Time to Be Out: LGBT+ Asylum Seekers facing the Home Office in a year of Brexit and Covid-19


Ellie Parnham speaks to the founders of York-based charity Time to Be Out about the position of LGBT+ asylum seekers in the UK.

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Image by Time to Be Out via Facebook

By Ellie Parnham

We’re all in the same ocean but some people haven’t got a boat. The process of claiming asylum in this country is long, and almost always fraught with endless obstacles. It can take years. Delays to decision making caused by the pandemic and the uncertainties surrounding Brexit have had a disastrous impact on the lives of those waiting to hear if they can stay in this country. For LGBT+ people fleeing persecution from homophobic families and nations, the challenge has additional difficulties and traumas.

Last month I chatted with William and David, founders of York-based charity Time to Be Out, which helps LGBT+ asylum seekers to find their feet in the UK and, crucially, to tackle the daunting task of applying to the Home Office.

I have known William and David since last November when I started working with them as a volunteer. They are gay men who have lived through the AIDs crisis and understand first-hand what it means to be persecuted simply for being who you are. William informed me that they started the charity in 2016 because so little was being done specifically for the LGBT+ community, particularly in the North. Initially, they organised socials to help with loneliness, but quickly realised more urgent matters – legal aid, health, finance – needed to be addressed. They were surprised by the lack of support from other, often Christian-led, organisations.

The charity has three main focuses: befriending and social organising, English-language tutoring, and casework. They have also grown a network of lawyers who contact them on behalf of people in need.

As David rightly says, all asylum seekers need help. The system is incredibly tricky to navigate, accommodation is appalling and financial resources are low. LGBT+ people face additional problems; not only are they exploring their sexuality, but they also face physical threats from other asylum seekers they live with.

Through their work they slowly came to the realisation that the specific trauma for LGBT+ people claiming asylum simply was not being recognised. We spoke about the Home Office interview which grants the Right to Remain, including the difficulties arising from the fact that it is impossible to ‘prove’ your sexuality. This allows the Home Office to reject claims based on the grounds of disbelief. David explains that because asylum seekers are still struggling to accept their sexuality and may have faced threats and rejection from loved ones, being asked to speak openly about it with a stranger for long hours can be completely overwhelming. He also said that they have had problems with naïve or even homophobic translators in the past – which has affected how a case has been received.

The inconsistencies that arise – through no-one’s fault, as William reminds me – come mostly through cultural differences. There is little to no training within the Home Office for LGBT+ specific sensitivities. People are asked to recall details of events that happened years ago. The idea of ‘coming out’ is completely alien for some: David tells me he was the first person a 40-year-old man from Senegal spoke to about his sexuality.

Time to Be Out works to help people identify with people like them not only so that they may start to build their lives openly, but also in preparation for the interview process.

The interview can be up to two years after arriving in the UK, throughout which the claimant is not allowed to work. During the interview – which can be five to eight hours and 250 questions long – the asylum seeker is interrogated on every part of their lives. Around 70 percent of LGBT+ cases are rejected due to either lack of credibility or the fact that it is judged safe for that person to return. Around 50 percent of rejected cases are overturned by a judge. People can be left waiting a further two years for the result. David tells me these delays have been hugely increased due to Covid-19 and people are left feeling out of control.

Alongside social events, tutoring and sourcing legal aid, all of which have been disrupted during the pandemic, Time to Be Out supplies support statements and witnesses for a person’s case. David says that they spend a minimum of ten hours with a person before making a statement in order to be totally convinced of their story. Again, as William chimes in, the pandemic has made getting to know someone properly incredibly difficult – imagine telling someone your most intimate details over Zoom.

The Home Office asks how the claimant is integrating with LGBT+ life in the UK. Not being able to go out and form friendships has made such integration virtually impossible – on top of the fact that, as David mentions, they haven’t got any money and are often dealing with the loss of loved ones.

William and David are incredibly concerned about Brexit. David informs me that the Dublin Convention, a treaty between EU members through which agreements on migrant travel are maintained, no longer applies. Since January, if someone has passed through a ‘safe’ country, such as France, they may not be able to claim asylum here. As there is no legal basis on which to return someone to where they came from, people will be left in limbo. William says they are anticipating a situation where people cannot claim financial support, which could lead to a potential homelessness crisis. No one knows how it will play out.

Bleakly, I asked if there was any good news at all.

David answered with a weak laugh. “People do win”, he says. “We’ve had two wins in the last week. The system can work and it can give protection.”

William takes over. “We do not abandon people”, he says. “We have growing legal support. We go right to the end and we don’t give up.”

So how can people help?

The main resources that charities like Time to Be Out need is greater awareness among the general public to recruit more volunteers and hopefully acquire more financial aid to help with the new challenges. David adds that he would like to see more solidarity from the LGBT+ community. “We often know what it is like to experience rejection,” he says, “and we have been disappointed with the lack of response to help our international community.”

If you would like to find out more or get involved with Time to Be Out, please contact myself, Ellie Parnham, and I can put you in touch.