At this week’s Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London, the government has taken welcome steps to help protect the rights of LGBTQI+ people globally and the ‘Windrush generation’ in the UK. However, it has remained silent on one matter that links these two issues: the treatment of LGBTQI+ people in the UK who are fleeing persecution.
On Tuesday, Theresa May acknowledged the role of the UK in putting in place laws criminalising same sex relations during the Colonial era, and said she regrets “the legacy of discrimination, violence and even death that persists today”.
She also apologised to Caribbean countries over the treatment of the “Windrush generation”.
These are steps in the right direction, but the government would do well to match its apologetic words with action in the UK to protect LGBTQI+ people who are seeking asylum because of persecution in their countries of origin. It needs to stop detaining LGBTQI+ asylum seekers.
The UK is the only country in Europe that detains people in immigration removal centres indefinitely. Around half the people that the government detains are eventually released back into the community.
Research by Stonewall and the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group has documented the discrimination, harassment and abuse experienced by LGBTQI+ asylum seekers in UK detention centres. Many LGBTQI+ asylum seekers have described how being in detention reminded them of the persecution they were trying to escape. As one man from Pakistan described, “Here in detention it is the same as where I came from. I was so scared”.
The impact on their mental health can be disastrous. One woman from Uganda, for example, explained that “I get flashbacks of exactly what happened in Uganda. I get bad nightmares. When I was in detention I even heard voices of this man that raped me who would try to tell me I am worthless. I have tried twice to take an overdose when I was at detention because I couldn’t take it anymore”.
In a case regarding the detention of a gay asylum seeker from Iran, The European Court of Human Rights found that “governments should exercise particular care in order to avoid situations which may reproduce the plight that forced these persons to flee in the first place”. Yet the UK government does not recognise that lesbian, gay and bi asylum seekers are at risk of harm in detention. The vulnerability of trans and intersex asylum seekers is recognised but they are still being detained.
Concern over the detention of LGBTQI+ people has also been raised at the UN. The Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment has “noted that in detention facilities there is usually a strict hierarchy, and that those at the bottom of the hierarchy, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, typically suffer double or triple discrimination. Complaints of insults, beatings, confinement and targeted forms of violence are not uncommon”.
This week’s Commonwealth leaders meeting is a chance for the UK government to demonstrate in practice leadership on the rights of LGBTQI+ people. As well as promoting the rights of LGBTQI+ people globally, the government should ensure that when the same people are on our shores seeking sanctuary, we treat them with dignity and grant them protection. The government must stop subjecting LGBTQI+ asylum seekers to situations reminiscent of those which they are fleeing – it must stop detaining LGBTQI+ asylum seekers.