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Thursday 22 May 2008

A crack in the UK Asylum edifice

Comment piece for PinkNews

It's very hard for most British gay men and lesbians to imagine what it's like to grow up in a country like Iran. To fear what you are and to have to act with care 24 hours a day, lest your family finds out and possibly kills you in a so-called 'honour killing' or the state discovers you and tortures you.

So trying to understand the sheer torture of your boyfriend being discovered and executed, seeking safety from what you know is your certain, similar fate, in what you'd always thought was the 'civilised' West - and being disbelieved and rejected - is beyond most of us. Imagine how much harder this would be when you are still a teenager, most of us couldn't begin to.

But this has been the life experience of Mehdi Kazemi, still only 19 years old.

We all know the story - PinkNews has been one of the few news outlets which has been keeping us informed of the case's twists and turns. But there are many other 'cases' who have already been kicked out of Britain to unknown fates, who have committed suicide rather than be sent 'home' or shiver in fear today because this 'civilised' country leaves them 'hanging' for years before they learn their final fate.

In Holland their policy is to automatically grant 'leave to remain' to LGBT asylum seekers. If they commit no crimes, after five years they can claim Dutch nationality. Sweden has something similar — many other countries, including the United States, treat LGBT asylum seekers better than the UK. For the UK, 'leave to remain' - what Mehdi has - doesn't necessarily mean that people can stay permanently.

As Peter Tatchell told CNN, "at the end of five years [Mehdi] will have to go through the whole appeal process again."

The Dutch Liberal MP Boris van der Ham, who led parliamentary efforts to secure asylum in that country for Mehdi, made a point of finding out just how many gay people are 'flooding' into Holland under their policy. He did this because the debate there, echoing what some say in the UK, had included that familiar right-wing claim: 'we'll be flooded'.

It's 6 LGBT asylum seekers expected over the next year and 38-40 in total since 2006.

In the UK the ukgayasylum group has about 25 people currently on its books.

These are tiny numbers and both the Dutch and Swedish experience proves that adopting a civilised policy doesn't result in so-called 'flooding'.

But it is clear from my information through back channels that the Home Office has dug in its heels, remains extremely keen to 'not set a precedent' and is influenced by such reactionary ideas.

In a statement issued to CNN the Home Office said:

"We keep cases under review where circumstances have changed and it has been decided that Mr. Kazemi should be granted leave to remain in the UK based on the particular facts of this case."

The truth is that the only circumstance which has changed is the publicity and that cannot be the actual reason otherwise many others, like the gay Syrian JoJo Yakob, who The Scotsman is backing, cannot be kicked out.

The normal sort of statement is such cases is one like this from another gay Iranian's case about 'living discretely'(my emphasis):

"On the evidence we find the appellant can reasonably be expected to tolerate the position on any return ... For the reasons given the appellant’s appeal remains dismissed."

This reflects the attitude shamelessly outlined by Home Office Minister Lord Spithead in the Lords at the height of the interest in Mehdi's case:

“We are not aware of any individual who has been executed in Iran in recent years solely on the grounds of homosexuality, and we do not consider that there is systematic persecution of gay men in Iran.”

As the Mehdi campaign dragged on, as the Independent gave it a front page, as numerous Labour and other members of parliament lobbied, as the European Parliament passed a resolution, as US networks carried it on their evening news, the fear that he would indeed be deported regardless was very real. They have done it before.

As gayasylumuk's Omar Kuddas explains:

"He was almost deported at Xmas. They came for him at precisely the time when they thought it would be hardest to get lawyers and others out to defend him. This is how the Home Office behaves."

There have been others before Mehdi. Last year the Italian Prime Minister contacted Gordon Brown to argue the case for Iranian lesbian Pegah Emambakash - all to no avail as she slipped from news coverage and is now on her last legal legs to save herself from deportation back to Tehran. JoJo Yakob in Scotland has just suffered through the blatant homophobia of the Home Office on display at a Tribunal and will only be safe if a judge is sympathetic and rejects that homophobic policy and practice for which Jacqui Smith and, ultimately, Gordon Brown are responsible.

Kuddas is one of the many unsung heroes - gay and straight and from many countries - who have helped save Mehdi. As you read the many claims of responsibility for 'Jacqui's u-turn' from politicians and some showboating organisations over the next few days bear that in mind.

The only reason that the government shifted in Mehdi's case was because it was all getting just too embarrassing for Gordon Brown. Him, not Smith. And they hope that by granting leave to remain just to Mehdi, and by twisting their 'rules' in order to do it, that we'll all shut up.

They don't want a policy change and there is no doubt in my mind that the real reason is because they fear the Daily Mail and other agenda-setters and their 'hardline' against asylum seekers more than they fear a backlash from us, the LGBT community. Tony Blair and David Blunkett set the 'quotas to fill' ball rolling and Jacqui Smith is the latest to be carrying it through and damn the consequences.

They present one face to us citizens and another face - 'discretion' and blatant homophobia - to persecuted foreign LGBT who dare to claim asylum. Worse, another Department - the Foreign Office - is out there preaching to other countries about Human Rights, including LGBT rights. The hypocrisy couldn't smell any stronger.

What I think has been their major political miscalculation is precisely their perception of the attitude of Middle England. When publicity about Mehdi was at it's height you had to search for hardline opinion saying 'throw him out anyway' and even those saying this had a guilty tinge to their tone.

Comments left with the Daily Mail and - yes - even those of The Sun's readers recognised this country's historic attitude to accepting genuinely persecuted people as refugees - it goes back centuries, it's part of who we are. It was clear from reading those comments, and many of those on the 7,000 strong petition, that ordinary British people well understood this and accepted that this meant accepting persecuted gays and lesbians from countries like Iran. It was also clear from the horrified overseas media coverage - 'this is Britain!?'

But this political miscalculation only seriously holds true if, now he has 'asylum', Mehdi's case isn't seen as a one-off and, particularly, if gays and lesbians hold Labour to account for their unchanged homophobic policies towards these members of our community. I fear we won't. So prove me wrong.

For us, I think the government's attitude to the pitifully few LGBT asylum seekers we have in Britain shows them up as hypocrites over LGBT rights. I honestly think that they think these people are so powerless, that their cases so rarely provoke protest and news coverage, they can safely ignore protest; that they will not face any consequences.

They just don't expect a voter backlash.

For us, I think we need to be collectively saying 'enough is enough' to Labour on LGBT asylum seekers and behave as one community. I, for one, could not be happier for Mehdi but I am not 'grateful' to Jacqui Smith or her boss for this crack in the asylum edifice.

It will take a lot to get me voting Labour again (after a lifetime of support) precisely because of how I have seen how they treat these weakest members of our community. I hope you feel the same and I hope you tell Labour why you feel it. Until they change their shameful policy on LGBT asylum seekers they don't deserve anyone's vote.


  1. The government does like to trot out the mantra that they've done wonders for gay rights since 1997, but in truth they fought most of them tooth and nail. The age of consent was imposed, after they shamelessly continued the Tories' ECHR battle, housing rights were won in the House of Lords, and the end to the military ban came from Europe, so these people aren't died in the wool champions of equal rights and it was never a surprise to uncover the truth about their asylum practices either.

    Has anything changed since Mehdi's good news? Not really. They are indeed trying to make this a one off and hoping for the best, pandering still to the far right with their failed triangulation strategy. They do have to know that isn't remotely enough, and that means continuing to campaign for people like Pegah, Jojo and others and resolutely not voting Labour. That that should still be so is shameful and very sad.

  2. You hit the nail right on the head Jason. The triangulation strategy - learnt from the Clintons - is precisely what nulabour has been about. What's really worse for Labour is that the old anti-Tory arguments with LGBT have completely lost their weight through Labour's contradictory and hypocritical actions.