I remember the first time Azizah (name and some details changed to protect her identity) told me she was a lesbian. We sat on her single bed in a cramped room in South London, and my new friend poured her heart out to me as though we had been friends for a lifetime. She spoke in broken, hushed sobs, clutching my hand and checking over her shoulder as though her life depended on it.
Which, in many ways, it did.
Azizah, a 24 year old chemistry student from Iran, is an asylum seeker here in the UK. Like many asylum seekers, she had come in search of a safe haven in Europe. She and her father had fled the country after persecution and death threats relating to their family’s political affiliations.
But Azizah’s story was complicated further by her sexual identity. Adrift in a strange new land, and having left her mother and brothers behind, she had only her father to turn to – a father who, despite his political resistance, still believed that homosexuality is a sin and supported the laws of Iran where homosexuality is punishable by death. Unable to talk to him about it nor the Muslim community they’d found a home in here in the UK, and not wanting to add an extra burden to a family which has faced hardships beyond the imaginings of most of us, she decided to live in secrecy – leading a double life which, she told me, often led her to contemplating suicide as a solution.
She isn’t alone. Although she did not seek asylum in the UK because of her sexual identity, many other vulnerable people seeking refuge in the UK come here for that exact reason. The treatment of LGBTQ+ asylum seekers in the UK has garnered extensive attention and criticism over the last few years – and with good reason.
Nearly a decade ago, in 2010, the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group (UKLGIG) reported that 98-99% of gay and lesbian asylum seekers had been refused asylum and told to go back, often to violently homophobic countries like Iran and Uganda where their lives were very much at risk.
Since then, more work has been done on the issue, including two reports from Stonewall (entitled ‘No Going Back’ and ‘No Safe Refuge’) and a 2014 report from Theresa May, the then Home Secretary, who commissioned an investigation into the treatment of gay, lesbian and bi people claiming asylum. More recently, a 2017 government report found that although numbers of LGBTQ+ asylum seekers being accepted had increased (with ‘only’ two thirds being rejected), many of those being sent back to the countries from which they had fled were being told to simply ‘act straight’.
These investigations not only found an incredibly flawed asylum process also but highlighted that any LGBTQ+ asylum seekers sent to await their fate in UK detention centres were likely to experience discrimination, harassment and violence from other detainees and from members of staff.
Here, they face a Catch-22 type situation; hide their sexual orientation and avoid further risk of harassment and violence, face accusations by those reviewing their applications of not being ‘visible enough’ (insinuating that they aren’t really LGBTQ+), or be ‘out’ in a dangerous environment in the hopes that it will help them be taken more seriously – if they survive long enough to be processed.
I wish I could tell you of a happy ending to Azizah’s story. The truth is she is still awaiting a declaration of refugee status (which would afford her some rights beyond that of an asylum seeker), and still leading a dangerous and debilitating double life. Many others still languish in the labyrinthine processes of our asylum system, never knowing if they’ll be deported today, tomorrow or next week.
Until we, as an LGBTQ+ family and as a nation that professes progressive values, step up and demand fairer treatment for vulnerable people from some of the world’s most repressive countries, nothing will change and members of our international community will continue to be betrayed by the very people they came to for help.
[This article was originally published in DIVA’s August 2018 issue. Read my latest column in DIVA, on sale now at divadigital.co.uk]