LGBTI equality and human rights in Europe and Central Asia

Win in UK asylum case puts spotlight on situation for LGBTI asylum seekers

On 14 August, the United Kingdom granted refugee status to a prominent Nigerian LGBT activist, Aderonke Apata. The win ended a 13-year battle over her right to stay in the UK. We asked Paul Dillane from Kaleidoscope Trust, one of our UK members involved in the case, to describe the case and reflect on the situation for LGBTI asylum seekers in the UK.

By Paul Dillane (@Paul_Dillane), Executive Director - Kaleidoscope Trust 

Upon the conclusion of her gruelling decade-long battle for asylum, Aderonke Apata – a 50-year Nigerian lesbian and award-winning activist – is preoccupied by the plight of other LGBTI asylum seekers. “As you rejoice with me for being safe, kindly remember that there are many people still in the same position that I was in for over 13 years.” she says.

Despite fearing imprisonment and death in her country because of her sexuality, Aderonke languished in the asylum system for years and her claim was repeatedly refused by the UK authorities. In 2015, a lawyer acting on behalf of the UK Home Office was accused of “highly offensive” views after asserting Aderonke could not be considered a lesbian because she has children and has previously been in heterosexual relationships. "You can't be a heterosexual one day and a lesbian the next day." he remarked.

72 countries still criminalise people on the basis of their sexual orientation and in many others LGBTI people suffer severe violence. As a result, many LGBTI people are forced to flee their homes and seek refugee protection internationally. Increasing numbers of LGBTI claims have been recorded across Europe and Aderonke’s case throws a fresh spotlight on their continuing poor treatment.

Whilst European Union law makes provision for LGBTI people to be granted refugee status when they are at real risk of persecution, seeking asylum is a complex process. UNHCR Guidelines urge decision-makers to ‘maintain an objective approach so that they do not reach conclusions based on stereotypical, inaccurate or inappropriate perceptions of LGBTI individuals’. Despite this, LGBTI asylum seekers in many countries have faced disbelief or humiliating questions often resulting in their claims being refused.

In 2014, a bisexual asylum seeker in the UK was subjected to an appalling interrogation about his sexual affairs including: “Did you put your penis into x’s backside?” and “When x was penetrating you, did you have an erection?”. A subsequent official investigation found a fifth of asylum interviews contained unacceptable stereotyping and a tenth contained inappropriate questions likely to elicit a sexual response.

In 2014, the Court of Justice of the European Union issued a significant ruling on acceptable methods of assessing asylum claims based on a person’s sexual identity. Despite this, few countries have implemented national guidelines or training on interviewing LGBTI people. Though the UK Home Office has since published useful guidance to officials on sexuality claims, it has yet to publish similar guidance in respect of gender identity claims despite being urged to do so.

One of the most appalling features of Aderonke’s case was her detention in the notorious Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. Seeking asylum is not a crime but a fundamental human right. Despite this, Aderonke was detained for nearly a year in conditions where she was bullied and harassed because of her sexuality. The UK has one of the largest immigration detention facilities in Europe and it is alone in routinely detaining migrants and asylum seekers indefinitely.

Earlier this year, UKLGIG and Stonewall published landmark research into the experiences of LGBT people in immigration detention centres in the UK. The research found that LGBT asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable and face significant disadvantages when detained including discrimination and harassment from other detainees and even from some members of staff. Recounting his experiences of being abused in detention, Achebe, a Nigerian asylum seeker, reported: ‘The guy grabbed me saying he’s going to break my soul. I had to press the buzzer. I can’t stay in this place. The officer that came down said there’s nothing he can do.’

Recent research published by the European Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) reported many countries across the EU are failing to adequately support LGBTI asylum seekers. FRA found a lack of official statistics on LGBTI asylum claims, poor standards of decision-making and special accommodation facilities for LGBTI people are routinely lacking.

In order to improve knowledge of the issues facing LGBTI asylum seekers, international organisations have published important resources for use by lawyers and government agencies including the ‘Credibility Assessment in Asylum Procedures Training Manual: Volume II’ published by the CREDO Project, which includes guidance on the ‘Difference, Stigma, Shame, Harm (DSSH)’ model, and the comprehensive ‘Refugee Status Claims Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity – A Practitioners’ Guide’ published by the International Commission of Jurists.

Indeed, across Europe, activists and organisations are stepping up to support LGBTI asylum seekers often with limited resources. My organisation, Kaleidoscope Trust, works to create positive change for LGBTI people with organisations in 40 countries as well as advocating for better protection for LGBTI refugees. We provide training to activists, lawyers, officials and judges. In November 2017, we will join ILGA Europe and Transgender Europe to provide capacity building to activists from across Europe. Furthermore, UKLGIG have founded an unique support group for trans asylum seekers in London; Schwulenberatung Berlin have opened a safe-house with capacity to accommodate 120 LGBTI asylum seekers; and, last week, activists launched a LGBTI refugee solidarity campaign on the Greek island of Lesvos.

Whilst Aderonke’s case has finally been concluded, she emphasises the vital need to create opportunities for LGBTI refugees to speak for themselves. “I will continue to do my bit in amplifying the voices of people who can only shout so far” she says. For the wider LGBTI community, we must stand firm to uphold the human rights of all refugees and ensure LGBTI people fleeing persecution are protected and treated with dignity and respect.