Queer refugees face homelessness and abuse on road to asylum in Britain

Queer refugees face homelessness and abuse on road to asylum in Britain

More than 1,000 LGBT+ people claim asylum in the UK each year, accounting for just 2% of asylum applications

LGBT+ refugees find sanctuary from prison, public lashing and persecution when they come to Britain – but many face homelessness and abuse in the process.

Nowadays you’ll see Yew Fook Sam walking the streets of Liverpool in his rainbow suspenders.

When Pride comes around, his whole outfit is a sea of colours, even by his standards.

But this 72-year-old, known to friends as Sam, spent five years trying to convince the Home Office he is a gay man who faces persecution back in Malaysia.

Ten times the UK government rejected his asylum applications because he didn’t have a boyfriend.

He told Metro.co.uk: ‘I was LGBT+ when I was in school, but we can’t expose ourselves in Malaysia.

‘If you expose yourself, straight away they will arrest you and put you in prison.’

The proportion of asylum claims from LGBT+ people rejected by the Home Office had soared by that point.

Yew Fook Sam has been to Pride parades across the UK, including this one in Liverpool (Picture: Yew Fook Sam)

In just two years, it rose from 52% in 2015, to 78% in 2017, the Independent reported. LGBT+ asylum seekers account for just 2% of the total.

Just last year, then-Home Secretary Suella Braverman accused asylum seekers of pretending to be gay to ‘get special treatment’.

She said: ‘People do game the system. They come to the UK. They purport to be homosexual in the effort to game our system… It’s not right and it’s not fair.’

The Home Office later admitted that it did not have evidence to support this claim, openDemocracy reported.

Locked in a detention centre, facing deportation, Sam thought about ending it all.

He said: ‘If I went back, they would put me in prison with 20 other people in a cell and give a public whipping, so I was very scared. I didn’t want to go back.

‘Every time I told the officer, “If you send me back, I will go do suicide, I’m going to die here, I don’t want to go back”.’

Around the world, 37 countries have legalised same-sex marriage, while homesexuality is illegal in 65, of which 12 have the death penalty (Picture: Metro.co.uk)

Sam fought back by documenting everything – his trip to Pride events in Liverpool, London and Manchester, and outings with an LGBT+ group he joined.

Finally, in December 2019, Sam got refugee status. He was allowed to stay in the UK, where he could safely live as himself in a community that embraced him.

‘I was so happy, I was shouting, screaming crying’, Sam said. ‘It was like a Christmas present for me.’

Asylum seekers aren’t left in limbo for quite as long as they used to be

Later arrivals have found the process much easier.

This has been helped, in part, by a change in approach by the Home Office, which started fastracking the claims of new applicants in 2022 in an effort to clear a growing backlog.

Among those whose claims were streamlined is Queen, 31, who didn’t tell her family she was coming to the UK to seek asylum after being harassed by police in Nigeria.

She told Metro.co.uk: ‘I used to wear shorts a lot. Maybe for being masc-presenting or dressed in a certain way, the police told me to stop on my bike.

‘They searched my bag, the guy started cocking his gun. It was traumatising.’

Queen has been to her first Pride since coming to the UK, where she plans to work and study now she’s been granted asylum (Picture: Queen)

People face up to 14 years in prison for same-sex activity, even a kiss, in Nigeria. Some northern states sentence people to death by stoning.

For Queen, a lesbian, the risk was too much.

She said: ‘I’ve had friends, gay guys, that when they join dating apps, they get lured by straight people who want to do this conversion therapy, and then they out them to family members or the police.

‘I didn’t want mine to get to that level.’

Queen added: ‘The bashing here and the harassment, I just couldn’t do it anymore.’

Growing up in Saudi Arabia, 25-year-old Waleed’s realisation that he’s bisexual and an atheist was ‘really horrifying’ because both are punishable by death.

Attention has turned once again to Channel crossings and asylum seekers during the UK General Election campaign, much to the frustration of refugees and the charities working with them (Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

He hid his sexuality and prayed five times a day, just to keep up appearances, never telling anyone except friends he met online until he came to the UK to study marine engineering in 2018.

It was only when the Covid-19 pandemic set his sights on the future, and the prospect of returning to Saudi Arabia, that he applied for asylum in December 2021.

That was the first time he started to drop his mask.

He said: ‘It made me feel more safe talking about stuff because I recognise that, although the UK has many flaws, it did accept me, and the people of Liverpool specifically have been absolutely amazing.’

Waleed was granted refugee status in October 2023, less than two years after applying. Queen got hers this March, a year after she first applied.

LGBT+ asylum seekers and refugees face precarious housing

Coming to the UK has allowed them to form queer communities and start dating openly like they never could in their countries of origin.

The relatively quick processing of their claims, which take an average of 21 months from application to decision, have also allowed them to apply for work and study.

But both have found themselves in precarious housing situations where they face homelessness or abuse.

Waleed found himself homeless, ‘jumping constantly between hostels and hotels’ with all his belongings, just weeks after gaining refugee status.

With no guarantor, rapidly depleted savings, and yet to find a job – which he was finally allowed to have – Waleed struggled to find a landlord willing to take him.

‘The only thing I had was my housing benefits’, he said.

‘It was a mockery talking to these landlords. It felt like they were spitting me in the face sometimes, the way they would speak to me.

‘They wouldn’t specifically decline me, they would just delay my application until someone else that was better showed up.

‘They just do everything in their power to ensure you aren’t the person they have.’

Events like London’s annual Pride parade have been vital at integrating queer refugees and asylum seekers into the wider LGBT+ community (Picture: Carl Court/Getty Images)

After a month of searching – and a GoFundMe campaign he had to close when his family found out – on the condition he paid all 12 months of rent upfront.

Since she arrived, Queen has been staying with relatives who kept asking if she had a boyfriend until she came out to them as lesbian.

‘Then I noticed a change in behaviour’, she said.

‘He said, “If I had known you were this way from the get go, I wouldn’t have even allowed you to stay here, you have to leave”.’

‘He’s quite homophobic.’

To escape, she spends her days reading in libraries, or at workshops run by a charity called Micro Rainbow, which works with roughly 1,000 LGBT+ asylum seekers each year.

The importance of community

The charity opened the UK’s first safe house for LGBT+ asylum seekers in 2017.

Even with 22 now, each housing around four people, there’s still a waiting list for spaces, so Micro Rainbow is planning to double the number of safe houses.

Sebastian Rocca, the charity’s founder and CEO, said: ‘We realised that there was a hidden issue, and this hidden issue was homelessness.

‘Many people were worried that if they went into Home Office housing, they might be housed with other people from the same countries who still hold LGBTQI-phobic views.

‘They were worried about potential discrimination, and because of that they stayed homeless.

‘Others that accepted Home Office housing will face violence and abuse in accommodation from other refugees.

‘We have reports of people being sexually assaulted and even raped in Home Office housing.

He added: ‘We have an example of a lesbian woman from Uganda whose room was set on fire in the UK when the community found out that she was lesbian.’

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That makes it harder for people who have to hide their LGBT+ identity ‘to be safe in housing’ to prove to the Home Office that they are in fact queer.

Even when LGBT+ asylum seekers do find accommodation where they feel safe, a practice of arbitrary dispersal means they could be moved at any time.

One lesbian asylum seeker from Malawi, where women face five years in prison for same-sex activity, discovered this last year.

The woman, who asked not to be named, had previously lived in Home Office accommodation where the toilet leaked into her room and housemates made homophobic comments.

It got so bad, she ended up sleeping in graveyards.

She was eventually moved to Liverpool where she lived alone and formed friendships and support networks, which almost vanished last year.

Serco, the private company contracted to house asylum seekers, told her she would be moved to shared accommodation in Lancashire to make room for other occupants.

Fearing she would face abuse again, the woman said: ‘It’s really terrifying, and it’s really hard knowing that you are settling, you’ve come to know people, to know the community very well.

‘And now they just come to tell you that you’re getting moved.’

Following protests by local refugee support groups and Acorn, the tenants’ union, along with inquiries by the Liverpool Echo, Serco allowed her to stay.

Protesters have blocked the removal of migrants and asylum seekers from their homes numerous times in recent years (Picture: HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images)

A Serco spokesperson said: ‘We have a zero tolerance to any type of homophobia or hate crime and would report to the necessary channels – police and UK Visas and Immigration – and offer support via our safeguarding team and external agencies.’

They added: ‘We actively try to ensure that when moves take place, people are not isolated away from the support networks they’ve built.’

But when those abrupt moves do happen, or people find themselves in situations where they have to hide again, it can derail those steps towards acceptance and community that Sam, Queen and Waleed have benefited from.

Sebastian said: ‘The first person who came to the Micro Rainbow house, she kept her clothes and high heels locked in her case, because if other people had found out, they will have abused her.

‘She was someone who had been moved three times already.

‘When she came, the relief in her face when she could open her case and hang the clothes and feel, for the first time, that she could be herself.

‘For those who don’t get that sense of safety of starting to explore your identity, it’s a little bit like they are living back home, in their country of origin.’

Get in touch with our news team by emailing us at webnews@metro.co.uk.

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