New report highlights struggles faced by women seeking asylum based on their sexual orientation
A report published earlier this month by the Rainbow Sisters group of Women for Refugee Women (WRW) highlights the serious hurdles faced by lesbian and bisexual women who apply for asylum in the UK.
The 26-page report, See Us, Believe Us, Stand With Us: The experiences of lesbian and bisexual women seeking asylum in the UK, can be downloaded here.
The report is based on a survey of 24 lesbian and bisexual women who have claimed asylum in the UK. All 24 women came from countries where same-sex consensual acts are criminalised.
WRW found that around 90% of respondents to its survey had entered the UK on a visa, such as a student or tourist visa, before claiming asylum. The report stresses: "It is important to remember that there is no formal visa that can be applied for in order to come and claim asylum in the UK; the immigration rules make no provision for this. […] Therefore, entering by a student or tourist visa is often the only safe way for women seeking sanctuary to reach the UK."
Over 80% of respondents did not apply for asylum within the first month of their arrival to the UK. There was a considerable lack of initial awareness among the women that they could make an asylum claim based on their sexual orientation. In addition, WRW found that the majority of women took many months, and sometimes years, to feel safe enough to seek protection.
The report highlights how the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 will makes it even harder for lesbian, bisexual and trans (LBT) women to seek protection and be granted refugee status.
WRW said: "The Act will force LBT women to present evidence by a fixed date. However, having spent their lives concealing their identities, it could be years before LBT women open up about their same-sex partners, attend events such as Pride or post on social media about their identity, all of which could be used as supporting evidence in an asylum claim. Yet the Act encourages decision-makers to treat any failure to provide evidence within the deadline as damaging to credibility, and to give 'minimal weight' to such evidence."
The report also describes how the women were often disbelieved by the Home Office. In nine of the 24 cases the Home Office did not believe the women were lesbian or bisexual. WRW commented: "These findings are consistent with the well-documented culture of disbelief that operates within Home Office decision-making; research shows how LGBTQ+ people face serious hurdles in proving their claims to an impossible standard, and are routinely denied asylum on spurious grounds. Such practice blatantly ignores UNHCR standards that emphasise the difficulties people have in proving their asylum claims, as well as the potentially life-threatening harm to the person should the wrong decision be made."
A variety of problems with legal representation were faced by the women. Three of the 24 respondents had no legal representation at the time of their asylum interview. Thirteen women had a legal aid lawyer and six had a private lawyer. Twelve women rated the quality of their legal aid - seven rated it as 'OK', five as 'Poor' or 'Very Poor', and no one answered 'Very Good' or 'Excellent'.
The report noted: "The fact that almost half of the women rated their legal aid support as 'Poor' or 'Very Poor' is incredibly concerning, given the grave consequences of a wrongful asylum determination. However, the findings are not surprising, in light of the crisis in the UK's legal aid system. Whilst demand for legal aid has continued to rise, successive cuts and changes have meant that the number of providers has fallen, such that in every part of England and Wales there is now a deficit between the need for immigration and asylum advice and the provision available. More specifically, at least 6000 adults in need of legal aid advice for asylum applications and appeals are going without that support. This undoubtedly places them at significant disadvantage when having their asylum claims assessed and, as a result, many are likely missing out on refugee protection that they are entitled to."
WRW adds that the cases of lesbian and bisexual women can be particularly complex, especially when they are survivors of both homophobic persecution and gender-based abuse, which makes the need for quality legal representation all the more compelling.
Priscilla Dudhia, author of the research, said earlier this month: "The findings provide yet more evidence of the urgent need for an asylum system that supports women to share their stories and treats those stories with belief. However, less than a year since the Nationality and Borders Act became law, we are so far off from that vision, with more draconian, anti-refugee legislation being proposed by the Government just yesterday. The changes introduced by both the NAB Act and the new bill will only strengthen the culture of disbelief. What more evidence do we need of this culture before our politicians decide that enough is enough?"
WRW's director, Alphonsine Kabagabo, said she hoped the report will raise awareness of the particular experiences of lesbian and bisexual women as they navigate a complex and hostile asylum system, and that the report will lead to much-needed change to enable them to live safely and freely in the UK.