UK asylum process painful for lesbians fleeing death threats

by Katie Nguyen | Katie_Nguyen1 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 16 May 2013 11:57 GMT

File photo of a security officer walking down one of the corridors of Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre, Europe's largest detention centre for illegal immigrants, in Bedford. Taken January 17, 2002. REUTERS/Russell Boyce

Image Caption and Rights Information
Nigerian asylum seeker Glory Metfyean's story

MANCHESTER, England (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Glory Metfyean's family found out that she was a lesbian, they beat her up, locked her in a dark room, prayed for her and threatened to kill her.

She was cut with a razor blade and had chillies rubbed into the wounds, she said, lifting her shirt to show numerous small horizontal scars on her spine."They called the pastor from the church to pray for me secretly," the 34-year-old recalls. "My family said if I don't change it they would be forced to kill me."

Hatred of homosexuality is particularly virulent in Glory's native Nigeria, and has been described as the one issue on which the country's fractious Christians and Muslims are united. Homosexuality is illegal and punishable by up to 14 years in prison. In some of Nigeria’s northern Muslim states, gays can face death by stoning under sharia, Islamic law.

"In my country, people take laws into their hands. Nobody can stop them. They can kill you. People can be burnt alive," Glory told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "You face discrimination, torture, death and if you're not careful, some people can rape you, saying they want you to be a woman."

Such widespread intolerance meant that when Glory first came to Britain in 2007 and sought asylum, she kept quiet about her sexuality and claimed asylum on the ground that members of her family, living in the Niger Delta, had been killed and persecuted. When she later gained enough confidence to reveal she was a lesbian, and claimed asylum on that basis, Home Office officials said her case lacked credibility.

A judicial review of her case is now pending.

BEING FORCED TO OPEN UP

Glory's experience is not uncommon among foreign gays seeking asylum in Britain, campaigners and researchers say.

There is no hard data, but the UK Lesbian & Gay Immigration Group (UKLGIG) released a report three years ago which said the number of asylum cases being rejected at the initial decision-making stage was far higher for lesbians and gay men than for other people.

The report said that 73 percent of all asylum claims made in the UK were rejected at this initial stage. But 98-99 percent of the asylum claims made by lesbians and gay men that the UKLGIG was aware of were rejected at the same stage.

A complicating factor is that the Refugee Convention does not recognise persecution due to an individual's sexuality as a basis for establishing refugee status. These cases are usually argued under another category - "membership of a particular social group" - one of the most difficult categories to define.

For the women themselves, speaking openly to UK immigration officials and judges about their sexuality, after keeping it hidden for so long to avoid persecution, is one of the greatest hardships they face, said Claire Bennett, a researcher at Southampton University.

"Because of how their sexuality was deemed in their home countries ... it's something that simply may not be talked about," said Bennett, who spent three years interviewing lesbians from Jamaica, Uganda, Gambia, Nigeria, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia about their experiences seeking asylum in the UK. "There's the view that it's contagious. There's the fear of other people finding out, the fear of imprisonment."

In Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, homosexuality is considered un-Islamic.

In Uganda, a draft bill dubbed "Kill the Gays" required gays to be reported to the authorities and homosexuals to face a death sentence. Those clauses were later dropped and as of February, the draft legislation was awaiting debate in parliament.

The first screening interview with UK immigration officials - in a public space, within earshot of other asylum seekers - can be excruciating. "For lesbian asylum seekers, that's when they have to say 'I'm a lesbian', and for some women that's the first time they had ever publicly said that," Bennett said.

Having to share such personal information with people in positions of authority was particularly painful for women who had been jailed for their sexuality and were wary of those in uniform, Bennett said.

She quoted a Jamaican woman she interviewed, who said being forced to reveal so much was like being raped. "It just feels like you've taken all your innards and just spread them out there and somebody's just walked on them, and then you've just got to try to tuck it back in for your mere survival," the woman said.

SEX TOYS, OSCAR WILDE, THE GAY SCENE

Other major concerns for lesbian asylum seekers were proving their sexuality, conforming to stereotypes of gay women and collecting enough information about the persecution of lesbians in their home countries where the focus may be more on crimes against gay men, Bennett said.

"There's this view that if you're a lesbian in the UK then you're easily identified, that you go out on the gay scene, that you read Oscar Wilde, that you like shows and read certain books," she said.

"So often what people were asked in a public court was whether they used sex toys, what clubs they went to. The women who I interviewed who had children weren't believed to be gay because they had children. Unless you have a public image and you have people to support your statements ... then you're going to struggle to claim asylum."

Glory and other women attending a lesbian immigration support group meeting in Manchester agreed.

"The Home Office will tell you, 'prove your sexuality, we want to know about your sexuality, prove it'. How do you want me to prove it?" Glory said.

"I showed a picture of my ex-girlfriend when we were kissing because I don't think it's proper for one to be naked when you're having sex, (to) go and show them that picture because that's our privacy. They're driving us mad."

The challenge lesbian asylum seekers face to prove their credibility to immigration officials and judges was noted in a report by an umbrella organisation representing 42 women's and human rights groups.

“If lesbian asylum seekers reveal their sexuality later in the asylum process it is assumed that this is being used to strengthen the case and that they are lying,” the report released this week said.

Since coming to Britain, Glory says she has been detained three times at Yarl's Wood immigration detention centre. She has endured homelessness, failed relationships and bad treatment by people exploiting her status as an asylum seeker.

But she rejects the idea of ever going back to Nigeria.

"They see you as a devil when you're a lesbian or a gay person. And these people, behind their doors, they sin. Some of them sleep with their daughters and they come and criticise you," Glory said.

"Somewhere where I'm not accepted for who I am, why should I miss it?"

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.