*trigger warning: this content contains descriptions of homophobic violence
In recent years, political homophobia and government endorsed hostility towards LGBTQ+ individuals have grown alarmingly across the world. This is partly attributable to the rise of nationalism and ultra-conservative religious politics, but also demonstrates a deep and pervasive global culture of intolerance – 71 countries have laws that criminalise private, same-sex, consensual sexual activity (all criminalise men and 43 criminalise women).[i] The Middle East, for example, retains some of the world’s most restrictive anti-gay legislation including the death penalty for gay men in five of the region’s countries. Queer Africans from Kenya to Senegal; South Africa to Libya suffer discrimination, abuse and criminalisation including detention, torture, corrective rape and denial of health services. While attitudes are slowly changing in some parts of the Caribbean, it can still be a very difficult place to be LGBTQ+.
Recent political events in Europe and elsewhere strike an ominous warning bell. For example, in Poland, president Andrzej Duda won re-election in 2020 after a campaign attacking gay ‘ideology’, same-sex marriage and pledging to prevent gay people from adopting children – many Polish local authorities declared themselves ‘LGBT-free zones’.[ii] A similar situation pervades in Hungary, which recently re-elected right-wing leader Viktor Orbán, who approved a law equating paedophilia with homosexuality and banned any reference to LGBT lifestyles in schools.[iii] Despite a growing public acceptance of homosexuality in the United States, legislation denying the very existence of LGBTQ+ people is gaining ground.[iv][v] Homophobia has been weaponised for political gain, fuelling prejudice, intolerance and hate.
There are some bright spots in the darkness – in 2020, Botswana overturned colonial-era laws criminalising homosexuality, recognising them as an import from a time of British domination and occupation. Similarly, Barbados is moving to recognise same-sex civil unions, and their progressive Prime Minister Mia Mottley has been outspoken on vowing not to discriminate against gay people. Unfortunately, these are exceptions and far from the current status quo. The reality for many gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people in their home countries is living in a culture of fear and repression, characterised by violence and exclusion. In April this year, the body of Sheila Lumambo, a 25 year old non-binary lesbian was found in Karatina, Kenya, a town just two hours from the country’s capital of Nairobi. They had been raped, strangled, stabbed, their eyes gouged and legs broken over several days.[vi] Such crimes are shockingly not uncommon. One would imagine these stories would be told more often, that we would see them on the news and respond collectively with the horror they deserve. But most people in the UK seem to know nothing of the brutality targeted at LGBTQ+ individuals around the world.
Surprisingly, the number of LGBTQ+ people seeking asylum in the UK and citing sexual orientation or gender identity as a risk of harm is quite low, peaking in 2017 at 2,000 individuals, or 7% of all UK asylum applications. In that year, more than 70% of these applications were refused.[vii] Since this time, fewer LGBTQ+ people have sought asylum because of their gender identity or sexual orientation, perhaps because of the appalling success rate (applicants fell to around 1000, or 3% of all asylum applications in 2020 with a refusal rate of 50%).[viii] Independent researchers from the University of Sussex noted that asylum claims were rejected because of a widespread culture of disbelief and an impossible burden of proof required in both the UK and Europe.[ix] Further studies have shown that establishing credibility is a key area of failure in asylum applications where the asylum seeker cannot prove they are LGBTQ+ (and are frequently disbelieved by asylum officials) or that they cannot demonstrate a reasonable likelihood of facing harm in their countries. A cross country study concluded that, “asylum officials make assumptions regarding human sexuality, sexual identity formation and sexual behaviour that are either partially or entirely unsupported by psychological research” flagging a dire need for more training and research to improve interview techniques.[x]
In the UK, the Home Office’s recent plan to send asylum seekers on a one-way ticket to Rwanda without first assessing their application fails to take into account the risks to vulnerable LGBTQ+ people. The plan is being challenged by Freedom from Torture. Countless reports, including from the UK government itself, cite an environment of hostility for LGBTQ+ Rwandans with poor legal frameworks enabling arbitrary detention of transgender people,[xi] attitudes that label LGBTQ+ people as immoral and social outcasts,[xii] and the exclusion of LGBTQ+ individuals from basic services, because psychological and physical abuse are rife in those settings.[xiii] Rwanda is not a safe haven for LGBTQ+ refugees.
If just a few stories of LGBTQ+ persecution reached our mainstream media, surely we would want to act with humanity, extending a helping hand, instead of refusing asylum and putting LGBTQ+ people into more danger in an unfriendly country? Generally, the UK public have responded to the idea of sending asylum seekers straight to Rwanda with distaste – especially at a time where public support for sheltering people fleeing violence and oppression is at a high, following the devastating Russian invasion of Ukraine. June is LGBTQ+ pride month: A moment to remember, speak up for, and give refuge to people suffering discrimination and violence because of their gender identity or sexuality. Where we have the power, privilege and ability to help, we must do more to do so.
A list of organisations supporting LGBTQ+ refugees and asylum seekers:
- Freedom from Torture https://www.freedomfromtorture.org
- Rainbow Migration formerly UKLGIG (UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group) https://www.rainbowmigration.org.uk
- Micro Rainbow https://microrainbow.org/
- The Outside Project https://www.lgbtiqoutside.org/
- Outright Action International https://outrightinternational.org/region/middle-east-and-north-africa
- Stonewall Asylum https://www.stonewall.org.uk/asylum
[xiii] ‘Examination of LGBT people’s lived experiences and public perceptions of sexual and gender minorities in Rwanda’ Health Development Initiative and African Population and Health Research Centre (APHRC), 2022, link.