Author: Owen Jones
My neighbours will put a tyre around my neck and set it on fire.” That is what Rosemary fears will happen if she, a lesbian, is deported by Britain back to Nigeria. She fled her homeland nearly a decade ago after her husband discovered her sexuality and threatened to kill her. She knew she was gay from the age of 12 but, she says: “I come from a culture where you have to get married: my mother threatened to kill herself if I didn’t.”
None of this satisfied the Home Office. It asked her why, if she was gay, she got married, had children and didn’t come out until she’d left the country. Even though she’s an active member of Leicester’s LGBT community, the authorities refused to believe her, and locked her up in Yarl’s Wood detention centre for four months. “It’s a place you wouldn’t wish on your enemy – a place of torture,” she tells me. She is now fighting deportation to Nigeria, a nation that forbids homosexuality, and where surveys suggest that nine out of 10 people oppose same-sex relations.
Rosemary’s story is a damning indictment of the chasm that exists between the government’s rhetoric on LGBT rights and its actual record. The prime minister herself repeatedly voted to keep anti-gay laws until a few years ago. While it was a Tory government that introduced equal marriage – though most Tory MPs did not vote for it – this is an issue of life and death for gays, lesbians and bisexuals. It is also, in part, about our colonial legacy. Many of the countries they face deportation to have anti-gay laws that were designed while the British were in power. We have a moral duty to offer support and safety to LGBT people fleeing repression for which Britain shares responsibility. Yet, according to Home Office figures released last year, of 3,535 asylum claims related to sexuality over a two-year period, a staggering two-thirds were rejected. The government hopes that the furore over Windrush has dissipated, that scrutiny of the “hostile environment” and the injustices it perpetrates has gone. That must not happen.
Take 50-year-old Larry, who fled Lagos in Nigeria in 2014. He realised he was gay aged 14 but, like so many gay Nigerians, had to stay firmly in the closet for his own safety. Although there were whispers and rumours about his sexuality, he married a woman in 1999. But his wife found him with another man four years ago and “raised the alarm”. Local people invaded his flat and beat him; later, police officers beat him, too, and forced him to pay money to avoid arrest. When he was attacked again, he fled the country, fearing his life was in danger.
He stayed with a cousin and family friend, but was detained by immigration officers in 2016. He was imprisoned in three detention centres, and given a deportation order backdated by several weeks, meaning his appeal time had already lapsed. He fell into mental crisis, slamming his head against his cell wall and door until he was rushed to hospital. “I will be subjected to persecution back home and I fear for my life,” he says, noting that his involvement with British LGBT organisations is all over the internet.
Other stories are equally distressing. Roseline, 26, came here from Nigeria aged 12: she survived a car crash two years earlier, which claimed her parents’ lives. A guardian accompanied her to the UK and was then deported, leaving Roseline and her sisters in foster care. “They treated me like a slave,” she says. She was forced to clean, cook, look after the family’s children, and faced physical and verbal abuse. School was no escape: there, she suffered racist bullying. Later, she was arrested and imprisoned for false representation in an immigration case, then detained at Yarl’s Wood, where she suffered from “hallucinations and terror”. Roseline, who speaks with a thick London accent, faces being deported to a country she left as a child, being separated from her fiancee, and being put in grave danger. As Karen Doyle, the national organiser for Movement for Justice – which plays a critical role defending gay refugees – tells me, many deportation decisions challenge the sexuality of the defendant, failing to take account of how complex the coming-out process can be, not least for those fleeing countries with anti-gay laws.
There have been successful fightbacks. Gloria, 22, left Uganda four years ago as a student. When her father found out she was gay, he refused to pay her college fees. Refugees are expected to sign in regularly at a local reporting centre: it was on one such occasion that Gloria was detained. She was lucky: as well as having “personal strength”, according to Beatrice Ivey, an activist with No Borders, she had a big support network. When they discovered Gloria was to be deported on a Qatar Airways flight, activists bombarded the company with calls, highlighting that they had no legal obligation to remove her. This deportation was stopped – but refugees lacking a support network aren’t as lucky. As Ivey says: “Everything in the system is designed to stop people claiming rights enshrined in international law.”
It is now Pride season in Britain. Members of the government will wrap themselves in the rainbow flag and issue self-congratulatory statements about how far LGBT rights have come. Don’t let them get away with it. Gay and lesbian refugees are being detained and deported to countries where their safety is at risk, even their lives. The Windrush scandal should lead to a much wider conversation about the persecution of migrants and refugees. While Labour’s Shami Chakrabarti and Diane Abbott have courageously helped put the scandal of Yarl’s Wood on the political radar, more voices are needed.
The architects of the British empire helped construct anti-gay laws across the globe that still endure today. The victims of such persecution need our support. Instead, they are being terrorised. It is a national scandal – and the silence over it must end.