By Anna Pujol-Mazzini
LONDON, May 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Gay and lesbian Africans who fled abuse in their home countries face a "culture of disbelief" which makes their experience of seeking asylum in Britain traumatic, a Nigerian lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender rights (LGBT) campaigner said.
Aderonke Apata, 50, who fled persecution in Nigeria, said the practice of assessing Africans' sexual orientation claims based on Western standards was problematic.
"They expect an LGBT person to have used sex toys, to go to gay clubs," Apata, an asylum seeker who founded African LGBT charity, African Rainbow Family, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Apata has been trying to claim asylum in Britain for 13 years, but her case was refused several times after a judge ruled that she was pretending to be a lesbian.
She has worked with several gay rights groups across Britain and is helping other LGBT Africans who are going through the same process.
African countries have some of the most prohibitive laws against homosexuality in the world - same-sex relationships are a crime across much of the continent and can lead to imprisonment or the death penalty.
In Nigeria, former president Goodluck Jonathan signed a bill in 2014 that criminalised same-sex relationships, despite pressure from Western governments to preserve the rights of gay and lesbian people.
The bill contains penalties of up to 14 years in prison and bans gay marriage, same-sex "amorous relationships" and membership of gay rights groups.
When it comes to LGBT rights, Apata believes Nigeria has not changed since she was bullied as a lesbian teenage girl some 30 years ago.
Pressured to get married as she finished her studies, she chose a husband whom she soon tried to get away from - leading to a Sharia court sentencing her to death for adultery and witchcraft.
A short break in the trial meant that Apata was able to go into hiding, before leaving Nigeria and flying to London, where she claimed asylum for the first time in 2004.
She says her own experience of claiming asylum in Britain was a "torturous" one, which led to her being sent to the Yarl's Wood women's immigration removal centre, which she called a "concentration camp."
There, she experienced more abuse while detained with many other Nigerian women, whose attitudes towards LGBT people were "hostile," she says.
Yarl's Wood is one of 11 centres Britain uses to detain asylum seekers while they wait to be sent home or have their cases examined.
Rights groups have been calling for the centre's closure with the latest protest last week, after multiple investigations revealed abuse and mistreatment of the women detained over the years, many of whom are survivors of sexual violence.
"My personal experience actually triggered the activism," Apata said. "I know what is it for someone who is an LGBT person being persecuted. I thought that kind of injustice should not continue."
She has been campaigning for the repeal of the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA) in Nigeria, a country that 90 percent of the population believe would be a better place with no LGBT people.
Despite this, Apata is hopeful attitudes will change.
"I know public perception will shift eventually. But attitudes don't change overnight," she said.
(Reporting by Anna Pujol-Mazzini @annapmzn, Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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