Have you ever read Oscar Wilde? Do you use sex toys? Why have you not attended a Pride march? These are just some of the questions that have been asked of lesbian asylum seekers in what one academic says shows shocking levels of ignorance and prejudice among tribunal judges.
Over the past year Claire Bennett, a researcher at the University of Southampton, has interviewed a dozen gay women from socially conservative countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Uganda and Jamaica to assess what their experience of applying for asylum has been like.
She found that the women were routinely subjected to “inappropriate and insensitive” questioning from tribunal judges in their bid to ascertain whether the women really were gay or at genuine risk of persecution.
“I thought I was quite unshockable just in terms of how dehumanising criminalising the whole asylum process is,” Ms Bennett, who worked in refugee camps in Afghanistan and Cambodia before returning to Britain, told The Independent. “I was wrong.”
Her findings, which will be presented today to the British Sociological Association’s annual conference, will raise questions over what training immigration judges receive on dealing with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) applicants.
Many of the women complained that much of the questioning seemed to presume they led the same kind of gay lifestyles as someone might in the West, despite coming from deeply socially conservative cultures where heterosexual intercourse was rarely discussed publicly, let alone homosexual. The questioning also made stereotypical assumptions of what constitutes a typical gay lifestyle.
One woman from Jamaica was told by an immigration judge that he did not believe she was homosexual because “you don’t look like a lesbian”. Another lesbian asylum seeker from Pakistan was asked in court “If you are a lesbian you go to clubs – which ones?” despite her being a Muslim woman who did not drink. Her credibility as a lesbian was also questioned because she had not attended a Pride march and the immigration judge her that “all lesbians go to Pride”.
One woman from Uganda – where gay men and women are subjected to increasingly horrific, state-sponsored homophobic violence – said she was even asked whether she’d ever read Oscar Wilde.
“They have in their mind this stereotypical lesbian woman with short hair and no make-up, they just expect you to conform to what they believe a lesbian woman should be like and how they behave,” the woman, who is not named, told researchers. “They want all of us to have short hair and piercings, it’s really, really stereotypical, and they ask you what shows you watch?”
The Government has never released statistics from immigration tribunals on how many people each year apply for asylum claiming that they face persecution because of their sexuality. But it is believed by support groups that around 98 per cent of such claims are rejected first time around. The onus is on the asylum seeker to effectively prove that they are lesbian, something that is particularly difficult to do if they come from highly socially conservative societies.
Meanwhile immigration judges need to try to ask questions that can tease out whether someone really is gay or whether they are simply stating they are in order to make a bogus asylum claim. Most claimants are expected to provide some sort of evidence of a gay relationship or persecution. Although Border and Immigration Agency staff have specific guidelines to deal with LGBT asylum seekers, there is no equivalent advice for tribunal judges.
Of the 11 asylum seekers Ms Bennett interviewed, one gained asylum at the first decision, six gained asylum after several appeals, four are still going through the system. Ms Bennett believes her research illustrates the need for greater transparency from the immigration tribunals in how gay asylum seekers are treated and how judges come to the conclusions they do.
Using the example of one woman from Jamaica who was asked if she used sex toys, she explained: “Whether you do or don’t use sex toys tells you nothing about someone’s sexual orientation so why is that a legitimate question? It’s entirely inappropriate. For these women their sexuality wasn’t about sex toys or a favourite gay nightclub. We need much better statistics and much more transparency over how these decisions are made.”