By Dr Rachel Ainsworth
Suella Braverman’s words on Tuesday were enraging, but not shocking. This Tory government has been desperate to extricate itself from its commitment to upholding the European Convention on Human Rights. As she addressed the American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington D.C. Braverman discussed the modern relevance of the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention. The main clause of the convention defining refugees as someone with a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country;”. Braverman stated, “the extent to which the global asylum framework enables the obscuring of these categories creates huge incentives for illegal migration.” […] “I think most members of the public would recognise those fleeing real risk of death, torture, oppression, or violence as being in need of protection. However, as case law has developed what we have seen in practice is an interpretive shift away from persecution in favour of something more akin to a definition of discrimination […] but we will not be able to sustain an asylum system if in effect simply being gay or a woman or fearful of discrimination in your country of origin is sufficient to qualify for protection.”
Braverman’s words highlight the dangerous way in which politicians decide who and in what circumstances people are allowed to seek sanctuary from persecution. Currently, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) acknowledges that LGBTQ+ individuals “may” be entitled to be classified as “members of a particular social group.” In October 2012 UNHCR made it explicit that LGBTQ+ individuals should be considered as refugees when there is well-established evidence of an individual’s fear of persecution. While, the UNHCR has outlined their viewpoint, not all countries and signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention believe the same, for instance only a small number of EU countries recognize sexual orientation as a reason for asylum. Thus, when Braverman questions, “It is therefore incumbent upon politicians and thought leaders to ask whether the Refugee Convention and the way it has come to be interpreted through our courts, is fit for our modern age or in need of reform” the answer is yes! The way in which, the 1951 Refugee Convention has been written has been a source of concern for LGBTQ+ and feminist advocates specifically its language, in which scholar Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, has reiterated its androcentric and heteronormative nature where women’s and LGBTQ+ rights are not recognised. Within its current language framework, the Convention makes it difficult to legitimise the constant oppression LGBTQ+ individuals face, but this does not make less real or important. Moreover, new and robust protections and safeguarding measures are needed for LGBTQ+ individuals and clearer definitions making specific reference to sexual orientation and gender identity as a reason for asylum are necessary.
What is absolutely mindboggling is Braverman’s denial of the “death, torture, oppression or violence” LGBTQ+ communities face on a daily basis. Just earlier this year Uganda passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2023 which details new crimes for promoting homosexuality which potentially could lead to the death penalty or longer prison sentences. China has also had a number of recent crackdowns and closures of LGBTQ+ spaces. Just last month, inNigeria, dozens were arrested for attending a gay wedding, defying the country’s criminalisation of same sex marriage and public displays of same sex relations. While these are just news headlines offering a glimpse of government oppression, the everyday realties of LGBTQ+ individuals are much worse with individuals facing imprisonment, sterilisation, forced conversion, rape and death because of the sexual orientation or gender identity. In the USA the number of trans women killed doubled from 2017 to 2021 with the majority being black, indigenous, or people of colour.
The UK (particularly in England and Scotland) is also not innocent, as Braverman’s Home Office has used asylum detention centres based-off of the U.S. prison industrial complex to house asylum seekers before their cases go to court to be recognised for refugee status. Ultimately, these centres are used to interfere and make it harder for individuals to get refugee status in the UK, leading to frequent deportations. The UK’s use of detention centers is extremely problematic and part of a “migration crisis” rhetoric by the current right-wing UK government who continue to use these facilities which are frequently reported as places of violence (physically and mentally). LGBTQ+ individuals are often more vulnerable in these situations of detention, for instance gay and lesbians are often asked “prove” their sexual orientation and give lengthy evidence to demonstrate that were persecuted because of their sexuality. For transgender and gender non-conforming individuals, asylum detention can be particularly harsh as they can be assigned to male or female only centers that do not correspond to their gender identity leaving them vulnerable to abuse. Not only do these detention centers re-traumatize LGBTQ+ asylum seekers who have faced abuse in their countries of origin, these UK centers also house the asylum seekers for an indefinite period, making these facilities more like a prison for people who are trying to escape rights violations. Similarly, these detention centers make it hard for LGBTQ+ detainees to build asylum cases due to lack of internet and inconsistent legal representation, thus creating constant fear in detainees who are threatened with being deported back to their home countries if their case for asylum is denied.
The inhumane and callous way in which Braverman is putting blame and denying the violence that the LGBTQ+ community faces is abhorrent! Similarly, the Braverman’s insistence that LGBTQ+ asylum seekers are just facing discrimination but not enough to constitute refugee status is a dangerous path to follow akin to the harmful anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric in places like Victor Orban’s Hungary and Georgia Meloni’s Italy. Within the UK, there needs to be more awareness regarding LGBTQ+ individuals within asylum detention centres that Braverman and the Home Office continue to use. As of this year, the government has announced plans to strengthen its use of these detention facilities with its new asylum bill which will ultimately cause more distress and anxiety to those seeking a better life. To those reading this piece, we need to put pressure on this UK government to end its use of asylum detention facilities and call on the government to recognise sexual orientation and gender identity persecution as a valid claim for refugee status!