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LGBTQ+ People at Risk of Abuse and Trauma in Immigration Detention

A pilot study into the experiences of LGBTQ+ people held in immigration detention found incidents of homophobic bullying and abuse

Photo: Cindy Goff/Alamy

LGBTQ+ People at Risk of Abuse and Trauma in Immigration Detention

A pilot study into the experiences of LGBTQ+ people held in immigration detention found incidents of homophobic bullying and abuse

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Members of the LGBTQ+ community are at risk of homophobic and transphobic abuse from staff and detainees while being held in immigration detention, new research has revealed. 

The process of being detained can also often be re-traumatising for those who have fled homophobic violence in their country of origin.

A pilot study, conducted by University of Brighton academic Dr Laura Harvey for asylum advocacy group Rainbow Migration, details instances of abuse in UK immigration detention, including one individual being spat in the face by a fellow detainee. 

Rainbow Migration’s executive director Leila Zadeh told Byline Times that it “wanted to show that immigration detention is not safe for LGBTQ+ people and sadly that was what was discovered through the interviews that took place”.

“Rather than making people feel safe and welcomed in this country, this Government is locking people up in an environment that’s extremely dangerous,” Zadeh said. “And they’re doing the very opposite thing to what these people actually need.”

Five members of the LGBTQ+ community were interviewed between July and December 2022 for the study, which sought to explore “whether there have been significant changes in the experiences of LGBTQI+ people in detention since the last research on this topic in 2015-16”.

All of those who took part in the research had been in detention at certain points and for varying lengths of time since September 2016.

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Johnson – who identifies as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns – did not realise they could claim asylum on the grounds of sexuality or gender identity when they arrived in the UK from South Asia. They thought the system was only open to Afghan and Syrian people. 

Once they arrived in detention, they were put in a room with a fellow detainee who was abusive and threatening. Johnson described how “my person in my cell… he used to say it’s not good thing… it’s a sin for God. I was very scared”.

Johnson had fled homophobic persecution that culminated in an unbearable tragedy – their partner was murdered. The conditions of immigration detention triggered the trauma they had experienced in their country of origin – Johnson’s family had kept them locked up. 

Like Johnson, Usman, from West Africa, had lost his partner in a homophobic attack. He shared a room in detention with a man who targeted him with anti-LGBTQ+ abuse, before turning physically violent, throwing a heavy object aimed at Usman. “He has been threatening me all the while but that day he decided to do it himself with that weapon,” Usman said. Despite complaining to the staff in the run-up to the attack, it was only at this point that any action was taken to protect Usman’s safety. 

The study found it was not only fellow detainees that were engaging in homophobic bullying. Cruel and anti-LGBTQ+ comments also came from staff members.

Michael, who fled persecution in East Africa where in many countries LGBTQ+ people are criminalised, described how one guard told him “that if not for the system in the UK” he would still be in his “home town” and that the guard “believed that I would be… walking in the street, like an outcast… that by now my penis would be chopped of… that I’m just lucky that I found myself in here”.

“The Government shouldn’t be putting people into these conditions,” said Zadeh. “We don’t believe that anybody should be subjected to immigration detention. People should be supported in communities.”

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The threats of bullying and abuse has led some LGBTQ+ people in detention to try and hide their identity, fearful that if they are ‘out’, they may be targeted for violence. 

Hiding their sexual or gender identity can have repercussions for a person’s asylum claim. People seeking asylum on the grounds of sexuality or gender identity have to ‘prove’ they are LGBTQ+.

“How are they meant to do that?” Zadeh asked. “If you’re in an environment where you’re actively trying to hide who you are, and where you’re so cut-off from communities of support, because you are locked in detention.”

In 2021, more than 24,000 people entered detention in the UK, a decrease from a high of 32,000 in 2015. 

“Sadly, this Government has started increasing the number of people that they detain,” Zadeh told Byline Times. “But they do have it in their ability to do something different. The Government does have responsibilities in terms of equalities and protecting people who may be more at risk of harm.”

Four of those interviewed had been in detention for “several months” in the time period since September 2016, while one was held in a short-term holding facility for 48 hours.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Immigration detention makes a limited but essential contribution to tackling illegal migration and protecting the public, decisions to detain are made on a case-by-case basis. The Home Office takes the welfare and safety of people in our care very seriously. Guidance ensures staff are aware of the actions required to meet the needs of LGBTQ+ individuals in detention and welfare teams are present at every site to provide support specific to their needs.”

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