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Recently I got together with the guys from the LGBT asylum organisation No Going Back.
Founder Stuart Hanson, queen of stats Megan, and legal adviser Scott invited me to their humble office in Leeds to discuss the important and much needed work they do.
In your own words, describe what No Going Back (NGB) does.
Stuart: NGB provides free specialist legal representation for LGBT asylum seekers in the UK.
How long has it been going?
Megan: Since 2012, but we have really taken off in the last two years.
Stuart: First we looked at whether there was a need for it in the market, and the common perception is that we are a duplication of something that is already out there. There is also confusion with the UK Gay & Lesbian Immigration Group (UGLIG). UGLIG is a very worthwhile organization based in London and provides a signposting service.
The difference between NGB and UGLIG is that we actually provide the legal representation free of charge. There is no limitation regarding legal aid. We take on cases based on merit with no financial constraint. So, we can spend the most amount of time necessary on preparing a case and giving them the best legal representation possible within our means.
We are Office of Immigration Services Commission (OISC) registered, and we are registered up to level 3. Meaning, we can do first tier tribunals, if necessary. We generally only deal with fresh claims where people are starting the process of asylum based on their sexuality
Can you tell us the process for seeking asylum?
Megan: There is a brief screening interview to establish the basis for the claim and the pertinent facts such as immigration history and current address.
Following the screening interview, one of two things will happen:
Detained Fast Track
The asylum seeker is housed in a detention centre, and the Home Office will aim to process their claim within two weeks.
The asylum seeker will receive a letter ordering them to report to the Home Office every two weeks. This is to keep the Home Office apprised of their current address etc. Reporting conditions are much more common than detained fast track.
This interview explores the basis for the asylum claim as stated in the screening interview. It can be a very arduous experience as they frequently last 6 hours and contain over 100 questions.
Following the substantive interview, the asylum seeker (or their representative) has five days to submit any additional evidence or supporting documents. These will be considered along with the content of the substantive interview in the decision making process by the Home Office Case Worker. Then a decision is made.
The decision will be one of the following:
Grant of refugee status
The claim is successful and the asylum seeker becomes a refugee with the right to live and work in the UK.
The claim is refused and the asylum seeker is not given the right to an in country appeal.
The claim is refused, but the asylum seeker can appeal if they have new evidence.
Looking at data for asylum seekers in the UK there isn’t an LGBT specific category. What would they come under at the moment?
Stuart: There are a number of Freedom of Information requests for these figures.
Megan: Numerous organisations have made these requests with regards to this issue, and the answer that they receive is that they are preparing the statistics but they aren’t in a position to release them yet. This has been the situation for quite a few years now. The statistics you hear from us are our own internal statistics. So, there is a limit to how accurate these statistics can be.
Stuart: They are accurate, but they are only accurate for our organisation and can’t be the basis for UK wide figures. So, the figures we will provide you are specifically based on our users.
Are they not hidden in the national statistics released at all?
Stuart: We wouldn’t know because the issue at one stage was that they weren’t recording it at all, and then now the Home Office has gone through a massive change as regards to education with regards to LGBT asylum cases. The barrister that we work with is Mr Chelvan from Number 5 Chambers, and he’s been involved in the education and training of Home Office case workers with regards to LGBT asylum cases and how to move away from the well covered questioning that the Home Office has previously accused of. For example: ‘Do you know the works of Oscar Wilde?’ ‘Do you know when Heaven is?’ All the generalised stereotyping. It doesn’t really happen now; it happened in the past. There has been this education to the Home Office with people like Chelvan delivering on how you should evidence cases of sexuality.
[Editor’s note: Read Aderonke’s story for more information on one very high profile LGBT asylum claim.]
I think the record has to be put straight that no good immigration adviser or lawyer would say to their client, ‘Present photographic evidence of you having sex with your partner or send us a video.’ That kind of evidence isn’t submisable, it’s a breech of your human rights, it’s degrading to the individual and that isn’t the evidence we look for.
[Editor’s note: Aderonke recently submitted such a video to the Home Office in her own asylum case.]
We look for evidence more about the individual’s gay lifestyle, their story and how they identify as LGBT, because there is a cultural difference which is something that people often fail to understand. It’s hard. A gay man from Africa is very different to a gay man from Leeds. Their stories and their upbringing will be very different and how they react and how they identify will be different.
The gay stereotypes that we have don’t necessarily exist in Africa. It could be seen as a ‘Western creation’ in itself. It can be difficult for the Home Office to understand that the person in front of them doesn’t fit that stereotype. But just because they don’t fit the stereotype that doesn’t mean they aren’t gay.
It’s not that the Home Office are homophobic or not gay-friendly – it’s about understanding another culture, and how the LGBT community is within that culture, which in a lot of cases is very closeted. So they shouldn’t expect someone who has been in the closet or semi-closet for 20 years to be the epitome of the Western stereotype in an interview with a Home Office case worker.
Scott: Yeah, I agree. The perception is of this stereotype. What you often find is that people we speak to not only aren’t aware of that stereotype, but don’t want to fulfil it even if they are aware of it. It’s not as clear-cut as this ‘Western construct’. It’s not like that at all.
Sexuality can manifest itself in numerous ways. But how do you identify that on a mass scale? This is the difficulty for the Home Office.
Stuart: That’s why evidencing is such a tricky job. I’ve been present in an interview at the Home Office where the client was asked, ‘When did you realise you were gay?’ Now that is a question that is quite difficult for anyone to answer. The client was unable to answer. Had the question been, ‘When did you identify as gay?’ – that would have been better.
I don’t believe there was any level of homophobia there, just a level of ignorance, and that is what the training is intended to rectify. From our experience, you can at least have a dialogue with the Home Office, and they are open to discussion.
They aren’t homophobic or xenophobic. There is a culture, but sometimes that is a misunderstanding that needs to be cleared up.
One of the things about NGB is that we aren’t going to be critical of the Home Office. We present somebody’s case, and we will point out if there is an issue. But as a training point rather than anything else.
There are already lobbyists who will lobby the Home Office on how they deal with LGBT asylum seekers. Our job is to represent people within the system that exists.
Scott: I think the difficulty with differentiating this organisation from others is, from a legal perspective, how do you have a healthy dialogue where it’s not an internal war? They ultimately have a responsibility, and sexual orientation is such a difficult thing to prove. We can present bundle after bundle where we know it’s the situation. And we know if the law is applied correctly that is the conclusion we will get. But it’s that difficulty with public policy which is ultimately somebody else’s job within the human rights framework.
Would you not say you were in a better position to lobby being on the inside?
Stuart: We bring it up, but we don’t feel making an enemy of the Home Office is the way forward. If anything, we would want to be a supportive critical friend. The Home Office is doing a job, as well as it can do under massive financial cuts. We are there to put the cases as clearly as possible to the Home Office, and if there is an issue we take it through the correct channels. That’s how we would work, working with, not against. Being a group of angry LGBT people doesn’t help our dialogue.
Scott: By putting the applications through, you are making an implicit impact. If we weren’t here offering the services, you would have shoddy, half-hearted applications that are overwhelmingly rejected. A well prepared bundle that gives someone half a chance implicitly impacts on perceptions on a wider scale. Without quality bundles, cases can become a statistic which ironically wouldn’t be reported, and there wouldn’t be a wider impact. It’s not as direct as standing with a megaphone, but it does impact change.
Stuart: We do get comments on the quality of our work. We spend hours doing it, and that’s because we aren’t constrained to a legal aid budget, which reduces the pressure. Someone can come sit in our office, in a safe environment, and give an account of something that generally is very traumatic, without the worry that the clock is ticking.
They also know no judgment is being made. They are coming to people who are gay, and so there is an immediate connection. They can instantly identify with that person. Does a high street lawyer who works on legal aid understand every area of what it’s like to be LGBT?
Megan: We quite typically allocate two solid days to each person’s statement, getting their life story from them. This is two solid days of an entire case. As an example given by someone that came to us, you might get half an hour with a lawyer on legal aid. So that is the difference in the quality of our work.
Stuart: You have got to explain to the client the system they are about to enter and the process. If they understand the process, it is really important in understanding what is happening to them. They are often scared to death that this is happening, and they don’t know what’s going on. Making them informed is a step in the right direction.
We then get their life story all the way from childhood to present day. There will be cultural differences within the telling of their story, and they have to give the account of what has happened to them in a Westernised legal system.
We make sure there is a stepping stone between their account and our legal system. This makes their account understood. It’s not about the credibility of the individual, but how they tell their story.
For example, saying, ‘It happened three harvests ago, and my mum was pregnant,’ might be a key event in their life back home, but not something for our Western legal system to easily get a hold of.
The last bundle we put together was 420 pages and it takes hours to go through.
Scott: And, that’s the difference. You wouldn’t get that on a fixed-fee legal aid budget.
Stuart: That 42o-page case was an exception. The client had lots of evidence from chat rooms and apps to back up his behaviour. That’s when we become thankful for the likes of Grindr – they were fantastic evidence for his case.
Megan: Definitely, and because they are all time stamped, it provided great real-time evidence for his case, which went back several years.
What is the burden of proof?
Stuart: Beyond all reasonable doubt.
The same as a criminal trial. Should it not be a balance of probability like with civil cases?
Stuart: This isn’t civil; it’s immigration. The evidencing is a real issue, talking to the individual. We do get people trying it on, but we don’t pass judgment on those that come into the office. We sit down with them. We don’t rely on gaydar. We talk them through the process of claiming asylum and evidencing. Those that aren’t genuine won’t go through with it.
Megan: They disappear once we’ve explained how hard it is to claim asylum and the evidence that is required. They tend to realise their story is unsustainable and we don’t hear from them again.
Stuart: The initial interview can last hours. The last one I did lasted six hours and had over 100 questions. The mode that we use is DSSH [the Difference, Stigma, Shame, Harm scale], produced by Chelvan UK, LGBT Barrister of the year 2014. It’s a good model and moves focus away from bedroom activity, and this model moves the focus to the essential part of being gay.
In DSSH, D stands for difference, for instance. So we ask, ‘When did you realise you were different?’ Any gay man would take you through the noticeable difference at some point – for example, not going to football but going to ballet.
Scott: People just thought I was quirky and clever!
Stuart: They might not have identified that they were gay at that time but realised there was a difference. Essentially, not fitting in to the lifestyle laid out for them, and what was expected of them, and that leads to the S, which stands for Stigma.
‘What is the stigma attached to being gay within your country?’
Stigma is external, whether from religion, society, family belief, or the law of the country.
The second S stands for shame – the internalisation of it all. A lot of our service users feel ashamed and are self-loathing homosexuals. That comes from the stigma. They do find it hard to come to terms with their sexuality because of the stigma. They may have hid their sexuality and remained in the closet until they had the opportunity to be truly who they are.
For example, some of our clients came to the UK to study. They came to the realisation that they were gay, that the feelings they have are perfectly normal, but now know they can’t go back home. Shame can also be brought on their family.
The H stands for harm – e.g., prosecution for same sex acts, hand holding, etc. State sanctioned violence. State agents inflicting harm on these groups, or state failure to act if they are being targeted. This is common from some of our Russian clients. Interestingly, the assault is often recorded, just not the reason behind it. It also includes harm from the family and self-harm.
Megan: The most violent form of harm tends to be from the family, through beatings, emotional abuse, being forced into bizarre treatments such as conversion therapy. State sanctioned harm is the most visible but the most damaging is home and self-harm.
Stuart: So that’s the model we use and we haven’t mentioned sex, and that leaves the client with dignity. The use of video and photographic evidence is widely discouraged.
Megan: Some that are extremely desperate, and who can’t think what other evidence they can use, will suggest pictures. We say it’s not good evidence and we discourage it. We haven’t come across any requests by the Home Office for such evidence.
Do you think the stories of where this has happened have left a negative perception?
Stuart: I am happy to go on record and say that there is a very negative attitude towards asylum. Asylum is often the very last route they will take. They will try anything other than asylum. They will try another visa route because of the stigma attached to asylum seekers.
Megan: Nobody wants to be a refugee, nobody wants to chose it.
Stuart: People that come in have often overstayed their visa, and asylum is often the last choice.
Megan: 38% of all our cases were student visas, 45% were work visas. So a large proportion were students who realised their sexuality when they studied in the UK – it’s a good sign that our universities are so inclusive.
How do they find you?
Stuart: We have strong links with the universities and societies. We get recommendations from local organisations and Stonewall – which is a big one – the Lesbian and Gay foundation, and Google.
Megan: We are the number three search result in Google if you type in ‘gay asylum UK’. Also the Albert Kennedy Trust refers a lot of people.
Stuart: We do have over 1,000 likes on Facebook, and we have 588 followers on twitter. (@NoGoingBack1)
Globally, it could be argued that as soon as steps are made towards progress we find we take two more steps backward again. For example, the Supreme Court in America has announced they will hear a case on nationwide marriage equality and Ukraine has voted down an anti-gay propaganda bill similar to that in Russia. Yet, on the negative side, we have the likes of Russia reinforcing their anti-gay bill, Brunei with their ‘stone the gays’ bill, and Uganda which continues to push for the ‘kill the gays’ bill. What are your thoughts on this?
Stuart: Asylum is a direct reflection of the problems in these countries. I always say, when a gay asylum seeker comes to us, there is a failure globally in that gay rights haven’t been sustained or haven’t progressed. It’s a sad reflection on the world that there is a need for organisations like ours.
If anything comes from this interview, I wish to stress that asylum is not easy. Asylum means leaving your family, leaving your friends, leaving your identity, to a certain extent, and you’re not going back. It’s a loss of status.
I always say the heroes of our organisations are the clients who have made this huge sacrifice. If you are going to leave all that behind to be truly who you are, that’s a very big decision that I don’t imagine many gay people in the UK would be able to make.
I must also state that those who do come here are lucky in that they have the financial means to get to the UK. The service users we have are quite middle class people, because they have afforded their university education, flights, and visa. In countries like India and Pakistan, it is the middle classes that are able to afford this, but they have still given up everything to be who they are.
Leaving all that behind to come here, and live on £36 a week on NAS support, in council housing that’s unwanted even by British tenants – that’s not an easy option. Anyone that says asylum is an easy option is wrong.
Scott: Going back to the more global aspect, when you think about it, it’s still not a good situation for asylum seekers. However, global opinions on LGBT issues is shifting with the likes of America who are going to nominate an LGBT Ambassador and the impact of the EU. Equal marriage is the trigger for the next generation of LGBT people, and the LGBT community is constantly changing. The perception will also change to a near irrelevance.
Stuart: Western society is moving forward, but other societies are moving backwards, and when asked about this, the LGBT community is generally a very easily identifiable group.
If you look at the politics, this makes them an easy target, and it becomes easy to unite behind a negative movement and brand them a threat to traditional values. It’s an excuse for a weak leader, such as Mugabe, to unite his party behind this distraction technique.
Megan: Where you find countries that have a political instability, or a weak leader, then you will find attacks on LGBT communities. They are an easy, visible scapegoat. It’s used as a clear distraction technique in Uganda and shifts the country’s blame onto the minority group.
Stuart: There is a long journey to go yet for the LGBT community to be globally accepted and for society to become comfortable with it. There isn’t anything wrong with appointing an LGBT ambassador. However, it might already be too late. Needing one is an indication that there is something wrong, however.
Megan: I would worry that there would be a constant association of LGBT and victim, and I would wonder how the LGBT ambassador would affect that. I’d be very worried of creating an atmosphere where LGBT people are just thought of as victims.
Megan: Some final figures. We have taken 19 cases to the end of the claim. That doesn’t include advice. 38% were Pakistanis, 50% were from South East Asia. 15% were lesbians, 75% were gay men, and 5% were bisexual.
The way they originally came: all of the lesbians were smuggled in and didn’t come through legal means. Only 5% of gay men were smuggled in, with the rest coming through student visas.
Lastly, What’s the dream?
Stuart: To ensure that we get funding so we can continue to exist. Without the funding, we are unable to do the work that no one else is doing. At the end of the day, things unfortunately do boil down to funding. We can have all the enthusiasm, but we do need to pay our way.
Read Keith’s story here
Visit their website at nogoingback.org.uk