Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The LGBT Asylum Crisis

There is no denying that asylum seeking is a contentious issue. What sparks even more controversy is the issue of LGBT asylum seekers. The case of the Iranian, Mehdi Kazemi, 19, who faced deportation to Iran and therefore, a likely death sentence, brought this issue to public attention. He was saved thanks to media outcry, however, the prospects for many others are bleak.

LGBT asylum seekers face unique barriers when it comes to the asylum process, not just in the UK, but elsewhere. These difficulties stem from the debate over whether they can be included in the definition of a refugee set out by the 1951 UNHCR Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. This is important because states are only obliged to accept asylum applicants who fit into this definition, in other words, someone who fears persecution because of “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.

The debate focuses on whether LGBT people can be included in the “particular social group” category. There is no indication as to how this should be interpreted or whether the other categories should act as examples. The key characteristic of those other categories (race, nationality, religion) are that they are immutable characteristics, in other words, they neither can be or should have to be changed. Furthermore, procreation, history and culture are integral concepts to these identities. Given this line of reasoning, only people who have immutable characteristics and can procreate to continue an involuntary line of shared culture and history should be included in the “particular social group” category. If such a definition were to pertain then LGBT people cannot be included because a lack of those features means their association with each other is voluntary.

Another complexity is related to how far we may argue prosecution in a state equals persecution. A state may legislate against and prosecute LGBT people and for another state to offer asylum on these grounds amounts to a criticism of that state’s laws.

In recent years, a combination of the development of human rights discourse with the precedents set by recent case law has propounded the issue in favour of LGBT people. In the case of an Iranian man in 1996, the court ruled that Iran’s prosecution of LGBT people did have persecutory intent. The court was able to rule this by looking at the European Convention on Human Rights and how it differed from Iranian laws. Regarding, the debate over the “particular social group” category, judges have increasingly ruled in favour. It is now accepted that this category is for non-traditional refugees, such as LGBT people, to have an entry-point to claiming asylum.

However, despite this, in the UK, asylum seekers face a Home Office whose ethos is steeped in disbelief and the determination to cut the number of successful applicants.
For LGBT asylum seekers, it is particularly hard to prove your sexual orientation. Medical reports, love letters and membership of clandestine clubs are sought as evidence, but few asylum applicants have this kind of proof. In fact in 1995, a judge suggested a Romanian man should have an anal examination to confirm he was, as he claimed, gay. Moreover, claimants that do not reveal their sexuality straight away are seen as embellishing. This is related to a lack of understanding within the asylum process; in many countries, LGBT people are made to feel shame, therefore, it is not something that is easy to reveal to Home Office interviewers immediately.

Homophobia and heterosexist views compound the issue. Applicants that are or have been married, or that have children, are often assumed bogus because decision-makers do not understand cultural issues and the taboo of homosexuality in many states. Decision-makers may use stereotypes to help judge whether a claim is bogus, for example, assuming a woman that is feminine cannot be gay. Now that LGBT people are included in refugee law, issues to do with passing as a heterosexual and evading persecution by changing how you act are becoming problematic. Due to the unique nature of LGBT issues, the focus is wrongly placed on the victim’s actions, rather than the persecutor’s. In the case of Zia Mehmet Binbasi, the judge implied he should stop being active to avoid persecution! Furthermore, the Home Office’s ‘Country Information Policy Unit’ assesses the human rights situation in countries and produces reports which form the basis of many decisions. Often persecution is understated, for example, it has placed Jamaica as a safe country to return to.

So, what can be done to improve the situation? Changing the universal refugee law itself will never happen. Europe’s ‘fortress mentality’ means it is trying to restrict avenues for claiming asylum rather than expand them. Possible options must be state-developed. For example, training should be offered on sexuality, as well as gender and race, to all those involved in the asylum process. The ‘Country Information Policy Unit’ needs to undergo serious changes and becomes more up-to-date. A final option is to offer LGBT asylum seekers better support and advice by overhauling the process so that coming out and telling stories is easier.

Clearly, attitudes towards all asylum seekers in general need to change. They are real people with legal rights to apply for asylum. They should not be used by politicians as a ‘tough on immigration’-tool to pander to the persecutory intent of right-wing media scaremongering, as increasingly appears to be the case.

The Restaurant Reviews

As part of STAR (Student Action for Refugees) action week, we have reviewed a number of restaurants in Leeds which are run by refugees. Positive media for refugees and asylum seekers is rare but these are 3 particular success stories of refugees having been able to fully and positively integrate themselves into society.
If you are tired of eating the same food all the time, or always going to the same places, these restaurants are definitely worth a visit.
Reviews by: Jane Salmon and Grace McNeill


Café Create
Type of Food: Breakfast, lunch and snacks
Average meal cost: £5
Paying: Cash Only
Takeaway: No

Create is a not-for-profit organisation based in Leeds. Its services include catering and cleaning and Cafe Create is their latest enterprise. Slightly different to Darvish and Merkato this is not a family run business but instead is an ethical organisation in which many employees (often refugees) have faced difficulties in life.
Although the food is not exciting (mostly sandwiches, jacket potatoes and cakes) it is all excellently homemade using natural and local products. The drinks are also fairtrade (we particularly recommend the hot chocolate).
The cafe itself is welcoming. The mismatch, recycled furniture gives it a quirky feel and the brightly coloured walls makes it light and airy. Despite not being open long, it is already very popular and the staff are often quite busy. This doesn't get in the way of excellent and friendly service though.
The prices are very student-friendly and this is definitely the place for a chilled out, relaxed lunch or mid-morning coffee and cake.

Address: Holy Trinity Church, Boar Lane, Leeds, LS1 6HW
Website: www.createleeds.org
Opening Times: Mon-Sat 9am-3pm (stops serving hot food at 2pm)


Merkato International
Type of food: Ethiopian
Average meal cost: £7
Paying: Cash only
Takeaway: Yes

Merkato is run by Samuel and Tady Bekalo who came to the UK from Ethiopia 10 years ago and opened this café 3 years ago. It is a quiet place, particularly popular with local Ethiopians and Eritreans who drop in frequently for a chat and a drink. Don't be intimidated though as both the staff and regular customers are very friendly.

The menu is limited and full of unfamiliar words but most options have an English explanation. We tried the vegetarian mixed platter which is a variation of different lentil and vegetable based dishes. It is served with injera, traditional Ethiopian, bread which is somewhat of an acquired taste but definitely worth a try. There is no desert except for a selection of Baklava (sweet pastries) which were very good.

This is definitely not the place for a relaxed evening meal but if you are in town and looking for a quick and slightly different lunch it is ideal.

Address: 79 Merrion Superstore, Merrion Centre, Leeds
Telephone: 07961 883500
Opening Times: Mon-Sat 10am-6pm


Darvish; Traditional Persian Tea-House and Restaurant
Type of food: Iranian
Average meal cost: £10
Paying: Cash only
Takeaway: For orders over £20

Darvish is a family run restaurant and café. Morteza, the manager, came to the UK from Iran 8 years ago and opened Darvish 4 years ago.
The staff and atmosphere of the restaurant are very welcoming and we particularly liked the open kitchen, which gives the restaurant a homely feel and means that you can see your food being prepared.
Having never eaten Iranian food before, we weren't sure what to expect but overall the food was very enjoyable. Between the 3 of us we ordered 2 starters which were both delicious and came with freshly baked naan bread. Being 1 vegetarian and 2 meat eaters, we sampled a variety of the menu. There were 5 vegetarian options. The one we tried, vegetarian khoresht, was a mix of vegetables in a Persian sauce.
The meat dishes; Kebab Chenjeh (lamb) and the Joohjeh kebab fillet (chicken) were beautifully cooked with the chicken and lamb being wonderfully tender.
For desert they offer speciality home-made saffron ice cream (free if you order a starter and main course). We found this surprisingly good!
We made the mistake of ordering tea with the meal rather than at the end, as it comes with a selection of biscuits and dates. However we all enjoyed the Darvish Special tea and would recommend going just for that!

At an average of only £10 for a 3 course meal, it is very affordable. Admittedly it is a little out of the way for most students but it is easy to catch a bus in that direction from town and we think it is well worth a visit.

Address: 283 Roundhay Road, Leeds, LS8 4HS
Telephone: 0113 2495500
Website: www.DARVISH.co.uk


Hey Student Action Refugee week is here, with events around the university all week so get involved if you get the chance!