The group sat round a table in an empty café sometimes used for meetings. Four members had arrived.
To my direct left sat Ibrahim, a gay man who left his home in Somalia for the UK. Next to him sat Mary and Joyce, two women a generation apart who had both left Uganda. Finally, there was Mina. Mina is a transgender woman from Cambodia. That night, it was Mina’s birthday.
Lemonade and lollipops filled the table as I squeezed on my pad and paper. Ibrahim had good news: two days ago he’d received confirmation for his asylum.
There has been a marked rise of applications from LGBTQ people while overall asylum applications have fallen by 7 per cent. In 2014, that amounted to 1,115 people. Of the 40 per cent of people who are not refused in the first instance, the future only marginally brightens.
At this stage, applicants cannot work and must survive on a £37 weekly budget. Given that the process can take years, many refugees are locked into poverty. Some become homeless. Ibrahim had been waiting nine years in limbo.
The refugees are housed in hostels. For some, this means being housed alongside refugees who are as homophobic as the states from which they fled. Berlin has opened an LGBT+ hostel, but there are no such moves in the UK.
I asked about the asylum process; what are the interviews like? “Very, very long,” Mary said, “It feels like an interrogation, you sit in a room for sometimes six hours. They ask you the same questions again and again, watching that you answer the same way each time. They ask you very personal questions, it is hard.”
Unlike every area of our justice system, refugees are not ‘innocent until proven guilty’. They have had to consistently prove their own innocence.
Ibrahim explained that, at one point in his journey, he had to beg a previous partner to vouch for his sexuality. He had to turn over texts, photos, some explicit, in his attempt to demonstrate his sexuality was no fiction. This amounted to over 300 pages of evidence. “I’ve been asked to explain certain aspects of intercourse – how did it feel, they asked me once,” Ibrahim added.
Trust was frequently mentioned; I asked if there was anywhere they could be themselves. The reaction was muted. “I once attended a church for LGBT people,” Mary said, “but that doesn’t exist here in Bristol. The church I am at now…my faith is important, but I probably couldn’t be completely honest. There’s still a lot of conservatism.”
Joyce had a more positive story: “Bristol is a good place, there’s a good network”. There’s no official support network so, on arriving in Bristol, Joyce knew nothing. It took ages of traipsing and enquiring before Joyce was able to find services and charities that might help her.
Mina told me about how hard it could be, as she sometimes found it hard to express herself in English. Some asylum seekers don’t speak any English and their access to services must be supremely hindered. Translators are provided in interviews, but this can make relaying a story all the harder when statements are analysed for discrepancies.
“We have found an LGBT+ choir,” Tom said, “and everyone is planning to go along”.
“My voice might be a bit too up and down,” Mina laughed. To be in a space where LGBT refugees could laugh freely, commends the work of Pride Without Borders, and the strength of these individuals.
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NB All interviewees names have been changed
Illustration by Helen Lucy Studio
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