home two men who asked Anu to take off her clothes. They grabbed her, held her hands down, and spread her legs to try to circumcise her, nearly killing her. 

Anu’s parents thought the circumcision had taken “the devil out” of her, but nothing changed about her sexuality. It was who she was.

In 2012, Anu was sponsored by her parents to study Business Management in the UK. When Anu refused to return home to Nigeria to marry the man her parents had chosen for her, her parents cut Anu out of their lives, and she was left in the UK without money for rent, food, or school. For two years, she lived on a small amount of money she had managed to save, while sofa-surfing with friends who helped provide her with food and necessities. In 2014, her student visa expired, leaving her completely exposed. But she knew she couldn’t return to Nigeria – she feared for her life.

“I started feeling very self-conscious about my situation,” she says, remembering how she became fearful that people would find out she was a lesbian. “I suppressed my sexuality because some people are homophobic. Even now, most of my friends don’t know I am lesbian because I know how they feel.”

She informed the school of her situation, who later told the Home Office. 

The Home Office found Anu in 2017 while she was sofa-surfing with friends, and immediately took her to Yarl’s Wood, where she stayed for six months while the Home Office attempted to deport her back to Nigeria.

Through word of mouth, Anu had heard  of the violence she may face in Yarl’s Wood as a result of her sexuality, Anu requested to be released, but was refused. 

“The whole time, I feared being found out,” she remembers. 

The charity Women for Refugee Women recently released a report outlining their research on the experiences of lesbian and bisexual women who have fled homophobic persecution and gender-based violence to come to the UK. 

The research is based on the experiences of 24 women who came from eight countries which criminalise same-sex acts. Eighty per cent of the women didn’t claim asylum right away as they faced barriers to disclosure, including a lack of awareness of the right to claim asylum based on sexual orientation, fears of reprisals and exclusion from diaspora communities, and the impact of trauma and requiring time to accept their sexual orientation.

“It felt like a prison, a lion’s den. I felt so alone and trapped. Depression quickly set in. I tried to avoid the staff as much as I could”

After securing a legal aid solicitor, who are few and far between these days, 13 of the 24 women said the quality of representation was ‘poor’ or ‘very poor.’ Eleven of the women said their cases were initially refused as the Home Office didn’t believe their sexual orientation. Each of the 24 women said the asylum process was overwhelmingly negative, retraumatising and defined by a culture of disbelief and hostility. 

Like Anu, many lesbian and bisexual women feel unable to turn to their diaspora communities for support due to homophobic attitudes.

“These attitudes mean that when a lesbian or bisexual woman is wrongly refused asylum and made destitute by the Home Office, it can be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for her to turn to community members for a roof, food and other basic needs,” says Priscilla Dudhia, Campaigns and Advocacy Manager at Women for Refugee Women. “This in turn can put them at increased risk of suffering violence and abuse. Let’s not forget that many of these women have already experienced rape or other sexual violence as part of the homophobic persecution they have fled.”

Dudhia said that many women in their Rainbow Sisters group, a supportive space open to lesbian, bisexual, and trans women, and non-binary people seeking asylum, have felt uniquely lonely as they journey through the asylum process. 

During her first week in Yarl’s Wood, Anu learned she could apply for asylum, but was provided a solicitor who she says didn’t ask her why she didn’t want to return to Nigeria, and didn’t prepare her for the Home Office interview. 

Even though she showed the Home Office’s male interviewer about the abuse from her parents and the circumcision, Anu didn’t disclose her sexuality. “I kept having flashbacks and felt intimidated by the barrage of questions,” she remembers. “I also hadn’t received any mental health support during the asylum process and felt ashamed to speak openly in the interview.”

Her months in Yarl’s Wood were defined by fear. Fear for her future. Fear that other women may find out about her sexuality. Fear of how the staff may treat her. Fear about her health. Fear of being lonely. She remembers watching as women around her tried to take their own lives. 

“It felt like a prison, a lion’s den,” she recalls. "I felt so alone and trapped. Depression quickly set in. I tried to avoid the staff as much as I could.”

Even as her physical health left her bed-bound in detention, Anu’s asylum claim was denied, and she was given no right to appeal in the UK. 

“I was at the lowest point of my life,” she recalls. “I felt like committing suicide.”

Fortunately, Medical Justice - a charity that brings volunteer clinicians to detainees and advocates for their medical rights - stepped into to help, along with a female legal aid solicitor. They successfully fought for the case to be heard again by the Home Office and encouraged Anu to open up about her sexuality. 

She was released from Yarl’s Wood while her asylum claim was reviewed, but in 2020, the Home Office once again refused her claim, saying they did not believe her sexuality, noting she didn’t have any evidence other than her own words.

“Why would I suffer all these years, for someone to tell me I’m someone else?” she asks. “If you’re looking at me like I’m not a lesbian, that means I suffered for nothing. I wish the Home Office would treat us like human beings and believe us when we share our trauma.” 

“Instead of treating those who have fled persecution with kindness and humanity, we have a government bulldozing anti-refugee laws – the Nationality and Borders Act and Illegal Migration Bill - through Parliament at lightning speed in the face of overwhelming opposition” 

After years of seeking asylum, Anu received a positive decision in September 2022. 

In their research, Women for Refugee Women found several respondents were not deemed credible by the Home Office because their claim lacked evidence, as was stated to Anu, despite being from countries where homophobic persecution is widely reported. 

One participant, Mary, said in the report: “The Home Office told me the evidence I presented was insufficient and the fact that I’m not in a relationship didn’t make me credible.”

Support group Rainbow Migration has tabled the government's latest migration bill "cruel", adding that many of the 'safe' countries where people could be sent to to have their claims processed are not in fact safe for LGBTQI+ people.

"For instance, this government deems Ghana to be safe for men, but in 2021 nine people were granted refugee status based on sexual orientation," says Leila Zadeh, Executive Director at Rainbow Migration. "In December 2022, Adams, a bisexual man from Ghana that we supported was granted asylum in the UK. He told us that he was violently attacked in the street on several occasions and that as an openly bisexual man he just wasn’t safe in Ghana. When he got to the UK he got the news that his partner had been killed back there.

"By introducing this heartless and cruel bill, this government is sending a message that it doesn’t care about the safety and wellbeing of LGBTQI+ people seeking protection here. We have already received calls from LGBTQI+ people expressing distress about the potential impact of the bill on their lives, telling us they feel ‘unwelcome’ here.”

The Home Office is unashamedly refusing to listen to vulnerable women, according to Dudhia: “Instead of treating those who have fled persecution with kindness and humanity, we have a government bulldozing anti-refugee laws – the Nationality and Borders Act and Illegal Migration Bill - through Parliament at lightning speed in the face of overwhelming opposition.” 

Women for Refugee Women are concerned that the changes introduced in the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 will make it even harder for lesbian and bisexual women to be granted refugee protection and increase the harm of the asylum system for them. In particular, they’re worried that given the culture of disbelief within the Home Office, the heightening standard of proof for asylum claims will mean that more lesbian and bisexual women will be wrongly refused protection in the UK.

Additionally, the recently introduced Illegal Migration Bill would cut off any hope of safety for women crossing the Channel outrunning homophobic and gender-based persecution in their home countries. 

“We’re incredibly concerned that these policies will mean that more lesbian and bisexual women are refused protection in the UK, and made more vulnerable to further abuse, violence and trauma as a result,” says Dudhia. “It’s important now, more than ever, for us to come together as a society, push back against these immeasurably cruel and racist policies, and stand up for compassion.”

Asked for comment, the Home Office replied: "No-one should be persecuted because of their sexuality or gender identity, and the UK can be rightly proud of its record in providing protection to individuals fleeing persecution based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Individuals claiming to be at risk of persecution on the grounds of their sexual orientation are, however, expected to be able to satisfy us that they are, or are perceived to be, of the orientation in question. Confirmation of this is normally obtained through their oral testimony at an interview with trained caseworkers.”

Take Action 

  • If you or someone you know are seeking asylum because of their sexual identity or orientation, Rainbow Migration have a resource page here
  • If you are a medical professional, consider volunteering with Medical Justice. You can find them here
  • Or support Women for Refugee Women, here
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