Many homosexual asylum seekers are often sent back by European countries, including the Netherlands, as a result of prejudice and stereotyping. Their stories are not believed because they don’t appear effeminate enough or because they don’t frequent the gay or lesbian scenes. That’s the conclusion of research carried out by the Dutch gay rights organisation COC and the Free University of Amsterdam.
Homosexuals are discriminated against, jailed or killed in their own countries. Every year around ten thousand people apply for asylum in Europe because of their sexual identity. Of those, some 200 are dealt with by the Dutch immigration service.
Not everyone is welcomed with open arms. A man fled from Cameroon after his neighbours discovered he had a boyfriend. On his arrival in the United Kingdom, his request for asylum was turned down on the grounds that he could have moved to another part of the country where he was not known. In other words, get back in the closet.
This story from Cameroon is not an isolated incident, according to Thomas Spijkerboer of the Free University. He has been researching asylum applications by gay men and lesbians in the 27 EU member states. Although there are no exact figures about how many of these are rejected, there are regular problems with the processing of requests from homosexuals. The report Fleeing Homophobia, which is published today, concludes that their treatment sometimes violates their human rights.
“Asylum applications are regularly rejected on the grounds of prejudice and stereotypes. It’s taking it pretty far not to believe someone because he doesn’t appear ‘camp’ enough. Or to cast doubt on the story of a lesbian because it’s not known precisely what the penalty is for lesbian activities in her country. It’s a strange way of judging someone’s credibility.”
Many European countries expect asylum seekers to keep their sexuality concealed in their own country in order to avoid homophobic violence. The Dutch government denies that it treats people this way, but in practice it’s a different story. The Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND) advised a woman from Sierra Leone to keep her lesbianism hidden when she was sent back there.
“On paper the Netherlands has scrapped this approach, but it doesn’t comply with its own regulations. Moreover, there are cases when someone does not reveal that he is homosexual on the first asylum application, out of fear or shame. But the second time round he changes his mind about keeping quiet. The courts are not permitted to take this into account. The Netherlands is the only country in Europe that takes things that far.”
Thomas Spijkerboer concedes that it is difficult to determine objectively whether someone is really a gay man or a lesbian. Aren’t some asylum seekers simply taking advantage of the situation to improve their chances of getting a residence permit? In 2006, a number of Dutch MPs expressed fears it would send the wrong signal when the then-immigration minister Rita Verdonk decided that homosexuals from Iran would always be granted asylum.
The gay rights organisation COC says asylum seekers are not likely to claim to be gay or lesbian. COC chair Wouter Neerings:
“Homosexuality is such a taboo in their countries of origin that it’s not something they would be inclined to resort to. It would make their lives in the asylum centres extremely difficult. And, if they are sent back, their position and that of their families would become untenable.”
The COC will be going to the government with this report to call attention to the methods of the immigration service. Then on to Brussels to lobby for a change in approach across Europe.