Gay asylum seekers feeling increased pressure to prove sexuality, say experts

Assessment changes by UK Border Agency has led immigrants fleeing persecution to even show film of themselves having sex

Gay asylum seekers are increasingly going to extreme lengths to meet immigration officials’ demands that they prove their sexual identity or else be returned to countries where they face persecution.

In a lecture to be delivered this week at the Law Society, S Chelvan, a barrister who specialises in asylum cases and works with the UK Border Agency (UKBA), will detail the extraordinary methods to which individuals are resorting – including filming themselves having sex – to justify requests for refuge.

The UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group (UKLGIG), which supports up to 1,000 applications a year, says altered official guidelines are a significant improvement but that they result in an excessive focus on the sexuality of individual claimants.

Changes introduced by the UKBA following a landmark supreme court judgment in 2010 have shifted the emphasis of official assessments to establishing whether or not claimants are genuinely lesbian or gay, according to immigration experts.

Prior to 2010, those seeking asylum because they were at risk if returned to states where homosexuality is illegal – such as Iran, Uganda or Cameroon – were refused permission mainly on the grounds that they could behave with discretion when returned.

Refusals are now more commonly made on the basis that claimants are not, or cannot prove, that they are gay, lesbian or transsexual, Chelvan said, explaining that the new focus is having bizarre and inhumane consequences.

“I know of at least two cases in the last six weeks where I have had asylum seekers filming themselves to demonstrate they are gay. Now it’s all about proving whether you are gay or lesbian.”

A Ugandan woman, who was eventually given temporary leave to remain in the UK but wished to remain anonymous, told the Guardian: “The UKBA officials wanted me to prove that I was lesbian but they wouldn’t tell me how I could.”

The woman, who spent months at Yarlswood detention centre awaiting deportation, said copies of a Ugandan newspaper that called for her to be killed should she return to the capital, Kampala, were initially disregarded by a UK immigration tribunal.

Erin Power, executive director of UKLGIG, said: “Many more people are now having their claims processed through a fast-track system while they are held in detention. We have argued with the UKBA that whatever you do sexually doesn’t create the right identity.

“When [clients] tell us they have photos or videos … we say that’s not how to establish their sexuality.”

Around 75% of those who claim asylum on the grounds they are gay and will be at risk if removed from the UK fail in their claims, Power said. The failure rate has declined since new the guidelines were introduced. On occasions, she acknowledged, she had come across claims that she did not think were credible.

Jonathan Cooper, a human rights lawyer who is chief executive of the Human Dignity Trust, which campaigns to decriminalise homosexuality in more than 80 countries, said the asylum process was often “incredibly demoralising” and resulted in many people being sent back abroad where they were attacked.

Last month, he said, several men were lynched by a mob in Nigeria after allegedly being found having gay sex.

Figures on how many people seek asylum on the basis of their sexuality remain unknown. The UKBA has been asked to record and publish figures of how many claims are made but has not done so.

A UKBA spokesperson said: “We have changed our guidance to ensure that we do not remove individuals who have demonstrated a proven risk of persecution on grounds of sexual orientation.

“Our position remains clear – when someone needs our protection, they will be given it.”

The president of the Law Society, Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, said: “We tend to think that, in terms of LGBT rights and protections, we’ve got it right. That in the UK, LGBT individuals have equal rights and are protected against discrimination.

“Yet there is a question whether these rights and protections apply to … asylum seekers who have fled to the UK because in their country of origin their situation is so dire, so desperate, that they fear for their own safety.”

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Journalist asylum-seeker released from detention

Sheffield man wins latest round in prolonged litigation. Marishka Van Steenbergen is keeping watch on the case for the Northerner

Sheffield asylum-seeker Bernard Mboueyeu returned home to his wife on Friday after spending five weeks in detention pending deportation to Cameroon, as reported in the Guardian Northerner.

Mboueyeu, who fears persecution and jail if he is deported to Cameroon, was detained by the UK Border Agency on 10 July with a deportation flight booked for the 16 July. However, Mboueyeu’s deportation was cancelled after he attempted suicide by drinking cleaning fluid the night before his flight.

Mboueyeu fled his homeland of Cameroon in 2007 after he was allegedly beaten up and tortured by the ruling regime for supporting opposition groups. The treatment followed his arrest by President Paul Biya’s security forces for taking photographs of students being attacked during protests in 2006.
Supporters say that the journalist, who was working for a newspaper in southern Cameroon at the time, was stripped naked, beaten up and kept in jail for forty days.

After living in Sheffield for three years, Mboueyeu met and married charity worker Sharon in 2010. Shortly after the marriage the Home Office insisted that Mboueyeu return to Cameroon to apply for a spouse’s visa.

Mboueyeu offered to return voluntarily to Cameroon if the Home Office could guarantee his safety, but supporters say that the Home Office was unable to make that guarantee. His supporters say that if he is returned, he could be arrested, face torture, or be locked up indefinitely.

Before Mboueyeu was detained by the UK Border Agency, his solicitors were preparing a case for a judicial hearing on 9 August, which was allowed to go ahead following the cancellation of the deportation flight on 16 July.
Mboueyeu’s wife Sharon, who lives in Wincobank, Sheffield, says:

At the hearing the Home Office barrister said that Bernard was a ‘daytime grandfather’ because we don’t live with my daughter. He also said that we made the authorities in Cameroon aware of Bernard because we went to the media for support.

Bernard won because we had a social worker report on the role Bernard plays in the lives of our grandchildren and because Amnesty International took on Bernard’s case.

I could not believe how the Home Office tried to make him look bad and now he has to report twice a week – I think because they are annoyed that we won.

Mboueyue, who has been released without bail, said that Amnesty International wrote a letter in support of his case detailing Cameroon’s record of gross human rights violations and how political opposition is not tolerated and is often suppressed through violence. Mboueyue said that Amnesty International’s letter expressed concern about the fact that he is known in Cameroon and would be detained and persecuted if he returned to his home country.

Pending judicial review, he hopes to gain leave to remain in the UK. He thanked those who supported him and said:

It is great to be home with my wife and family, I am so pleased to be home.

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London 2012: seven Cameroonian athletes go missing from Olympics

Team officials say that five boxers, a swimmer and a footballer have disappeared, possibly to claim asylum

Seven Olympic athletes have disappeared amid fears they have fled the London 2012 Games to claim asylum, according to team officials.

Five boxers, a swimmer and a footballer from Cameroon were reported missing earlier this week leading team officials to suggest they had “defected.”

“What began as rumour has finally turned out to be true,” David Ojong, the Cameroon mission head said. “Seven Cameroonian athletes who participated at the 2012 London Olympic Games have disappeared from the Olympic Village.”

The Cameroonian athletes have not broken British immigration rules introduced for the Olympics that allow competitors, their coaches and families to stay in the country until early November.

But the athletes’ disappearance and Ojong’s comments have received widespread attention in Cameroon, where people said they were embarrassed by the news but understood the predicament facing the athletes.

“The conditions in Cameroon are very difficult – there are no opportunities here and if you have the chance to go the UK, it’s understandable that you would want to stay there,” said Henri Tchounga, a tour guide in Yaounde. “But my fear is that now Cameroonians will have a bad reputation and in future we will not be able to get visas. It’s good for them but a serious problem for the rest of us.”

Ojong said a reserve goalkeeper for the women’s soccer team, Drusille Ngako, was the first to disappear. She was not one of the 18 finally retained after pre-Olympic training in Scotland.

While her team-mates left for Coventry for their last preparatory encounter against New Zealand, she vanished. A few days later, swimmer Paul Ekane Edingue disappeared along with his personal belongings.

Ojong added that five boxers eliminated from the Games, Thomas Essomba, Christian Donfack Adjoufack, Abdon Mewoli, Blaise Yepmou Mendouo and Serge Ambomo, went missing on Sunday from the Olympic village. It was reported that four of the athletes were last seen at a team reception at the Royal Garden hotel, next to Kensington Palace, west London, on Friday.

Ojong is understood to have held talks with the sports minister Adoum Garoua at the Olympic Village on Tuesday.

It is not the first time Cameroonian athletes have disappeared during international sports competitions.

At past Francophonie and Commonwealth games as well as junior soccer competitions, several Cameroonians have quit their delegation without official consent.

In June, an Ethiopian torchbearer, Natnael Yemane, 15, also disappeared after he went missing from a hotel in Nottingham.

Meanwhile three Sudanese athletes who hoped to compete in the Games were last month reported missing amid claims they would apply for political asylum.

Flaubert Mbiekop, an economist from Cameroon, said: “The bottom line is to look at the economic conditions in Cameroon and see how hard the system is for many people, especially the athletes who don’t receive any support from the government. London presented an opportunity; I’m not at all surprised that they took it.”

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Journalist asylum-seeker attempts suicide hours before planned deportation

Home Office delays flight to Cameroon but is not backing down on decision. Protesters plan new appeal on medical ground as Marishka Van Steenbergen reports

Sheffield asylum-seeker Bernard Mboueyeu is receiving medical treatment after drinking cleaning fluid just hours before he was due to be deported to Cameroon, where he fears persecution and jail.

The removal flight, reported in the Guardian Northerner yesterday, has now been cancelled and Mboueyeu remains at Campsfield House immigration centre where he is now on 24-hour suicide watch. Supporters say this is the second time that he has tried to take his own life.

Mboueyeu’s wife Sharon, who lives in Wincobank, Sheffield, said Mboueyeu drank three cups of ‘cleaning fluid’:

I’m devastated, I can’t believe it has come to this. He’s just not that kind of person. It must have been a last resort for him.

The UK Border Agency can still deport Mboueyeu with 72 hours’ notice. However, supporters have asked the Medical Justice Foundation to assess Mboueyeu’s health. He cannot be removed if doctors say he is not physically or mentally fit to fly.

Mboueyeu fled his homeland of Cameroon, in 2007 after he was allegedly beaten up and tortured by the ruling regime for supporting opposition groups. The treatment followed his arrest by President Paul Biya’s security forces for taking photographs of students being attacked during protests in 2006. Supporters say that the journalist, who was working for a newspaper in southern Cameroon at the time, was stripped naked, beaten up and kept in jail for forty days.

Sharon said that she spoke to Mboueyeu yesterday:

His words to me were that he’d rather die than go back and face torture and death anyway.

Mboueyeu married charity worker Sharon in 2010 but the Home Office is insisting that he returns to Cameroon to apply for a spouse’s visa. His supporters say that if he is returned, he could be arrested, face torture, or be locked up indefinitely.

Before Mboueyeu was detained by the UK Border Agency on 10 July, his solicitors were preparing a case for a hearing on 9 August. Sharon said that she contacted Immigration Minister Damian Green after hearing of the self-harm attempt. She said:

I’m hoping Damian Green will make the right decision. We’re not asking for Bernard to be given leave to remain, all we’re asking is for him to be given an opportunity and to be allowed to keep the court date so that the judge can make the decision.

However, former Cabinet Minister David Blunkett said late yesterday:

I was very sad to learn of Bernard Mboueyeu’s attempt to harm himself and the trauma that his wife Sharon and all those who care about him have been experiencing.
 
This has been a very prolonged and complex case and I’m sad for all of them that we appear to have come to the end of the line.
 
At the last judicial review the judge made it clear that he would not provide a stay on removal instructions but there is an outstanding further attempt at judicial review on 9 August.
 
As a consequence I approached the Immigration Minister Damien Green to ask for a stay on that removal until this further judicial review had been heard.

 
Blunkett received a response from Green soon afterwards stating that it would not be in the public interest to stop Mboueyeu’s deportation. Green said:

The new immigration rules entered into force on 9 July 2012 and account has been taken of Parliament’s view in general on where the public interest lies.

The UK Border Agency have considered the grounds for Mr [Mboueyeu] Djikeugoue’s renewed application and is satisfied that his removal is entirely in line with the recent clear statement by Parliament on how the proportionality balance should be struck and that in this case it weighs in favour of the public interest.

I would consider intervening in removal proceedings only under the most compelling and compassionate of circumstances which I am not satisfied exist in this case. Consequently, I am not prepared to intervene in this matter and arrangements in place for the removal of Mr [Mboueyeu] Djikeugoue will therefore proceed.

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Political asylum seeker fears torture and detention if deported

Sheffield journalist married local charity worker two years ago, but must return to apply for spouse’s visa in Cameroon where he faces persecution. Film by Joe Bream and Marishka Van Steenbergen

An emergency protest has been held outside Sheffield Town Hall in support of Bernard Mboueyeu, who fears persecution and jail if he is deported to Cameroon first thing tomorrow, Monday 16 July.

Mboueyeu, who is currently being detained at Pennine House in Manchester, was arrested by the UK Border Agency on Tuesday morning. This is the second time he has been held, after being released and allowed to return to Sheffield just six weeks ago.

Mboueyeu fled his homeland of Cameroon in 2007 after he was allegedly beaten up and tortured by the ruling regime for supporting opposition groups. The treatment followed his arrest by President Paul Biya’s security forces for taking photographs of students being attacked during protests in 2006. Biya has been in power since 1982.

Supporters say that the journalist, who was working for a newspaper in southern Cameroon at the time, was stripped naked, beaten up and kept in jail for forty days. Mboueyeu’s wife Sharon, who lives in Wincobank, Sheffield, says:

They cut his feet with machetes – he’s still got the scars on his legs.

Mboueyeu married charity worker Sharon in 2010 but the Home Office is insisting that he returns to Cameroon to apply for a spouse’s visa. His supporters say that if he is returned as planned early tomorrow morning, he could be arrested, face torture, or be locked up indefinitely.

Shaffaq Mohammed, Sheffield’s Liberal Democrat Leader, who was at the Town Hall protest, says:

Mboueyeu has offered to return voluntarily to Cameroon if the Home Office guarantees his safety but the Home Office have refused to make that guarantee.

We think Bernard’s safety is at grave risk, if not his life. All because a bureaucrat would like a piece of paper to be sent from a foreign country.

Commenting on a 2009 Amnesty Report on Cameroon, Tawanda Hondora, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Africa said:

Cameroon has a horrendous record of gross human rights violations, including torture and killings, against dissidents and members of opposition. Political opposition is not tolerated in Cameroon. Any dissent is suppressed through either violence or abuse of the legal system to silence critics.

A UK Border Agency spokesperson says:

Our rules are very clear, when someone has no right to be in the UK we expect them to leave voluntarily. If they fail to do so, we will seek to remove them.

Cllr Mohammed says that whilst in Sheffield, Bernard was making a great contribution to the city.

He volunteered with the Royal Society for the Blind and another charity called Aspire. Two years ago, when the devastating floods hit Pakistan, one of the first people outside the Town Hall was Bernard. He helped to highlight the plight and to raise thousands of pounds.

Sharon says:

He’s my husband, he’s a step-dad, he’s a granddad and it’s so wrong that they’re quite happy to take him away from us and not allow him to have a family life.

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Couple facing deportation to Cameroon released after campaign by writers

Leading writers condemned home secretary’s decision to deport playwright Lydia Besong and her husband

A couple facing imminent deportation to Cameroon have been unexpectedly released from detention this week after a campaign by leading writers to halt their removal from the UK.

A week ago, leading writers and barristers wrote to the home secretary, Theresa May, to condemn the UK Border Agency’s decision to deport Lydia Besong, a playwright, and her husband, Bernard Batey.

The former children’s laureate, Michael Morpurgo, Monica Ali, Hanif Kureshi, Alan Ayckbourn, Nick Hornby and Helena Kennedy signed the letter urging May not to deport them. Kennedy, a leading QC, described the agency’s decision to deport the couple as “hideous” and “insensitive”, and called for an overhaul of the way women are treated in the asylum system.

Besong says she was raped in Cameroon and would be persecuted for speaking out against the government. She was not informed that her husband’s latest appeal against deportation had failed on 23 December. On 10 January, the couple were taken into detention as they registered with immigration services in Manchester as normal.

Besong said she spotted a van outside the office and thought to herself: “I hope that’s not come for me.” She said she feared something would happen as she had had a prophetic dream the night before.

Severely traumatised by her ordeal, Besong’s leg trembles as she talks and she is suffering from glaucoma, which has required three operations.

“We had no idea we were about to be released,” she said of Wednesday’s events. “[I had] an eye appointment at Bedford hospital and I was taken accompanied by security guards. Everyone was looking at me wondering what I’d done, but I was not a prisoner.

“When I returned from the appointment and was told I was being released I just said: ‘Hmm.’ I didn’t feel a lot of emotion after everything I’d been through. Although I was being released, there were still people in Yarl’s Wood such as my roommate who’d been there for 10 months.”

“Many bad things will happen [if I am returned to Cameroon],” she added. “OK, the media is watching now, but what about when they go away? I would be locked up because of my political views.”

The couple’s lawyer said the secretary of state’s handling of the case “continues to baffle”. Gary McIndoe said: “Having confirmed that they are to reconsider their decision on Bernard’s asylum claim, UKBA have authorised Bernard and Lydia’s release from detention, only 24 hours after communicating to us a refusal to release them.”

He said he hoped the substance of risks faced by the couple in Cameroon would now be looked at with greater care and clarity.

During Christmas 2009, Besong was held for four weeks in Yarl’s Wood detention centre and she and her husband were threatened with removal to Cameroon. Their flight back was halted by a high court judge and the UKBA said their case would be reviewed.

They were forced to leave their home country in 2006 as a result of their membership of the SCNC, a peaceful organisation which campaigns for the rights of the English-speaking minority of southern Cameroon. The couple were imprisoned and tortured, and Lydia says she was raped by a uniformed prison guard. They say they have both been traumatised by these experiences and have become depressed.

Since arriving in the UK, Besong has written three plays about her life as an asylum seeker and criticised the political situation in her home country.

Besong’s latest play, Down with the Dictator, is currently in rehearsal and due to be performed in Greater Manchester and Bristol in March.

Michael Morpurgo said: “How this country treats asylum seekers is the measure of what kind of a people we are. Lydia was oppressed in Cameroon. That there is a risk she will be imprisoned and abused again seems undeniable. That she is extraordinarily brave in her stand against oppression is clear. And that her talents would be of great value to us as a citizen in our society would seem to be obvious.”

The couple arrived at a friend’s flat in Tottington, near Bury, at 1am on Thursday. Lydia and her husband were waiting for the UKBA to return their house keys so they could go home.

Besong said she feels blessed to have been released, but her second period of detention in Yarl’s Wood has left psychological scars.

“There are roll calls at 7.30am, 12, 5 and 9.45pm,” she said. “The guards are always checking up on you and you can hear their keys jangling. It is difficult to get any rest at all. When you come out of that place it is sometimes difficult to forget that you are not there because it comes with you as you are living with the memories.”

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Authors and activists condemn decision to deport Cameroonian playwright

Home secretary urged not to deport Lydia Besong and her husband, who fear they will be persecuted in Cameroon

Bestselling authors and leading human rights figures have joined forces to condemn the UK Border Agency’s decision to deport a Cameroonian playwright and her husband.

The former children’s laureate Michael Morpurgo, Helena Kennedy, Monica Ali, Hanif Kureishi, Nick Hornby and Alan Ayckbourn, have written to the home secretary, Theresa May, to urge her not to deport Lydia Besong and her husband, Bernard Batey.

Kennedy, a leading QC, described the agency’s decision to deport the couple as “hideous” and “insensitive”, and called for an overhaul of the way women are treated in the asylum system.

Besong is due to be deported back to Cameroon, where, she says, she was raped and would be persecuted for speaking out against the government. She is expected to leave on Saturday, barring any successful last-minute efforts to stop her removal.

Supporters say Besong was not informed that her husband’s latest appeal against deportation had failed on 23 December. Instead the pair were taken into detention when they registered normally with immigration services on 10 January.

Since arriving in the UK in 2006 Besong has written three plays about her life as an asylum seeker and criticised the political situation in her home country.

Besong’s play How I Became an Asylum Seeker – produced by Women for Refugee Women, who continue to support her – has been performed in Manchester, Liverpool and London. Rehearsals for a new play were due to begin in Manchester the week Besong was detained at Yarl’s Wood removal centre, with a performance scheduled at an international theatre festival in Bristol at the end of March. Her husband is being detained separately.

Morpurgo said he was begging the home secretary not to remove a “remarkable woman”. He said: “How this country treats asylum seekers is the measure of what kind of a people we are. Lydia was oppressed in Cameroon. That there is risk she will be imprisoned and abused again seems undeniable. That she is extraordinarily brave in her stand against oppression is clear. And that her talents would be of great value to us as a citizen in our society would seem to be obvious.” Kennedy said the manner in which Besong and Batey were detained was unfair: “The way in which this was done was hideous, with the couple not informed they were going to be removed. The whole way it was carried out was insensitive and terrible.” She added that the Home Office and the UKBA was failing women.

“There are serious concerns about the culture of disbelief in the immigration system,” she said, adding that a lack of training and willingness to listen meant women who had been raped could not tell their stories. “There is an ongoing lack of understanding of the issues and how they affect women, because they do affect women differently.”

Lawyers for the couple are seeking an emergency judicial review to stop the deportation. Supporters argue that cuts to legal aid have left Besong more exposed, and reliant on fundraising to pay for legal representation. “It is so hard to get good legal advice in these cases and cuts to legal aid mean the only way of getting advice is to rely on others to pay. It is just hellish,” said Kennedy.

Speaking from Yarl’s Wood, Besong said: “Of course it would put me in danger if I was returned to Cameroon. There is no hiding that my work is critical of the current government. I would be detained indefinitely. There is no freedom of expression in Cameroon, this is happening every day.”

But she would not stop writing, she added. “I wanted to highlight what was happening at home,” she said. “If it couldn’t be beneficial to me maybe it could be beneficial to others. I didn’t know I would find myself in this situation. I am very, very, scared.”

The couple say they were jailed and tortured in Cameroon as punishment for involvement with the SCNC pressure group, which campaigns for southern Cameroon’s independence. The playwright said that while in jail, she was raped by a guard.

Previously, Juliet Stevenson, Joan Bakewell, Andrea Levy, Ali Smith, Sarah Waters, Lisa Appignanesi, Linda Grant and the writers’ group English Pen, have all expressed support for Besong.

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