• Podsoc #59

Lesbian asylum seekers in the UK:

In conversation with Claire Bennett

[Transcript available in the Tab below]

Imagine seeking asylum in a foreign country. Got it. Pretty tough. Now imagine you had to prove your sexual orientation in a court of law. Lesbian asylum seekers in the UK have to do just that. Claire Bennett talks to us about her work with refugees and her research on lesbian asylum seekers in the UK

Claire Bennett recently submitted her PhD exploring how lesbian asylum seekers navigate the UK asylum process and how this impacts on the construction of their social and sexual identity (University of Sussex, ESRC studentship). She is currently a visiting Scholar at the Weeks Centre for Social Research and Policy, London South Bank University and a member of the University of Sussex Centre for Cultural Studies (SCCS).

Prior to her academic experience, Claire worked in the voluntary sector for over ten years and specialised in working with refugees and asylum seekers (Claire was the researcher on the Women’s Project at Asylum Aid and she also worked in refugee and repatriation camps in Pakistan and Cambodia). Alongside this, she has also worked with women and children who have experienced physical and sexual violence (including street children and child sex workers in Ethiopia) and children affected by HIV/AIDS and disability (in Malawi, Uganda and Tanzania).

Her publications include: Bennett (2014) 'Lesbians and UK Asylum Law: Evidence and Existence' in Arbel, E. Dauvergne, C., Millbank, J. (eds) 'Gender and Refugee Law: From the Margins to the Centre' (forthcoming publication, see link below for chapter details)

Recommended citation – APA6th

Fronek, P. (Host). (2013, November 5). Lesbian asylum seekers in the UK: In conversation with Claire Bennett [Episode 59]. Podsocs. Podcast retrieved Month Day, Year, from http://www.podsocs.com/podcast/lesbian-asylum-seekers-in-the-uk/.

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  2. References
  3. Transcript

Bennett, C. (2013). Claiming asylum on the basis of your sexuality: The views of lesbians in the UK. The Researcher, 8(2), 17-19.

Bennett, C. & Thomas, F. (2013). Seeking asylum in the UK: Lesbian perspectives'. Forced Migration Review, 42, 25-28.

Relocation, Relocation: The Impact of Internal Relocation on Women Asylum Seekers', Asylum Aid/Refugee Women's Resource Project (2008).

Transcription Podsocs 59: Lesbian asylum seekers in the UK: In conversation with Claire Bennett

[musical intro to 00.10]

Thank you to Candice Northwood for this transcript.

Hello, and welcome to Podsocs, the podcast for social workers on the run. Brought to you by a bunch of social workers from Griffith University in Australia.
I’m Tricia Fronek, one of that bunch, and we’re just basically really glad you found us. So, happy listening.

Tricia: Hello, and welcome to our podcast today. Today we’re talking with Claire Bennett from the UK who’s done a lot of work with refugees and asylum seekers. Claire, welcome to Podsocs.

Claire: Hi. Thank-you Patricia. Thank-you for inviting me.

Tricia: Now Claire, tell us about yourself and your work.

Claire: I’m currently a Research Fellow at the University of South Hampton. I recently submitted my PhD on the experiences of lesbian asylum seekers as they go through the UK asylum process. This covered a range of issues in terms of why lesbians seek asylum in the UK and also some of the obstacles that they face gaining international protection. Issues around the lack of legal recognition for lesbian asylum seekers, and the difficulties they face with evidencing their sexuality. Prior to this, I spent over ten years working in the voluntary sector which also included working in refugee and repatriation camps in Africa and Asia. I spent quite a number of years working at different levels but on refugee issues.

Tricia: Let’s start there. Tell us a bit about some of the refugee camps where you worked.

Claire: I worked between 2002 to 2004. I worked in a number of refugee camps. In 2002 I was working along the Pakistan border in Afghan refugee camps. It was quite a tense time, so a lot of my work there was doing emergency aid distribution. We were also trying to set up a range of projects for the displaced women. At the time, because of the climate, there was quite a lot of Taliban there. So, it proved quite problematic actually and there was a lot of political instability in the region. Well, there still is political instability in Peshawar. Then I moved to Cambodia, and I was working in the repatriation camps along the Thai border and again looking at specific activities with women and with children. The particular communities that I was working with there, they’d been in Thailand for 15 years and they’d recently been moved back to Cambodia. There were lots of issues in terms of returning and repatriating into Cambodia.

Tricia: So basically, people live in temporary accommodation for years and years and years, with no indication of what their futures going to be like?

Claire: Yeah, no definitely. Women in particular face a lot of difficulties in terms of accessing services, support, legal help in terms of family reunification, for example. Even aid distribution, often it’s the men who turn up to the aid distribution centres. There’s lots of problems women face with negotiating their social status as a displaced woman, particularly if they are without a husband or without a male relative. Women are particularly vulnerable to physical and sexual violence as well. There are many issues that displaced women actually face, particularly in refugee camps as well.

Tricia: Claire, can you paint us a picture? What does it look like? What do these camps actually look like? How are they governed? What’s the environment like?

Claire: I think it depends on each area and each specific context. Especially emergency refugee camps they’re often set up in an emergency. So, they’re often very temporary - you may have seen pictures on the TV of people who are in kind of tents. Not all camps are tents, but often they are set up very quickly with very little kind of governance to begin with. Often you get NGO’s and UN agencies that have to act very quickly in terms of the sheer volumes in numbers of people that are arriving, because you can't anticipate how many people will come through the borders. There’s lots of negotiations with the government as well because there’s sometimes pressure to close the borders, if the government feel that too many refugees have entered. If there’s problems with food, sanitation, accommodation, if there’s too many people and access to resources, childcare facilities, for example. Very much it depends on the country, the infrastructure that’s available, the level of NGO and UN support that’s available. Some camps would have more infrastructure than others.

Tricia: Certainly. Australia’s just significantly cut foreign aid. So, that has a direct impact on situations like this for people, doesn’t it?

Claire: Yeah, definitely. Then some countries may promise aid and it can take quite a while for the aid to materialise as well. There’s also lots of political problems as well in terms of money that’s available. Even money that’s pledged isn’t always available. The agencies such as the UNHCR and charities such as like UNICEF - which is the children focused UN agency, are often like desperate for funding for emergency work. It’s how that funding - where it’s raised from, is a big issue, and a lot of governments in the North are reducing the amount of aid that they’re making available, which is very problematic. Then on a similar level they’re also making it much more difficult for refugees to seek asylum in their own countries. Which is the work that I’ve been doing more recently- in terms of how refugees coming to the UK and the problems that they face in the UK.

Tricia: Claire. How about the UK’s side of the process?

Claire: Well, my recent PhD has been looking at how lesbians seek international protection in the UK. Lesbians in particular face many barriers. Because often they experience persecution in their home country. So, for example, all of the women in my study had experienced physical and sexual violence because of their same-sex relationships. This could be from the police, many were imprisoned in their home countries, many had had their partners or families killed because of their sexual orientation. Then when they come to the UK it’s very difficult because sexuality isn’t part of the refugee convention. Then what happens is that in order to gain refugee status, one of the obstacles they face is evidencing their sexuality, which is extremely difficult to do. When you go to immigration court, for example, you are asked by immigration judges a range of questions including people asked to talk about their sex positions, what they enjoy, whether they use sex toys. People have been told that they’re not a lesbian because they don’t look like a lesbian, or because they have children. So, there’s a variety of issues that many people are getting denied international protection, because their sexuality isn’t believed. So now we’re having quite extreme cases whereby people are submitting videotapes of them actually having sex in court, just to help prove their case.

Tricia: Claire, that is so re-traumatising isn’t it?

Claire: Yeah, and that was one of the key findings actually from my study that going through this asylum process and continually having to talk about your experiences of physical and sexual violence on demand to people who women didn’t know, to people in a position of authority and in very tense and hostile environments, did prove to be really traumatic, for people. It did re-traumatise people. Added to this, you have the policy of detention. Many of the women who I spoke to had been detained. This also re-traumatised women as some women had been in prison because of their sexuality. Then coming to the UK and being detained, there was, for these women in particular, there was direct memories that it was re-triggering in terms of being in prison again. So yes, it was you know, it was extremely traumatic. The length of time that it took to get a decision was also really troubling. It meant that that recovery process took much longer.

Tricia: Was there any gender sensitivity, at least? Or were men doing the interrogating? Were women doing the interrogating?

Claire: Unfortunately, the majority of the immigration judges still are men. The women talked to me about the difficulties they had in terms of disclosing these details to men. This is something the Home Office have been conscious of and they’re trying to address. But it’s still an area that needs more attention. Because frequently women are having to disclose their experience of sexual violence to male staff and male immigration judges. On top of that, one of the women in my study talked about when she was in the immigration court, because these are public courts, so anybody can attend. She was asked to recall her experiences of sexual violence in front of male Home Office, male immigration judge, her legal representative was male, and on top of that there was members of the public who she didn’t even know. She found it really difficult to re-tell her traumatic story in front of all these people.

Tricia: So Claire, how did this affect their health and well-being?

Claire: It had major implications in terms of their health and well-being. As seeking asylum does for everybody who seeks asylum. It’s a very criminalising and dehumanising process. It’s very difficult because people who come to the UK to seek asylum, often find that they’re being viewed upon as scroungers and cheats by the British public and the press. The political rhetoric is often very anti asylum. The process itself is very hard where people feel like there’s a lack of understanding in terms of what the process entails, the legal jargon, the different layers of bureaucracy. People feel very dis-empowered by this process. There’s a lack of support available. For lesbian asylum seekers, for example, there’s additional isolation that they face in terms of often the support groups that are available for asylum seekers have high levels of homophobia. Some of the women in my study had also experienced homophobic reactions from other asylum seekers, which added to their isolation within the UK. The asylum process- many NGOs have been campaigning in the UK for a number of years in terms of the difficulties of the asylum process and how it impacts on people’s mental health, their well-being. What came out of my research was - even talking about these experiences during the actual asylum process with legal representatives with immigration judges, people described leaving their substantive interview and court appearances, for example, physically shaking and crying. One person was admitted into hospital, she had a mental health breakdown after her immigration court appearance, because she found that whole process so traumatic.

Tricia: How does their treatment compare to, say, a UK citizen who has to go to court because they were raped? I imagine how they’re treated is very different. Or am I imagining that?

Claire: No. No, you’re right. It’s some literature which I draw upon in my thesis. For many years, I’ve been very interested in rape narratives and particularly how stories of rape are dealt with in court. I’ve been influenced by the work of Liz Kelly, for example. What you find is where there’s still a lot of work to be done in this area, there has been some progress in terms of understanding the difficulties that women face disclosing their experiences of rape, for example. In the CPS- Crown Prosecution Services, certain safeguards are in place whereby, for example, women are given a female police officer to talk to. Often, they are encouraged to go for counselling as well. However, in the asylum process none of these safeguards are in place. There’s very little attention, even though there’s similarities in terms of how people talk about experiences of rape; there’s very little attention and very little awareness and safeguard, in terms of making that an environment where people feel safe to tell these stories. The other complication is even when people do tell their stories, is because these stories are interrogated, they’re often - they’re not believed. The impact of not being believed is quite devastating impact upon women themselves; who for many years of whether they’re talking about their sexuality and they’ve hidden that, and they’ve not been believed. Or whether they’re talking about experiences of rape that they’ve often found very hard to tell and then to be told “we don’t believe you”. It’s very devastating for women, and certainly more work needs to be done in terms of providing better support for people to tell these traumatic stories.

Tricia: The dehumanising and ‘othering’ of asylum seekers and refugees just doesn’t stop, does it?

Claire: No. No. I’m very fearful of about what will happen in the future. For example, the policy of detention is expanding in the UK. As you’ll know in Australia

Tricia: yes

Claire: …there’s lots of research in terms of the mental health implications for people who have been detained, and yet as a policy we’re expanding that and they’re due to open another detention centre which is a former prison and that’s being turned into another detention centre. You’ve probably heard in the press recently about some of the problems at Yarl’s Wood - which is the women’s detention centre, and how some of the male guard’s, because the staff at Yarl’s Wood are predominantly male, even though it is a women’s detention centre. There’s some members of staff have recently been sacked because of the sexual abuse and sexual assault that’s been taking place. So, there’s numerous reports, and yet at the same time it just seems to be getting harder and harder as we dehumanise asylum seekers. We detain people, we can detain people for many years. I know of somebody who has been in detention for over six years and they have no idea how long they’re going to be detained for, and no idea why they’re being detained. So, it’s a real problem. Yes. I think issues around asylum really need to be thought about in a much more intelligent way really, rather than just treating people as objects that shouldn’t be here.

Tricia: It would be nice if politicians one day were brave enough to actually develop social policy based on research rather than ideology.

Claire: Yeah. One of the reasons that I continue to work with refugees and asylum seekers here in the UK is when I came back from my experience overseas and started working with refugees in the UK, I was actually really shocked. I was shocked at how shocked I was - in terms of how we treat asylum seekers here in the UK. I expected better really from a so called “developed” country who prides itself on welcoming refugees. Yet actually how we treat people, the problem with in the North, the asylum process is a legal process. So, you’re not governed by humanitarian principles. You’re governed by legal principles and often legal principles are not grounded in common sense or humanitarian issues, or social issues. People themselves they become quite nameless in the process, so they become the opponents there, and often people are very conscious that they lose their name as they’re going through this legal process and it’s rarely recognised, actually.

Tricia: Australia’s in the same boat, no pun intended.

Claire: Yeah. Exactly and many countries in the North because there is this gender of reducing the number of refugees that northern countries take. They’re going more down this route of making it a harder process, so they’re not seen as a soft touch. But the problem is, is when you have people who are very vulnerable the implications it has on their lives, on their mental health, is catastrophic.

Tricia: People have nothing to lose in the end.

Claire:Yes. Exactly. It’s always worrying when we as a human race stop seeing people as human beings. It’s something that with my research and the work that I try and do - is to remind people, that actually people who are seeking asylum are human beings. Seeking asylum is a human right. I think people should be more aware of that.
Tricia: Do you get an opportunity to follow these women up - in terms of how they integrated into the UK community?

Claire: No, unfortunately. This is something that I’d like to do, and I’m looking for funding to do, actually. So, my study was just looking at how they went through this - the legal process and the various stages of the legal process. But no, I think more longitudinal work in terms of “then what happened?”, “how did they integrate?”, “how did their lives change?” Would really be interesting actually and it would go more into [a] kind of citizenship debates as well. So no, I wasn’t able to do that with this research. But it’s something I’d certainly like to do.

Tricia: Because it sounds like they would be very disconnected because their traditional community connections may have been impaired, they’re in a new country, they have been re-traumatised. I imagine that social networks alone are going to be difficult?

Claire: Yeah, definitely. I mean whilst people were seeking asylum and going through that process, the issue of isolation was really strong. Where people didn’t feel part of the British community. They felt very much an outsider and very unwanted by the British community. Yet at the same time they felt very rejected by their own home communities. For example, I interviewed some women from Jamaica, and they would not socialise with other people from the Jamaican community, because of the high-levels of homophobia within that particular group. That was common for all women from a variety of countries. So, this isolation that they felt was very acute. That’s also led to a few organisations being set up specifically for lesbian asylum seekers to offer support to each other because there is no support available and these group[s] are particularly vulnerable of being isolated. So, groups such as the Lesbian Immigration Support Group of Manchester are really good at providing emotional and physical and often financial support for lesbian asylum seekers in a very difficult time and also to try and bring them together to form their own communities.

Tricia: So, it affected their health, their social connections, they were re-traumatised. Were there other main findings in your research?

Claire: I think also on a more positive note, people found each other. As I mentioned they found, and they formed their own communities. People gained a lot of strength, not just friendship, but they gained a lot of personal strength from that. That was really important and it very much became a lifeline for people. As many women’s claims were rejected, they often had to fight quite public campaigns. Even though this was very difficult, women who did go through this process are still even though now they have refugee status they’re still very vocal and campaigning really hard on LGBT asylum issues. And are still really trying to raise the awareness of these issues as well.

Tricia: I think that’s very important. Because people who are refugees, asylum seekers - they’re survivors. They have strengths to get them through difficult situations, so it’s also important to remember that.

Claire: Yeah and you know people have a great form of resilience. That’s why I think the asylum process is very victimising. I think to a certain extent you are expected to be seen as a victim. The fact that people can still come through that and not only fight for their own rights and their own citizenship but also continue to fight for other people’s rights - is really important. That’s why groups such as the Lesbian Immigration Support Group who are the only lesbian focused asylum group. That was set up purely with lesbian asylum seekers who were struggling to be heard and to find their voice. I think it’s really important that we give groups like that a platform.

Tricia: So Claire, what would you like to see changed? What came out of this for you?

Claire: There’s quite a lot of things I’d like to see changed. I mean on a broader macro-level I think there needs to be a greater debate politically with governments in the north about refugees. Not just seeing refugees as a problem and as a burden, but actually looking at how refugees and asylum seekers can contribute more. So, for example, the policy where asylum seekers are unable to work, has a really negative impact upon people themselves. I think I would like to see rather than detention, for example, which we talked about being expanded, I think it would be really good if we could look at alternatives to detention as a better way of dealing with some of the issues - the policy issues. But more specifically in terms of LGBT asylum claims, I think there needs to be a greater understanding of the difficulties people face talking about their same sex experiences. The difficulties with providing evidence on their sexuality. More clarity in terms of “what does that actually mean?”, “what does that entail?” Greater accountability in terms of decision making. But I think also on a practical level there needs to be greater support for LGBT asylum seekers who as I mentioned often face acute isolation. One of the things that’s really important to me is providing groups with a platform. To remind people that seeking asylum is a human right and asylum seekers are not criminals. They are human beings and we should treat people as human beings.

Tricia: Claire. Thank-you very much. It just raises so many issues and let’s hope the debate really kicks off. Thank-you.

Claire: Thank-you Patricia.

[Musical outro 27.48 to END]