Minorities amongst Minorities

Posted on Tuesday, July 4th, 2017

Minorities amongst Minorities: The LGBT experience in UK Detention Centres

 René Cassin Personal Project

Emma Falley

July 2017

René Cassin works towards a world where everyone can fully enjoy their human rights. The organisation draws on Jewish experiences and values to make a compelling case for human rights values and to campaign for change. René Cassin’s work is expansive in its reach and depth. Immigration detention centres, the indefinite duration of detention, and the treatment of people in these centres is a main campaign area. From the Jewish experience and perspective, being forced to seek refuge from persecution has been an unfortunate reality of the Jewish past[1].

Immigration Detention – the LGBT experience

In exploring the realities of the detention system, it is notable that people identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) have a particularly harrowing experience in detention centres. People seeking asylum in the UK are fleeing conflict that directly affects their safety and well-being – and LGBT identified people are no different. In this article I will look at the recorded experiences of LGBT people seeking refuge in the UK and what detention centres are like for them. I will analyse Stonewall and UKLGIG’s (UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group) 2016 report No Safe Refuge and use news articles to demonstrate how poorly detention centres treat LGBT asylum seekers. I will also highlight the lack of support and training of staff. With this information I will outline potential positive changes that could be made. This will include concrete asks for organisations when lobbying MPs and speaking with their members and supporters.

‘An arduous process’ – official attitudes to LGBT asylum-seekers

In 72 countries, identifying as LGBT and engaging in sexual activities with someone of the same sex is illegal[2]. LGBT people in these countries – and others where it is not technically illegal but still discriminated against and punished – are subject to persecution, discrimination, violence and potential incarceration. Getting to the UK is a necessity in order to stay alive, safe and healthy, yet fleeing from persecution and violence based on sexual identity is not always treated with the validity that it deserves. It does not help that the UK’s ‘guilty until proven innocent’ attitude towards asylum seekers and migrants in general extends to the idea of proving sexuality by complicated, and at times inappropriate, interviews set in an overly restricted time frame. If tangible proof is not provided, people are often sent back to a country where they could be abused, jailed, or worse. To ‘prove gayness’ individuals generally need witness statements that evidence sexual orientation or gender identity, all acquired while held in a detention centre. This makes it almost impossible to have discretion when contacting people and “[d]ue to time and resource restrictions LGBT detainees are often unable to provide the evidence to pursue their case” (Bachmann 2016: p25).

Tom Batchelor describes what LGBT men and women go through as an “arduous process” that continues despite the government pledging in the coalition agreement to “stop the deportation of asylum seekers who have had to leave particular countries because of their sexual orientation or gender identification” because it “puts them at proven risk of imprisonment, torture or execution.”[3]

Healthcare concerns

While in detention centres, the treatment of LGBT people in regards to mental health, physical well-being and access to medicine is abysmal. In terms of physical health, staff are not equipped to respond to the needs of trans people who, as a result, are often not able to continue with their transition. This has serious emotional, mental and physical effects on their well-being (Bachmann 2016: p9). Physical health can also extend to the lack of support in receiving medications. Individuals are not guaranteed regularity in receiving medications or are not receiving them at all. Mental health is potentially an even bigger problem as LGBT identified people in detention have an extremely challenging and unsafe environment. Most interviewees in the Stonewall and UKLGIG report disclosed anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide attempts (Bachmann 2016: p9). Given that interviewees noted that they have “suffered serious abuse, rape and torture in their country of origin on account of discrimination and inequality against LGBT people” (Bachmann 2016: pp17, 22), the use of isolation and fear of abuse in the very place sought as a refuge from past abusive experiences is a leading factor of mental health deterioration. Existing poor mental health from past abusive experiences and discrimination only makes it harder for LGBT refugees to prove their case in detention centres. The Home Office agrees that “people who have suffered torture, have suicidal intentions, and whose health is injuriously affected by continued detention should not be placed in detention” (Bachmann 2016: p22). The question then needs to be asked why so many vulnerable people are placed in detention centres for an indefinite time and expected to stay healthy physically and mentally without the appropriate support.

Staff ‘untrained and ill-equipped’

In an article by James Smith, Paul Dillane (then Executive Director of UKLGIG) states that “LGBT asylum seekers [are] particularly vulnerable in immigration detention and face significant disadvantages and dangers”[4]. This is often due to the fact that LGBT asylum seekers face discrimination and abuse not only from other detainees, but from members of staff as well. Unfortunately, even when staff might have better intentions they are untrained and ill-equipped to support. Only a handful of detention centres have a designated Equality or LGBT Officer as a point of contact. The ones that do are often part-time and detainees are not always told about the services and are not able to take advantage of this help. (Bachmann 2016: p20).

Consensus across the political divide

Though a topic surrounding LGBT rights, asylum, and detention centres can be mistaken as a liberals-only place to advocate and critique the system, there is actually support from many sides to make detention centres better. MPs of all parties have been involved in this conversation. A noted “cross-party group of MPs and peers has criticised the treatment of LGBT asylum seekers detained in the UK immigration detention centres across the UK,”[5] which shows that this is an issue that is transcending typical left / right partisanship.

Recommendations for improvement

Having tangible demands for the government about specific changes is very important for this type of advocacy. The Stonewall and UKLGIG report has recommendations for the Home Office, which would benefit organisations wanting to help make improvements in detention centres.

Overall, many LGBT asylum seekers should not be detained on current Home Office standards on not holding people who have suffered extreme physical abuse in their country of origin[6]. It is clear that the UK should and could invest and pilot community alternatives to detention, it would be cheaper and, more importantly, more humane. (Bachmann 2016: p26).

There are many recommendations to be made on the treatment of LGBT asylum seekers within centres, ranging from not allowing solitary confinement, as it is not an appropriate way to “ensure safety and protection”, to allowing a longer process in which asylum claims made by LGBT people are made and processed because it is acknowledged that “LGBT asylum claims are inherently complex and cannot be fairly processed in this way” (Bachmann 2016: p26). Structural and process changes will make the act of seeking refuge a more manageable, and tangible, task. There also needs to be changes internally with those working directly with LGBT asylum seekers. Training on LGBT issues for all detention centre staff would be a start. Specifically, staff need to be able to “identify and tackle homophobia, biphobia and transphobia” and outside contracted firms need to have guidance and training procedures as well to ensure that this type of discrimination and abuse is unacceptable (Bachmann 2016: p26).

A panel consisting of a former cabinet minister, a former chief inspector of prisons, and a former law lord reviewed evidence from UKLGIG. It reported that “there is a lack of information available to what LGBT individuals face [in] detention” and recommended that the “Home Office works with the Home Office National Asylum Stakeholder Forum to properly assess what risks there are” in reference to detention centres[7].  Alongside these ideas, there needs to be continued campaigning to address the mistreatment of LGBT asylum seekers in UK detention centres.[8] Detention is a negative experience for everyone, but there are some whose vulnerable state is compounded. Advocacy groups need to find ways of amplifying the voices of LGBT asylum seekers who have experienced immigration detention and work to support those who may not be able to exercise their own without fear of further persecution.




Work Cited

Bachmann, Chaka L. 2016. No Safe Refuge: Experiences of LGBT asylum seekers in detention. <https://www.stonewall.org.uk/sites/default/files/no_safe_refuge.pdf>

Batchelor, Tom. 2015. “’Guilty until proven innocent’: the trial of LGBT asylum seekers detained in the UK. <http://www.newstatesman.com/world/2015/03/guilty-until-proven-innocent-trial-lgbt-asylum-seekers-detained-uk>

Jukes, Katie. 2016. “UK Detention Centres ‘Not Safe’ For LGBT Asylum Seekers” <https://rightsinfo.org/uk-detention-centres-not-safe-lgbt-asylum-seekers/>

Roberts, Scott. 2015. “MPs: LGBT asylum seekers face ‘bullying’ and ‘abuse’ in British detention centres”. <http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2015/03/03/mps-lgbt-asylum-seekers-face-bullying-and-abuse-in-british-detention-centres/>

Smith, James. 2016. “Government ‘must end its detention of vulnerable LGBT asylum seekers’, charities demand” <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/lgbt-asylum-seekers-amber-rudd-home-office-treatment-detention-centres-a7381756.html>

Twocock, Paul. 2016. “LGBT Asylum Seekers Are Not Safe in Detention, The Home Office Must Do More”. <http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/paul-twocock/lgbt-asylum-seeker-stonewall_b_12655090.html>

[1]Rene Cassin Asylum and Detention Campaign Page http://www.renecassin.org/category/asylum-and-detention/

[2]Twocock, Paul. 28 October 2016. “LGBT Asylum Seekers Are Not Safe in Detention, The Home Office Must do More” http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/paul-twocock/lgbt-asylum-seeker-stonewall_b_12655090.html

 [3] Batchelor, Tom. 10 March 2015. “’Guilty until proven innocent’: the trial of LGBT asylum seekers detained in the UK” http://www.newstatesman.com/world/2015/03/guilty-until-proven-innocent-trial-lgbt-asylum-seekers-detained-uk

[4] Smith, James. 26 Oct. 2016 “Government ‘must end its detention of vulnerable LGBT asylum seekers’, charities demand http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/lgbt-asylum-seekers-amber-rudd-home-office-treatment-detention-centres-a7381756.html

[5] Roberts, Scott. 3 March 2015 “MPs: LGBT asylum seekers face ‘bullying’ and ‘abuse in British detention centres” http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2015/03/03/mps-lgbt-asylum-seekers-face-bullying-and-abuse-in-british-detention-centres/

[6] Jukes, Katie 31 October 2016 “UK Detention Centre ‘Not Safe’ for LGBT Asylum Seekers” https://rightsinfo.org/uk-detention-centres-not-safe-lgbt-asylum-seekers/

[7] Roberts, Scott. 3 March 2015 “MPs: LGBT asylum seekers face ‘bullying’ and ‘abuse in British detention centres” http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2015/03/03/mps-lgbt-asylum-seekers-face-bullying-and-abuse-in-british-detention-centres/

[8] Jukes, Katie 31 October 2016 “UK Detention Centre ‘Not Safe’ for LGBT Asylum Seekers” https://rightsinfo.org/uk-detention-centres-not-safe-lgbt-asylum-seekers/