To coincide with IDAHOT 2015’s (International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia) theme “LGBTQ youth” this is the 2nd in a series of interviews focusing on some of the challenges facing LGBTI youth living in poverty around the world.
Jill Power has worked as an advocate for LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers for over 10 years.
Please describe your work with young LGBTI refugees in the United Kingdom.
Jill Power: My work has focused mainly on LGBTI asylum seekers before they become refugees in England. More recently I have been working with Micro Rainbow to support young people around issues of isolation and building up self-esteem and confidence to move on with their lives. The youth I’ve worked with have ranged in age from 16 to 25 years old.
What are some of the challenges facing young LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers?
Jill Power: There’s a uniformity of responses that follow the discovery of a young person’s ‘difference’ in their home country. They are rejected by their family, bullied, assaulted by large numbers of community members, and ostracised. It’s no surprise that many of these young people drop out of school.
Many young LGBTI asylum seekers flee to a safe country because of death threats and verbal and physical violence from their families, neighbourhoods, and communities. They arrive in the UK traumatised having already suffered a great deal of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse and punishments including: rape, beatings, forced psychiatric treatment, forced marriages, and social deprivation. I worked with one young transgender man whose family kept him locked in the house for years with no contact from the outside world.
Young LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees do not share the same privileges other young people have that are so essential to developing their own identities. Being a young person is hard enough without having roots or family support – you feel you’re on the outside of society looking in. A young LGBTI person once told me it didn’t matter what she achieved in her life because she would always be viewed negatively as a refugee, that it was a label she’d carry for the rest of her life. Most young LGBTI refugees say they felt their ‘difference’ early, never suspecting they’d have to leave their home country because of it.
By the time they make it through the asylum system many young LGBTI refugees are living in poverty and defenceless against many forms of exploitation with little insight as to how vulnerable they really are. With few resources they are naive in a new world and at the same time feel like their childhood has been stolen. I hear this all the time.
What’s the best-case scenario for a young LGBTI refugee coming to the UK?
Jill Power: If you’re older than 17 ½ you must apply for asylum, but if you are an unaccompanied minor, by law, you receive automatic protection from the state until you are 17 ½ years old. You will be housed with a foster family, attend school and receive specialised help. However, some are not able to live openly by coming out to their foster families, classmates, or social workers. Many bring the stigma and shame with them from their home countries and have a natural fear of disclosing their identity to anyone – especially anyone with authority.
Worst case? Many are unable to get a visa because of their age and so they can’t legally get out of their countries, and this leads them to rely on ‘agents’ to bring them out. The agent gives them false documents with a different age usually in their 20’s – this is where problems start.
If an LGBTI youth is not believed to be under 17 ½ they are treated as an adult. I have worked with a number of people under 17 ½ who have been detained in adult detention centres. These places are totally inappropriate for young people. They are hostile and threatening places especially if you are a vulnerable young LGBTI person. I worked with a young person who was not believed to a minor (16 years old, his travel documents said he was 20) and spent over a year in detention. During this period he became mute and seriously self-harmed. When he refused food he was sent to an adult psychiatric hospital. He is absolutely traumatised by his experiences and I believe it will take him many years to recover.
The other problem is proving that you are LGBTI. The Home Office asks people to provide a narrative of the development of their identity. This is impossible for most young LGBTI asylum seekers because they have never spoken to anyone about their sexuality. They have feelings of shame and guilt and have difficulties expressing themselves. There is an expectation that if you are in a safe country you should be out and proud but this a long painful journey. Many I speak to feel it is their own fault that they are in this situation.
If their application is refused they are stuck in the appeals process and this can take years. Their lives are on hold. They do not experience the lifestyle other young people experience. They have no money so can’t access technology, fashionable clothing, social spaces or education. Any plans for the future are on hold. They do not see that they fit in with the rest of the young people that they see around them. Their mental health is so fragile and many are at risk of self-harm, suicidal tendencies, and are often exploited.
It is controversial to say but I have heard of young asylum seekers and refugees being terrible exploited by the mainstream gay scene. For a little money, and a roof over their head for the night, many are forced into sexual exploitative situations.
What kind of support is available to young LGBTI refugees?
Jill Power: There are very few support groups available to young LGBTI refugees. I believe the Home Office should allow all young LGBTI refugees time and space to come to terms with what has happened to them before they move forward with their major interviews.
Finally, when refugee status is finally attained the problems don’t end. There are big gaps in their life stories and education and inevitably they feel marginalised. This leads to feeling isolated and we know that isolation is a top indicator predicting that anyone, not just refugees, will sink deeper into poverty.
Additional resources for LGBTI Youth in the UK
PACE – an LGBT+ mental health charity promoting the emotional well-being of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Coram Children’s Legal Centre – promotes the legal rights of children in the UK and worldwide.
This interview was conducted by email and edited.