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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Cameroon jails ‘gay’ man for texting ‘I’m in love with you’ to male friend

Jean-Claude Roger Mbédé’s three-year prison term upheld by appeals court in Africa’s most repressive state for homosexuals

An appeals court in Cameroon has upheld a three-year sentence against a man found guilty of homosexual conduct for sending a text message to another man saying: “I’m very much in love with you.”

Activists said the court’s ruling on Monday in Yaoundé, the capital, marked yet another setback for gays and lesbians in the west African country, widely viewed as the most repressive country in the continent when it comes to prosecuting same-sex couples.

Jean-Claude Roger Mbédé, 32, had been provisionally released on bail in July after serving a year and a half in prison. His lawyer has 10 days now to file an appeal to the country’s supreme court.

Holding back tears on Monday, Mbédé said he was not sure whether he could withstand more time in prison, given the conditions he faced there.

“I am going back to the dismal conditions that got me critically ill before I was temporarily released for medical reasons,” he told Associated Press by telephone. “I am not sure I can put up with the anti-gay attacks and harassment I underwent at the hands of fellow inmates and prison authorities on account of my perceived and unproven sexual orientation. The justice system in this country is just so unfair.”

Mbédé’s provisional release earlier this year followed pressure from rights activists over his deteriorating health aggravated by malnutrition and repeated assaults.

Homosexuality is illegal in many African countries, and MPs in Liberia, Nigeria and Uganda have recently presented legislation that would strengthen anti-gay laws that are already on the books.

But even in those countries, prosecutions are rare or nonexistent, said Neela Ghoshal, a researcher in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights programme at Human Rights Watch.

Cameroon’s penal code calls for sentences ranging from six months to five years for people found guilty of “sexual relations with a person of the same sex.” And last year, 14 people were prosecuted for homosexuality and 12 were convicted, according to justice ministry records cited by Human Rights Watch.

“It’s the country that arrests, prosecutes and convicts more people than any other country that we know of in Africa for consensual same-sex adult conduct,” Ghoshal said. “In most of these cases there is little or no evidence. Usually people are convicted on the basis of allegations or denunciations from people who have claimed to law enforcement officials that they are gay.”

She said many suspects were tortured or otherwise treated poorly in custody until they gave confessions, which were then used as evidence against them.

In October, two men were convicted of homosexuality because of their “effeminate” appearance and because they were drinking Bailey’s Irish Cream, which was viewed as a drink favoured by gay men, according to the United Nations high commissioner for human rights.

Andre Banks, executive director of All Out, said Mbédé had already been significantly harmed by the case against him because of the pervasive anti-gay stigma in Cameroon.

“Roger said he had to leave the university where he was studying because of the attention from the case and because of the mounting threats and fear of violence that have been very concerning to him,” Banks said. “He’s worried that he won’t be able to have a normal life in Cameroon because of the amount of attention it’s brought to him.”

Lawyers defending those accused of homosexuality have also faced death threats including Mbédé’s lawyer, Alice Nkom.

A text message sent in October to Yaoundé-based lawyer Michel Togue, who has also defended people accused of homosexuality, similarly threatened his children. Attached to the message were photos of the children leaving school.

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Palestinians warn: back UN statehood bid or risk boosting Hamas

Failure to support limited recognition would undermine Abbas and validate armed resistance to Israel for many, officials warn

The Palestinian leadership is warning Europe and the US that failure to support its bid for statehood at the United Nations on Thursday will further strengthen Hamas after the Gaza fighting by suggesting that violence, rather than diplomacy, is the way to win concessions from Israel.

Senior Palestinian officials believe the vote is a crucial test of whether there is a future for President Mahmoud Abbas’s diplomatic strategy after his credibility was badly damaged among Palestinians by what they regard as the success of Hamas in the conflict with Israel this month.

Many ordinary Palestinians believe the conflict showed that standing up to Israel delivers results, in contrast to years of concessions under US peace plans, and drawn-out negotiations. European diplomats concede that the fighting has shifted the ground before the Palestinian request for recognition as a “non-member state”. Failure to support Abbas could risk further undermining his increasingly weak position, to Hamas’s advantage, they warn.

France has said it will vote in favour, and Spain is shifting in that direction. But the US and Britain are attempting to weaken the impact of a UN vote in support of statehood by putting considerable pressure on the Palestinian leadership to offer guarantees that it will not take advantage of the new status to accuse Israel of war crimes at the international criminal court (ICC) or seek territorial rulings at the international court of justice.

Palestinian officials said Britain and the US had pressed Abbas to sign a confidential side letter, which would not be presented to the UN general assembly, committing the Palestinian Authoritity not to accede to the ICC.

France has been pressuring the Palestinians to amend the resolution to
make it clear that Israel could not be taken to the ICC retroactively
for any alleged war crimes committed before the UN votes to recognise
Palestinian statehood.

Israeli officials are particularly concerned over an investigation of its assault on Gaza four years ago, Operation Cast Lead, which was widely condemned as a war crime because of the scale of Palestinian deaths and the level of destruction.

The Palestinians have already drawn up the necessary application to go to the ICC. It caused consternation when the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, presented ths document at a meeting with the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, earlier this month.

A Palestinian close to the talks quoted Clinton as responding: “Don’t you even go there.”

Britain and the US also want Abbas to agree to begin negotiations immediately with the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. The Palestinian leadership is demanding evidence that Israel is serious about talks after years of futile discussions during which the Jewish state continued its rapid expansion of settlements in the West Bank and other measures to seize land the Palestinians regard as part of a future state.

Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian official who has played a leading role in shaping the statehood request, told the Guardian before leaving for the meeting in New York that the Israeli assault on Gaza strengthened the case for seeking UN recognition. He said the Palestinian leadership would not be deterred by threats, such as the warnings from Washington and Israel that they could cut funds to the Palestinian Authority.

“Not to go to the UN would be suicidal for the Palestinian Authority. All these people [in Gaza] took the brunt of the attack and now we should chicken out because they [the US and Israel] will cut off some money? What we’re doing is not violent; it’s not military; it’s not illegal,” he said. “The world should see that if they keep maintaining the status quo, it will get you nothing but more bloodshed. That’s the lesson from Gaza.”

Shaath said the vote was an important test of whether there was a future for diplomacy, when talks had produced almost no progress toward a Palestinian state in years.

“Clinton just a few days before Gaza said it would be a very long time before the Palestinian issue is going to get attention. Which means what: we only get attention when we use force? If we get this vote, people will feel nonviolence produces results; if we do not, they will reach the opposite conclusion,” he said.

Later, Shaath told a meeting with foreign diplomats it would be “immoral” for their countries to oppose the statehood resolution. The Palestinian Authority has warned countries with embassies in Ramallah, including Bosnia and Cameroon, that if they do not support the UN move they will be expelled.

The US, Israel and European countries have accepted that attempts to get the Palestinians to back down from seeking UN recognition have failed and that the move is all but guaranteed to pass, with the support of a majority of the general assembly. But Washington and London are putting considerable pressure on the Palestinian leadership over the ICC because, as one European official put it, “taking Israel to the court is a real red line”.

For now, it appears the Palestinian leadership would prefer to retain the option to go to the ICC as a bargaining chip for future negotiations. But the pressure will only grow in meetings in New York immediately before the vote.

Britain says it is concerned at the Israeli response to Palestinian statehood after Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has threatened to cancel all or parts of the Oslo peace accords and topple Abbas from power. And the UK says the statehood bid could end up harming Palestinian interests if the Israeli reaction is so severe that it sets back the prospects for peace.

But Palestinian officials are dismissive of the argument, saying there is no peace process to speak of and that Israel has done little to enhance Abbas’s credibility by continuing to expand Jewish settlements and treating him with contempt.

Britain also pressed the Palestinians to delay the vote until after the Israeli general election, in January, fearing that Netanyahu’s response may be made stronger by electoral considerations.

Israel recognises that the general assembly is all but certain to back the Palestinian move so it has focused its efforts on pressing European governments in particular to oppose or abstain in an effort to deny the vote legitimacy. Israel reasons that if most European governments and the US fail to support implicit recognition of a Palestinian state then it will be able to argue that Abbas has only the backing of dictatorships and less free countries.

European attempts to forge a common position have foundered, with Germany opposing the Palestinian request and France’s president, François Hollande, wavering but then favouring it again.

Britain has also come under pressure from Arab countries that have made clear they regard the vote as a test of whether the UK is serious about pressing a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Israeli push against the statehood bid includes cartoons on YouTube that show Netanyahu and world leaders gathered around a dinner table waiting for Abbas to arrive for peace talks.

“I am on my way to the UN. I am not coming to the table,” he says.

A second video shows Abbas driving a bus toward a cliff by pursuing the UN bid.

The Palestinians chose 29 November as the date to submit the statehood request because it is the anniversary of the 1947 UN decision to partition British-mandate Palestine between Israel and an Arab state.

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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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