Trapped in wait

The UK’s asylum process consistently fails LGBTQI+ asylum seekers, and it’s only set to get worse as the government pushes through its draconian Nationality and Borders Bill. Amy Hall speaks to someone stuck in the system

LGBT Solidarity Rally in front of the Stonewall Inn in solidarity with every immigrant, asylum seeker, refugee and every person impacted by Donald Trump's executive orders in 2017.

Muhammad Abdur Razzak knew he was gay from a young age, but he didn’t have the words to describe his sexuality. Growing up in a conservative family in Bangladesh, he went to a strict, religious school. It was only when he was a teenager, and already in a secret relationship with another boy, that they both learned through watching videos online, that the way to describe their feelings and attraction was ‘gay’.

Despite this revelation, Abdur Razzak, who is now 34 years old, couldn’t let on to his family and friends. ‘When you’re in Islamic school they teach you what is forbidden and what is right and wrong,’ he explains.

Homosexuality is criminalized in Bangladesh, and life sentences can be handed to people convicted of ‘unnatural intercourse’. LGBTQI+ people also face discrimination and violence from wider society and lack protection from the police. One high profile case of homophobic violence in recent years was the killing of two gay rights activists Xulhaz Mannan, the editor of Bangladesh’s first and only gay rights magazine Roopban, and Mahbub Rabby Tonoy who in 2016 were hacked to death in Dhaka. Five years later six people were sentenced to death for the murder.

A widespread ‘culture of disbelief’ and the ‘impossible burden of proof’ placed on LGBTQI+ people seeking asylum means that claims are ‘routinely’ rejected

Abdur Razzak recounts instances of violence against LGBTQI+ people that he heard about back home. ‘When certain individuals found out people were gay they murdered them – literally chopped off their heads,’ he says.

He is waiting on tenterhooks to find out whether he will be allowed to stay in the UK – the country he has called home for over a decade, and where he has finally felt safe enough to express his sexuality.

Looking for safety

Abdur Razzak first came to the UK in 2010 and started studying in London on a student visa but, just over a year later, his college campus shut down without any notice and he couldn’t afford to start again somewhere else.

‘That’s when things got difficult,’ he explains. ‘I was also scared to go back to Bangladesh… My plan was to stay here finish my studies and build a better future here.’

Abdur Razzak was initially advised to apply for political asylum and didn’t realize that his sexuality – and the danger he would face because of it – should also give him grounds to make a claim to seek asylum in Britain.

‘During this time I always kept myself hidden. I didn’t understand that this country was so open. If I had known then the situation would be different, but I was always scared,’ he says.

Abdur Razzak isn’t alone in this. Many LGBTQI+ people who arrive in the UK, looking for a safer life, are not aware they can make asylum claims related to their sexuality or gender identity.

‘Some people are also ashamed to say it,’ explains Akintola Bankole, a coordinator for African Rainbow Family, a charity that that supports LGBTQI+ people from African and Asian backgrounds who are seeking asylum in Britain. Some people find it hard to talk explicitly about their sexuality, even in interviews with Home Office representatives. ‘They’re just so scared… they’ve been in hiding for so long. It’s a whole process to come out,’ says Bankole.

Abdur Razzak has built a new life in the UK. Photo provided by Abdur Razzak.

Burden of proof

Even if people decide to make an asylum claim on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity, they face a system full of continuous barriers. Not only are people seeking asylum in the UK expected to live on £40 ($52) a week, issued to them on a pre-loaded payment card, they are not usually allowed to work while their claim is being considered and many people are left destitute.

Bankole explains that LGBTQI+ people face additional challenges. For example, they might be housed with others who are homophobic, or violent. ‘That’s not what they need – that’s what they’ve run away from. They’ve come to a country that’s supposed to keep them safe,’ he says.

LGBTQI+ people seeking asylum are also expected to somehow ‘prove’ their sexuality of gender identity – despite many people having spent their whole lives hiding it. ‘Usually the Home Office wants them to provide evidence from back home, but how can they provide that evidence when it’s hard for them to even express themselves back home?’ asks Bankole. ‘Some people have run away – how can you expect [someone] who’s left abruptly like that to prove it?’

There is also the fear that if people are public about their sexuality their claim may still be rejected and they will be in even more danger when they go back home. A widespread ‘culture of disbelief’ and the ‘impossible burden of proof’ placed on LGBTQI+ people seeking asylum means that claims are ‘routinely’ rejected.

In a testimony published by Rainbow Migration, who also support LGBTQI+ people through the asylum and immigration system, Marina explains how it felt to have to ‘prove’ her sexuality, ‘It’s like trying to prove that I am called my own name… You find yourself forced to do things that you don’t want to do just because you want to prove that you are who you are.’

People are forced to describe intimate details of their relationships to complete strangers, or find themselves trying to prove their involvement in ‘gay’ activities, like Pride events. As Marina points out, many of these are not necessarily relevant or appropriate for many people.

The government’s Nationality and Borders Bill – dubbed the ‘anti-refugee bill’ by campaigners, which is currently in a state of parliamentary ping-pong between the Lords and the Commons, is only set to make things harder. Among many other devastating developments, it’s set to increase the standard of proof LGBTQI+ people have to meet when making claims for asylum. The government has sought to create a ‘two-tier system’ of refugee status, criminalizing people based on how they arrived in the country and how soon they claimed asylum on arrival – something that could particularly impact LGBTQI+ people.

Last week the government announced a deal it had made to send ‘tens of thousands’ of people seeking asylum on a one way ticket to Rwanda to have their claims processed from there. This has provoked widespread opposition and protest, including from LGBTQI+ groups who have pointed out the extensive discrimination and abuse which takes place in Rwanda.

Bankole explains how ‘offshoring’ could make it even harder for LGBTQI+ people seeking asylum to ‘prove’ anything: ‘How are people supposed to prove their sexuality when they’re outside the UK and they can’t even experience these things, or prove to you that this is who they are?’

Left in limbo

Meanwhile, Abdur Razzak continues to wait. In 2017 he found that several pictures were shared on Facebook that fully outed him back home – they included images of him kissing another man.

‘My friends and family in Bangladesh saw the post and that’s when everything went down the drain – I started getting threats and my parents disowned me. Since then I haven’t had any contact with any family members. They see it as a sin and say it’s forbidden in Islam and that I’m bringing shame to the family.

‘I’m 100% sure that I don’t have a life back home. I’m like the outcast now. Nobody would accept me and the worst could be that they kill me.’

His claim for political asylum denied, a friend advised Abdur Razzak to speak to a solicitor about making amendments to his case and raising his sexuality as grounds for staying in the country. So in November 2018 he submitted a further submission to the Home Office based on his sexuality. Now he waits in fear of being deported back to Bangladesh and has to sign in at a police station once a month.

‘I haven’t got the money to settle elsewhere – no family, no mum, no dad no brother or sister, but here I have friends,’ he says.

In October last year border force officers turned up while Abdur Razzak was visiting his partner at work at an Indian restaurant. ‘They found me there and were asking lots of questions. I told them everything and they asked my partner about me.’

Abdur Razzak is engaged to his partner Tariq and they live together in Tunbridge Wells, England. All he wants is to get out of limbo and rebuild his life.

‘Unless the Home Office gives me permission I can’t continue with my life,’ he says. ‘I’m stuck and my mental health is getting worse. It’s really hard.’

Thanks to Koddus Miah for help with interpretation.