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LGBT asylum

May 19, 2011

Fearing for their lives in nations where homosexuality is illegal, some gays and lesbians seek asylum in Europe. But not all EU countries treat LGBT refugees equally and many claims are reportedly dismissed unfairly.

ILGA members march in Brussels
LGBT groups are calling for a fairer EU asylum policyImage: Joel Le Deroff/ILGA

Same-sex sexual acts are illegal in over 70 countries, including seven which invoke the death penalty for breaking this law. It's therefore no surprise that some gays and lesbians seek asylum in more gay-friendly countries, including in European nations like Belgium, Germany and the UK.

Yahia Zaidi is one such refugee. He arrived in Belgium almost three years ago seeking asylum on account of his sexual orientation, as well as his political activism in Algeria for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people.

The young gay man had spearheaded an HIV/AIDS prevention organization for the gay community in the cities of Algiers and Oran. Persecution from the general public as well as government officials was a part of life for Zaidi in his homeland.

"I got arrested in Algeria once when I was 17 years old. I was just hanging out on the street with a friend, but I looked a bit effeminate with my long hair," he remembered.

"The policeman was trying to force me to sign something that I didn't admit to, so I didn't sign it. Then another policeman signed it on my behalf. Since that time I have been publicly outed with the police and the government in Algiers, and they even keep a register containing all the names of gay people in Algeria."

Most LGBT asylum claims dismissed

While Zaidi's asylum process in Brussels was quick and successful on account of well-documented death threats against him for his activist work, not all gay and lesbian refugees fleeing persecution in their home countries experience such a positive outcome.

Although EU legislation recognizing persecution on the basis of sexual orientation as grounds for asylum already exists, it doesn't automatically translate to asylum for LGBT refugees. In fact, in the UK in 2009, for example, 98 to 99 percent of asylum claims made by gays and lesbians were rejected at the initial assessment stage. Many other European countries, meanwhile, have yet to make such statistics available.

At the European Parliament in Brussels, Jean Lambert, the Green Party MEP for London, says numbers like those from the UK indicate that something is going wrong when it comes to implementation of EU legislation for asylum.

People demonstrate for protection of gays and lesbians by Europe following the death of David Kato
Europe must protect gays and lesbians whose lives are in danger, says MEP Jane LambertImage: Joel Le Deroff/ILGA

"It is already supposed to be the case for every member state that if somebody is at risk of persecution or fears serious harm because of their sexual orientation, then it is taken into account within the asylum procedure," explained Lambert.

"The problem is, in some member states, this isn't really done systematically. Some, like Belgium, have a very good practice on this. Other European nations, however, are clearly less comfortable with LGBT asylum."

One country that particularly stands out for failing to implement a fair asylum procedure is the Czech Republic, which as recently as last year made gay asylum seekers undergo a sexual arousal test.

For the examination, men were hooked up to a machine monitoring blood flow to their penis and were then shown heterosexual pornographic films. Applicants who became aroused were denied asylum. The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights has criticized Czech officials for using the test, which it says is undignified.

While the asylum procedure in other EU countries is more civilized, there are still high hurdles for gay and lesbian refugees to overcome, as Klaus Jetz, executive director of Germany's Gay and Lesbian Federation, explained.

"You will have an interview. From the beginning you have to say 'I am gay and that's why I'm persecuted in the country I come from.' If you don't do so, you risk to be refused," he said.

"You have to convince the decider that you're a gay man, but that's not easy, especially when you're coming from a country where you are persecuted. You probably haven't had a coming out, so how can you speak in Germany for the first time openly about your sexuality?"

Ugandan newspaper "Rolling Stone" revealed the identity of allegedly gay members of Ugandan society, and called for public punishment
Reversing laws criminalizing homosexuality can't be done without outside helpImage: AP

Better training for asylum officials

In view of this difficulty, organizations like ILGA, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, are calling for greater sensitivity from caseworkers who decide these asylum claims.

According to ILGA Europe's Policy and Programs Officer, Joël Le Déroff, many caseworkers simply don't understand how prior persecution impedes gay and lesbian refugees while they are seeking asylum.

"Caseworkers ask a person to prove that he or she has had a same-sex relationship. Obviously people are trying to escape their country because that's not possible in the country of origin," emphasized Le Déroff.

"On top of that, they experienced persecution from public authorities in their very recent past. So when they arrive in Europe and are faced with interviews by asylum authorities, they are not necessarily aware that persecution on grounds of sexual orientation is covered by EU legislation."

Organizations like ILGA were encouraged by the European Parliament's vote in April to amend current EU asylum law to recognize the particular needs of LGBT refugees. This includes providing special training to asylum officials on sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as guaranteeing physical examinations that respect human dignity.

'Hiding sexual orientation not the solution'

But perhaps one of the largest problems remains the dismissal of cases on the grounds that gays and lesbians can return to their home countries and simply be discreet about their sexuality.

A report by the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group reveals that in 56 percent of the cases reviewed in 2009, caseworkers decided that the applicant could return to the closet in their country of origin - an attitude which London MEP Jane Lambert says must change.

The European Union Parliament in Brussels
The European Parliament plans to amend current asylum lawsImage: AP

"We've seen this in the UK where we recently had a young woman who was due to be returned to Uganda," recalled Lambert. "She was saying, 'I can't be, I'm a lesbian. I'm at risk in Uganda.' The UK government was saying, 'Well, if you're discreet, you'll be ok.'

"Many of us and the British courts are saying that this isn't a solution. You shouldn't be asking people to deny their sexuality just so that you can find a reason to return them. People should be free to express their sexual orientation and both the courts and the asylum system should protect them."

According to Yahia Zaidi, a fairly-implemented EU-wide asylum policy is critical for gays and lesbians living in countries where homosexuality is illegal, since the ability to effect change from within such nations is limited.

"We still need to have this law decriminalized, and we have to work on the protection of LGBT people," said Zaidi. "We have more and more LGBT activists in Algeria, but we remain few. And even when we are attacked by people, we can't ask for protection from the police and the government."

Author: Laura Schweiger
Editor: Martin Kuebler