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22 May 2018

Review: SOGICA – Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Claims of Asylum: A European human rights challenge

Not known for a progressive outlook on the issue of migration, or indeed LGBT+ matters, Italy was a strange place for a conference on the definition of “vulnerability”. However as the day drew on, the unique blend of national and international academic, activists and representatives from civil society made it precisely the right place to discuss such issues.

The organisers, which included the University of Sussex, outlined their work to date. But rather than the usual recap on initial research findings, they left those to the imagination, and chose to embark on an epic tour covering asylum legislation, the role of interpreters, the process of integration and the role of civil society in supporting LGBT+ individuals. The project – Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Claims of Asylum (SOGICA): A European human rights challenge – explores the social and legal experiences of SOGI asylum seekers across Europe. It aims to outline how European asylum systems can treat SOGI asylum claims more fairly.

The first session immediately offered some interesting principles for how to think about “intersectionality”. While the UK is currently focused on the relationship between race and migration, other nation states have either not got there, or are looking at other aspects of intersectionality. The discussion started off with a series of philosophical claims that questioned the notion of freedom and interdependence. Our freedom is what makes us vulnerable, and our vulnerability feeds off our environment. Vulnerability is relational to other people in the context of LGBT+ asylum seekers also to international law. A quick tour through a host of UN and European directives left the audience more informed, but sadly none the wiser as to the direct impact of the concept of vulnerability on asylum seekers. Does being an asylum seeker make someone innately vulnerable, or is vulnerability created by the environment a person is in? The Roma have long since been considered vulnerable because of prejudice and discrimination, but Roma was a public identity. LGBT+ identities can sometimes struggle to become public. LGBT+ identities are also not static, as such they are embedded with a psychological and individual vulnerability that other categories of asylum seekers are not.

Asylum directives allow for special support and consideration during the application process for pregnant women, minors and those experiencing ill health, but not for LGBT+ individuals. The pitiful state of asylum reception facilities across the EU means there is little choice between nation states. However, the approach taken by the Netherlands was given specific attention, where people could take time out during interviews, be supported by family, and where small anomalies in individual narratives would be given the benefit of the doubt. 

The next session tackled the pivotal role of interpreters. Italy is clearly on a steep learning curve in order to catch up with its changing migrant population. Because of the issue of discrimination against LGBT+ individuals, a hesitation when giving a testimony actually adds to the person’s credibility. But this is often not reflected in interpretations, where the interpreter – for fear of being seen as not doing the job properly – would fill that gap of silence with “professional noise”.

The expose of how the Italian Commission (equivalent to the Home Office) recruits and deploys interpreters, is also similar to previous problems within the British Ministry of Justice over the quality of interpreters in the British first tier tribunal. Contracts were skewered to large volume tenders, and so ill-prepared people with English not up to the standard of an interpreter’s were recruited. 

The researchers described their training programme in response to the challenges of interpretation within the Commission, but surprisingly did not to address the issue of discrimination towards LGBT+ individuals, until specifically prompted by an audience member, who asked about how interpreters dealt with the issue of homophobia, transphobia, and cultural prejudices towards differing forms of gender identity. A general and vague answer was given in return.

The meeting then went on to hear directly from LGBT+ asylum seekers. A Ugandan lesbian from the UK, a gay Nigerian, and an Iranian transgender individual now settled in Germany all gave their testimonies. These were by far the most moving and gripping testimonies ever heard, as each told their own unique story. Most challenging especially for the activists in the room was the plea and questioning by one of the panel when he asked the audience, “what good my documents when I don’t have freedom and face prejudice?” He described it as being in a jail with an open door.

This stood as a stark contrast to both practitioners from civil society and lawyers in the room, whose focus has always been on achieving the ultimate win: which is to get someone their papers. Was life any better once status was secured? All the three demonstrated that obtaining papers was just the beginning of another form of hardship.

A conference that had started off looking at whether LGBT+ asylum seekers should be automatically given special status as being vulnerable ended with calls for national and international solidarity based on a shared humanity.

Without a doubt, the concept of “vulnerability” is invaluable in shaping a public discourse around the right to emigrate, but in seeking to separate LGBT+ individuals with targeted support at the conference was in danger of creating a hierarchy of who are the deserving or more deserving migrants. It came to its own rescue by reiterating Europe’s core values of equality and fraternity.

For more information http://www.sussex.ac.uk/broadcast/read/43479