Content warning: suicide.
Among those held in immigration detention, there is a group of people that feel more isolated than most.
Often scared to reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity (SOGI) to others in detention, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and intersex (LGBTQI+) people may be forced to hide their SOGI in the confined environment of an immigration removal centre (IRC), where perhaps they are held because they failed to disclose their SOGI at the first opportunity.
— Rainbow Migration (@rainbowmigrants) November 1, 2018
Having left a country where they had to conceal their true selves for fear of persecution, LGBTQI+ asylum seekers are expected to come out in front of the Home Office officers upon arrival.
This is often unrealistic and therefore many do not disclose their SOGI immediately, or at all during their asylum claim. They end up raising it in the context of a “fresh claim”, once they have been in the UK for a while and feel more confident to talk about their sexuality.
Others are unaware that being LGBTQI+ could be a reason to apply for asylum, believing that asylum can only be claimed for political reasons.
Applications based on SOGI are complex because there isn’t a specific way to prove that one is gay, lesbian, bisexual etc.
Everyone has a different story and the best way to tell this story is by writing a good statement. To take a good statement one needs a good solicitor, and the opportunity to spend enough time with them. This is not possible in detention, where people can see solicitors for 30 minutes at the free legal surgeries that are run at each centre, but it may take weeks before they find a lawyer who can take on their case on a legal aid basis.
Securing legal representation is not easy, and even when one manages to find a solicitor, it is difficult to communicate with them.
Leila Zadeh from @UKLGIG: Policy on detention of those at risk has changed but practice has not. Vulnerable people are still being detained. Onus is on individuals to prove their vulnerability. #immigrationdetention pic.twitter.com/CLhIBW1Ezy
— UK Parliament Human Rights Committee (@HumanRightsCtte) October 31, 2018
More than a physical barrier
When you are detained, your phone is taken away, and you get another one, with no access to internet. It is often difficult to contact friends and family who know your sexual orientation or gender identity and could provide support for your claim.
You may end up splitting up from your partner, losing touch with people that matter to you, and you don’t have access to your photos, your paperwork, your evidence.
You prepare your case with what you have, but you know that you could do more if you were free.
Day after day you wait for a decision from the Home Office or the tribunal, which will probably be a refusal.
You desperately attempt to put together new evidence. Your lawyer tells you that they can help you prepare a fresh claim if you have new material. But how can you find new material if you are locked up? If you have lost the phone number of the people who may be willing to support you?
“If they released me, I could contact my friends, my ex-partner, people in my country. I could access my documents”.
“I cannot do anything from here, there’s no one to help me”.
This is what I often hear when I visit LGBTQI+ people detained in IRCs or when they contact UKLGIG by phone.
Sometimes I talk to them once, others call many times, for some legal advice, or simply to have someone at the other end of the line to talk to.
“How can I prove that I am gay? What else can I tell the Home Office if they did not believe me the first time around?”
I understand this frustration, which I am sure is shared by many good lawyers who try their best to help their detained clients.
I wish I could do more, but detention is not only a physical barrier between you and the rest of the world. It is a wall of hopelessness, confusion, despair.
“If I go back to my country I will kill myself.”
“I am a trans woman but they kept me at Harmondsworth [a detention centre for men] for a while.”
“Here I live openly as a lesbian, in my country my family will force me to marry a man.”
“Why the Home Office doesn’t understand this?”
I don’t have an answer. I can only suggest to each person to get the help of a good lawyer, to keep fighting, to believe in justice. But that’s not easy when your future is at stake, and you are behind bars.