Migrant Voice members gather for the # I am Espoir campaign
Espoir with Migrant Voice and an academic from the University of Birmingham, supporting the IamEspoir campaign.

Migration and asylum are likely to be key topics in the upcoming general election with the current Conservative government pledging to reduce the number of asylum claims; asserting the need to balance humanitarian concerns with national security and the economic challenges facing the United Kingdom.

In line with the Government’s commitment to reduce the number of people seeking asylum in the UK, the then Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, went on record in Sept 2023 attesting to the need to reform the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention to address the global ‘migration crisis’. Braverman argued that case law arising from this convention lowered the threshold for asylum claims. Asylum seekers, she said, are required to prove only “discrimination” rather than fear or experience of torture, death, or violence. Emboldened by the government’s earlier approach to reducing immigration to the UK by creating a ‘hostile environment’ for ‘illegal immigrants’, Braverman went on to argue that simply being gay or a woman and fearing discrimination in one’s country of origin should not be sufficient grounds for asylum. Her comments came at a time when it has been recognised that forced migration globally is rising steeply and becoming increasingly feminised with women making up nearly 50% of the globally displaced.   

Anti- LGBTQIA+ legislation in 67 countries around the world, with a further 9 countries with national laws criminalising forms of gender expression that target transgender and gender nonconforming people is known to have led to an increase in the number of queer asylum seekers. On 28 February 2024, Ghana passed a new bill extending the scope of sanctions against LGBTQ+ people. If the Bill becomes law, anyone convicted of identifying as LGBTQ would face a prison sentence of up to 3 years with criminal penalties threatened against their perceived allies.

In the run-up to the 2024 election, the Conservatives and Labour are yet to make any explicit pledges on LGBTQIA+ asylum issues. The Liberal Democrats have pledged to offer asylum to those fleeing violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity and to end the culture of disbelief which requires queer asylum seekers to prove their identity and/or sexual orientation. It is within this context that the Queer SEREDA team, in partnership with Rainbow Migration, has been looking at the experiences of LGBTQIA+ people seeking refuge and asylum in the UK.

The SEREDA Project, based at the University of Birmingham and working together with the Universities of Melbourne, Uppsala and Bilkent and in partnership with NGOs working with refugees, lifted the lid on sexual and gender-based violence against forced migrants residing in the UK, Australia, Sweden and Turkey. Throughout this 5-year research project, SEREDA uncovered failings within immigration and asylum systems that generated further harm and trauma alongside extreme poverty and isolation. The findings were disseminated with recommendations for the way immigration and asylum systems could be improved through reform of related policies and practices.

The SEREDA study also revealed distinct concerns relating to the experiences of LGBTQIA+ forced migrants, noting that every year millions of LGBTQIA+ forced migrants, alongside women and children forced migrants, are subject to sexual and gender-based violence in conflict, flight and in refuge. The original SEREDA project revealed a wide range of violence encountered by LGBTQIA+ forced migrants, but the number of individuals interviewed was low. Given the extreme and unique experiences of queer forced migrants, there was a need for a wider and more detailed exploration. To this end, Pip McKnight and Dawn River from the University of Birmingham teamed up with Rainbow Migration to look at the specific experiences of LGBTQIA+ people seeking asylum in the UK. As queer researchers, we have been well placed to build partnerships with grassroots support groups and develop trust among those still experiencing hardship in the UK asylum system.

Earlier work with survivors to raise awareness about the issues faced by queer forced migrants had already alerted us to some of the distinct challenges faced and we were keen to explore the impact different policies and practices operating across the UK were having on queer survivors.

Video titles
This is the recording of a conversation between Espoir Njei and Dawn River. The conversation took place on Tuesday 28th April 2020 - approx. one month into lockdown. Espoir and Dawn built a friendship through their shared commitment to supporting LGBTIQ migrants fleeing persecution. Espoir is a lesbian asylum seeker from the Cameroon currently in lockdown in Birmingham and Dawn is a queer academic at the University of Birmingham currently in lockdown in Germany.

Brexit created shifts in the political landscape and coloured public debates on immigration and asylum. This has made recognising the distinction in policies and practices across all four nations of the UK highly pertinent. Before Brexit the UK was bound by EU directives that provided certain protections for LGBTQIA+ people seeking asylum. These directives prohibited discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity and required claims for asylum from homophobic persecution to be recognised. Whilst the UK has an international obligation to protect refugees and asylum seekers under the UN Refugee Convention, post-Brexit the UK is no longer bound by EU directives.

Brexit granted the UK Parliament greater autonomy to develop its own legislation. However, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have devolved powers over areas such as justice and health and have the authority to administer these powers based on their political priorities and commitments to human rights, including LGBTQIA+ rights. It is worth noting here that, despite devolved administrations having control over the provision of their healthcare and support services, EU funding, previously available to LGBTQIA+ community organisations, has been discontinued post-Brexit. This means LGBTQIA+ asylum seekers receive specific support depending on which nation-state they live in. It is also important to recognise that the way LGBTQIA+ migrants are accepted, or not, by the local communities they live within can vary within devolved regions as well as across regional boundaries. The Home Office, through its Asylum Accommodation and Support Services Contracts (AASC), manages the dispersal of asylum seekers across the UK whilst their cases are being processed. For LGBTQIA+ asylum seekers, being transferred to an area with little or no LGBTQIA+ infrastructure can have devastating consequences, especially given the rise in hate crimes against LGBTQIA+ people in parts of the UK.

As we listen to accounts by LGBTQIA+ forced migrants and the organisations providing them with services and support, we are reminded that while homophobic sexual and gender-based violence is usually the reason queer migrants flee their country of origin in the first place, they often continue to face violence and abuse during their migration journeys and upon arrival in the UK.

LGBT History Month in February provides us with an important opportunity to start to tell these stories. During Pride Month in June, we will be sharing a more detailed analysis of the SGBV experiences of LGBTQIA+ forced migrants seeking asylum in the UK and will be presenting our recommendations for the development of policies and practices to protect LGBTQIA+ survivors from further harm.