Monday, 17 June 2013

Seeking Refuge

This week is one of those less well-known “awareness weeks” which should become better known within the lgbt community – Refugee Week. June 20th is World Refugee Day.

The biggest known (or presumed) movement of lgbt refugees was during World War II. The Nazi persecution of a number of social and ethnic groups led to many of them leaving Germany in search of refuge in other countries. This included gay men and women. We’ll never known how many of these there were.

This year is also the 20th Anniversary of the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group who have been fighting for lgbt asylum seekers, refugees and foreign partners of UK citizens since 1993. So far, since its formation as the Stonewall Immigration Group, the main success has been in relation to an “unmarried partners concession” allowing couples to remain together in the UK if they have co-habited for a specific period. After the Civil Partnership Bill of 2004 was passed foreign civil partners were given equal immigration rights as married couples.

For asylum seekers, however, the change has been slower. Today there are 80 countries where homosexuality is illegal, 5 of which still have the death penalty for those found guilty. In other countries violence towards lgbt people is still considered commonplace and acceptable, and many victims try to escape to other countries.

There are no proper, accurate figures of lgbt refugees and asylum seekers available, just estimates, but there is hardly a month that goes by without the media – the lgbt media in particular – reminding that some of us are fortunate to have some amount of legal protection in our own countries.

It is also difficult to determine how far back you have to go before the we encounter the first recognised lgbt refugee being granted asylum. In the USA the first recorded successful lgbt asylum seeker was Marcelo Tenório, a gay man from Brazil. He was granted asylum in 1993 after having arrived illegally in the country in 1990. The first known person to be given asylum on the grounds of his sexuality in the European Union was in 1997. An Algerian man, who had set up HIV/AIDS and human rights organisations in his home country, sought and was granted refuge in France.

The cases of lgbt asylum seekers in the UK in recent years has improved slightly, but many immigration officers have shown inadequate training when they questioned refugees. The authorities have often turned down requests for asylum by suggesting to the lgbt asylum seekers that they should be more “discreet”. This “discretion test” was questioned by 2 gay men who had sought asylum in the UK, both of whom feared persecution, prosecution, or even death, because of their sexuality if they were sent back to their countries. “HJ” of Iran and “HT” of Cameroon brought a joint action in the Court of Appeal pointing out that “being discreet” was a violation of their right to be who they are. The Court of Appeal agreed, and in July 2010 the “discretion test” was effectively abolished.

Others have not been so successful. Several African lesbians have been declared illegal immigrants and had their asylum requests turned down. Efforts have been made this year to have them all deported back to their countries. Jacki Nanyanjo, who was seriously ill when deported back to Uganda in January, and died in March. Two other lesbians currently under deportation orders are still fighting to remain in the UK. Two Muslim lesbians have recently become Civil Partners in the UK and have claimed asylum here, fearing persecution if they return to their home in Pakistan.

Each nation has its own laws and regulations regarding asylum seekers and refugees, though not all of them have consistent rules regarding lgbt requests. The UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees includes the phrase “particular social group” in it’s definition of a refugee. Both the US in the case of Tenório and the UK in the cases of HJ and HT accepted this definition as inclusive of the lgbt community.

To end this brief look at lgbt refugees we have this story of a gay Ugandan couple that has a happy ending.

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