The first safe houses for LGBTi refugees and asylum seekers have been opened in Britain
By Astrid Zweynert
LONDON, Jan 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sami, an intersex asylum seeker in Britain, used to be gripped with fear at bedtime.
The slender and feminine El Salvadorian had almost got used to incessant verbal abuse but having to share rooms with male asylum seekers was what Sami feared for the most.
"I was scared to death," said Sami, 20, who arrived in Britain in 2016 and was first housed in temporary accommodation in the northern cities of Manchester and Liverpool with other asylum seekers.
"It was hard to be sharing with another male whom I didn't know and especially because I am a bit feminine. All that time it was at the back of my head, who is going to be coming into the room? You could be asleep and just get attacked."
Intersex people are born with sex characteristics that do not fit typical notions of male or female bodies. Up to 1.7 percent of people are born with intersex traits, according to the United Nations.
Sami, who asked to use a pseudonym, is one of the more than 3,500 people who claimed asylum in Britain based on their sexuality, gender identity or intersex status between 2015 and 2017, according to the Home Office (interior ministry).
Sami faced threats and discrimination in El Salvador, a conservative Catholic country where gay sex is not illegal but lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTi) people endure harassment and violence.
They face rocketing levels of violence from criminal gangs and members of the security forces, rights group Amnesty International said last November.
In more than 70 countries being LGBTi is not safe, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), a federation of national and local organisations dedicated to achieving equal rights LGBTi people.
Even though Britain is more tolerant, LGBTi asylum seekers still face discrimination, threats and even violent attacks, said Sebastian Rocca, chief executive of Micro Rainbow International (MRI), a charity working to eliminate discrimination and poverty among LGBTi people.
"One of the problems that LGBTi asylum seekers and refugees face is that because of their sexuality they are extremely isolated and vulnerable," Rocca said.
Lack of safe housing is a widespread problem as they are often placed in housing with people from their own countries, or with those who are anti-gay because of their religious and cultural backgrounds.
"The majority of LGTBi asylum seekers do face some violence or abuse, whether that's physical, sexual or psychological abuse," Rocca told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Such abuse reawakens previous traumas. MRI's clients have reported experiencing the same fears they felt in their home countries, Rocca said.
A PLACE TO CALL HOME
MRI set up Britain's first safe house for LGBTi refugees and asylum seekers last October and has since opened a second one.
Apart from safe accommodation, residents are provided with psychological support, life-coaching and business training.
Sami moved in last autumn and, for the first time in years, feels safe and at home.
"The fear and uncertainty living in these other places was killing me. Now I finally feel safe because I live with people who respect me," Sami told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in the cosy house on the outskirts of London.
"I know I can wake up and just do my make-up and be able to fully express myself without having to be afraid that someone is going to attack me or that someone is going to be judging me."
Malik, a gay man from Bangladesh, who came to Britain in 2011, agrees.
"Since I moved into the house, I'm happy. I have found a family," said Malik, 35, in whose home country gay sex is illegal and many people strongly disapprove.
Leading LGBT rights activists Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy were hacked to death in Bangladesh in April 2016, amid a spate of violent attacks against secular bloggers, academics, gay rights activists and members of religious minorities.
Malik found out for himself how entrenched anti-gay attitudes are in his country when his mother disowned him and his brothers threatened to kill him.
"Last time I talked to my mum, she told me 'you just humiliate me, don't come back'. And I can't go back because my brothers are going to kill me," Malik said, sitting on his bed in a bright, well-furnished room in the safe house.
Malik said he used to live with heterosexual people in Britain and even though he was never physically attacked, he suffered verbal abuse, especially from other Bangladeshis.
"They don't attack just physically but mentally attack the whole time," he said.
Home Office data shows an estimated 6 percent of asylum claims made in Britain between July 2015 and March 2017 were based on sexual orientation. Around a quarter of those applications were successful.
The nationalities with the highest number of asylum claims where sexual orientation was raised were Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Nigerian.
The Home Office said it "remains committed to improving the process for those claiming asylum on this basis" and that it ensures housing provide to LGBTi asylum seekers is safe.
"Housing providers are contractually required to take account of any particular circumstances and vulnerability of those that they accommodate, including sexual orientation or gender identity," a Home Office spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
Campaigners say a lack of protection for LGBTi asylum seekers is a widespread problem in Europe. In Germany, LGBT asylum seekers have complained about intimidating comments made during their asylum interviews. In Ireland, many face threats and from other asylum seekers in accommodation centres. Rights groups blame the problem on a lack of basic training on LGBTi rights for those making decisions about asylum claims and interpreters.
MRI, which supports eight asylum seekers and refugees with safe housing, says much more is needed and aims to provide safe housing for more than 150 LGBTi asylum seekers by 2019.
"The need in this country is massive. There are hundreds of LGBTi asylum seekers every year who need a safe place to be," said Rocca.
(Reporting by Astrid Zweynert @azweynert , 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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