The government’s latest attack on refugees would criminalise people fleeing persecution because of their sexuality or gender identity. Discrimination knows no borders – and neither should our solidarity.

The Illegal Migration Bill is a reminder that the fight for LGBT and refugee rights are linked. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

Last month, Parliament held two debates in quick succession. The first was on Pride Month. For most MPs, it was a chance to celebrate the LGBT community, commemorate their struggle for equality, and expose the challenges that LGBT people continue to face. For the government, it was a chance to expose its shameless hypocrisy.

‘Now, more than ever’, the Minister for Equalities proclaimed, ‘we must continue to support human rights activists working to ensure that LGBT people are able to live free from violence and discrimination.’ Those of us who were sceptical of their sincerity would not have to wait very long for the government to prove us right.

Fifteen minutes later, a different government minister shuffled into the chamber to take questions in the next debate. No sooner had the government proclaimed its support for LGBT people who suffer violence and discrimination, it was defending a policy that wilfully abandons them: the Illegal Migration Bill.

LGBT people face persecution around the world. Uganda was one of the most recent countries to pass legislation making it illegal to identify as LGBT, joining sixty-eight other nations that criminalise homosexuality. In thirteen countries, transgender people live under specific legislation that targets their existence, but their de-facto criminalisation under broader LGBT laws is far more widespread.

LGBT people flee persecution in the hope that they may find sanctuary in a new home, find time to recover from their trauma, and find a place where they are accepted for who they are. However, for those who are desperate enough to cross the English Channel, that hope is extinguished by the government’s Illegal Migration Bill. 

In contravention of international law, this legislation bans anybody who crosses the channel via small boat from claiming asylum. The government won’t pause to ask them why they have risked their lives to reach our shores, but wilful ignorance will not change the facts: the government will be refusing entry to LGBT people seeking a place of safety. 

In 2020, there were more than 1,000 asylum applications lodged in the UK where sexual orientation formed part of the basis for the claim. This figure does not include trans people, whose persecution is scandalously ignored altogether. LGBT refugees have already been punished for being themselves. Now, they get to experience the trauma of rejection all over again. 

Not content on abandoning those in need, the government has been determined to implement a policy that would actively place them back in harm’s way. This week, the Court of Appeal ruled that Suella Braverman’s dream to deport refugees to Rwanda was unlawful. It was a dream that the Home Office itself admitted could put LGBT people at risk; homosexual relationships are not illegal in Rwanda, but the absence of any specific anti-discrimination laws puts LGBT at risk of ill-treatment. 

Moreover, as the Court of Appeal concluded, there were insufficient assurances that asylum seekers deported to Rwanda would not be wrongly returned to the country from which they were fleeing. Braverman’s dream may have been dashed, for now. However, what remains is a desperation to implement a cruel and callous regime that abandons vulnerable people seeking a place of safety.

This is not to suggest that the UK would be some safe haven for LGBT people if they were welcomed with open arms. Discrimination against LGBT people in this country remains rife, particularly in employment and access to housing. These inequalities have been compounded by thirteen years of austerity, which has cut funding for safe social spaces, housing services, sexual health services, and mental health support. 

The challenges facing LGBT people will never be redressed by a government waging a divisive culture war. If the government really did support human rights activists fighting against LGBT discrimination, they would take seriously their concerns about the lack of access to healthcare. They would finally commit to banning trans-inclusive conversion therapy. And they would stop using trans people as a punchline and start treating them as human beings instead.

Making the case for a compassionate asylum system, then, is not about lecturing other countries about LGBT rights. Doing so would not just ignore our failings at home but our own complicity in LGBT persecution abroad. Many of the anti-LGBT laws that exist today were first introduced by British colonial administrators; more than half of the countries that criminalise homosexuality today were once subject to British colonialism. 

Some government ministers are keen to downplay the persecution of LGBT people abroad to quash their asylum claims. Others rely on colonial narratives to condemn other nations whilst turning a blind eye to our own record at home. Both are gravely misguided. Instead, we should acknowledge how the UK’s historic role in creating LGBT persecution generates additional obligations to those still suffering the consequences. 

That means making building an immigration system based on compassion, empathy and care. When people’s lives and dignity are on the line, we shouldn’t be trying to convince the public that we can deport refugees more efficiently, competently or cheaply. Instead, we should find the courage and conviction to stand up for a more humane alternative. One that defends the right to asylum. One that ends the cruelty of indefinite detention. One that reunites families that have been torn about the scourge of war and destitution. And one that creates safe routes for desperate people just trying to survive.

We can stand up for LGBT rights, or we can abandon refugees. We can’t do both. We should stand up for LGBT people for the same reason we should stand up for refugees: everybody—no matter their sexuality, gender or ethnicity—deserves to live a life of safety, joy and love. 

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