Seeking support in Faith: experiences of LGBTQI+ people seeking asylum in the UK

The global North is a hostile environment for all of those seeking asylum, but queer asylum seekers face even greater challenges than their heteronormative counterparts. This is mainly because of the limited criteria in which they need to make their non-heteronormativity visible to be deemed deserving of protection (UKLGIG, 2010; UKLGIG, 2018). Challenges faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans gender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI+) people seeking asylum are not limited to their asylum claim but are also experienced when seeking support during the asylum process. Barriers faced by LGBTQI+ people seeking asylum is an important aspect of the asylum process, especially as destitution[1] amongst the asylum-seeking community is already prevalent and continues to rise. Creating destitution within the asylum-seeking community is part of the UK government’s strategy of the hostile environment and has been a tactic used by consecutive governments for well over a decade. As far back as 2006 the Joint Committee on Human Rights suggested that ‘government actions have resulted in a high level of destitution among asylum seekers, both as a deliberate policy aim and because of administrative inefficiency’ (JCHR, 2006-07:24).


Due to this rise in destitution, NGOs, charities, and faith-based organisations/communities (FBO/Cs) have provided responses to those seeking support whilst in the UK asylum process. Yet there has been little academic attention given to this support and the experiences of those accessing it (notable exception Snyder, 2011). The focus of my research explores the intersections of queer identities and religious experiences and how these intersect within the asylum process in the UK. There are preconceived assumptions that queer asylum seekers would reject their religion because religious belief and religious organisations undermine, rather than protect, the rights of non-heteronormative people (UKLGIG, 2010; UKLGIG, 2018). There is a presumption of the impossibility of a ‘queer religious subjectivity’ within political and legal arenas, and therefore those asylum seekers who display religious belief are treated with suspicion (Giametta, 2014: 584). However, many of the LGBTQI+ people I have spoken to still purport to have a religious belief despite a wariness perhaps of religious spaces and communities.



During my conversations with queer people seeking asylum, people often spoke about the issues they still face due to their queer identity despite being in the UK. A recurring theme within these conversations was tension between living openly with their queer identity and what impact this had on support structures and survival strategies people engaged with. Due to the focus of my research, I have had many discussions with people about whether they had approached faith spaces to seek support. Listening to people speak out their experiences accessing faith spaces highlighted both positive and negative experiences, which sometimes happened at the same time. Their experiences contradict the stereotypical assumptions that religious communities are ‘intolerant of non-normative gender identities and sexualities’ and there is certainly a movement within many religions (including Christianity, Islam and Judaism) for a greater acceptance of queer people of faith (Yip, 2016). Faith-based organisations (FBOs) have a long history of responding to social injustice and Cloke found, for example, that ‘as state-run welfare services have been hollowed out, so FBOs have often been the principal gap-filler, meaning that the people serving the poor and needy in these cities are as likely as not to be faith-motivated’ (Cloke, 2010: 224).


Through my work as a practitioner in the refugee sector I often contact faith groups to see if they can offer material, financial or emotional support to people I work with. Often FBO/Cs are the only places who can offer more sustained support for people who are Appeal Rights Exhausted (ARE)[2] and therefore often have No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF)[3]. This is due to the fact that FBO/Cs are not as likely to be tied to funding restrictions on whom they could help. However, when I moved to working with LGBTQI+ people who were seeking or had sought asylum in the UK, I often had conversations with people about their desire to avoid faith spaces or the need for them to hide their sexuality as they were being supported by a faith community; they vocalised concerns that this support would stop if they were open about their sexual identity. Therefore, within my research one of my main research aims is to gain a greater understanding, perceived or real, of the barriers or the benefits that exist for LGBTQI+ people seeking support from FBO/Cs. In terms of barriers, there was a perception that faith spaces are homophobic or would not be welcoming towards LGBTQI+ people. This barrier was described by interlocutors as real and perceived. One man I spoke to from Iran, when describing his experience of living in one of the asylum hotels for eight months[4], said for a long time he had no access to any cash support and was struggling to access basic necessities such as food, toiletries and phone data to contact his solicitor. He told me that a local church opposite the hotel was providing assistance to the asylum-seeking community within the hotel and he would see fellow residents return with clothing and food. However, when I asked if he had sought support there, he told me, ‘people used to go to the church which was really supportive, but I never went there because I was afraid that they are going to figure out I’m…...I really try not to judge people, but I have been in those situations before and I do not want those things happening again’. He assumed that as the support was provided within a religious context the people providing the support would not accept him as a gay man. Therefore, despite needing support he was reluctant to seek it out due to the space in which it was offered and his perceptions of, and previous experiences with, a religious community. Others I spoke to did attend faith spaces to access support but concealed their sexuality due to concerns about how their queer identity would be received. Despite their apprehension in disclosing their queer identity none of the people I am referring to had had a negative experience of, or had seen any negative responses towards, the LGBTQI+ community from these specific faith organisations. However, there were no visible indicators that the faith space was LGBTQI+-affirming and therefore, they felt that concealing their identity was the best option to avoid critical attention and to ensure they could continue to access much-needed support.


Several people I spoke with actively sought out a faith space different from their own, as while they had experienced homophobia within their religious tradition of birth, they spoke about how the familiarity of being with people who had faith provided comfort to them. By seeking out a different faith they were able to worship without the fears of rejection which they had experienced within their own faith community. One man speaking about a faith community he had joined since arriving in the UK said, ‘there is an issue of caring, they have love for people and concern with others and they always keep on checking on people’. He relied on the friendship that was offered to him during his time within the asylum process and was touched by the fact that outside of worship people from the community would check up on him to make sure he was ok. Another man from Sierra Leone spoke of how he actively sought out help from a Christian community when he arrived in the UK as he had received help with his education from a Christian church in his country of origin when he was younger. Reflecting on the community he said, ‘the Christian community is a welcoming community, as like I told you, back home, they helped me with my education and even when I came here, I received the highest help from them, they are nice people’. He continued to attend services with this faith community which provided him with an emotional support system. In addition, he received financial help and assistance to access the technology he needed to continue his college education during the pandemic.


As this brief selection from my research shows, stereotypical assumptions regarding the incompatibility of queer and religious identities are overly simplistic. As discussed earlier, it cannot be assumed that LGBTQI+ people would reject their religion or religious spaces but there are issues surrounding where and when LGBTQI+ people feel safe to be visibly queer. As seen in the examples this can impact where they are able to access support, or where they feel comfortable doing so, whilst in the asylum process. It is especially important to understand this issue as queer people are also more reluctant to access formal asylum support. As mentioned in the introduction, destitution is prevalent in the asylum-seeking community due to Home Office policies and therefore the ability to access third sector support can be a crucial part of peoples’ survival strategies.


About the author:

Claire Fletcher is a PhD candidate at University College London. Her research focuses on how queer asylum seekers experience religion during their asylum journey and whilst seeking asylum in the UK. Her research is funded by the Economic Social Research Council. She has a Master’s Degree in Global Migration from UCL and a Master’s Degree in Global Politics from Birkbeck University. Claire also works at Rainbow Migration, a charity that promotes equality and dignity for LGBTQI+ people seeking asylum in the UK, as an LGBTQI+ Asylum Support Worker. Follow her on Twitter at @Ms_Fletch.


References

Cloke P (2010) Theo-Ethics and Radical Faith-Based Praxis in the Postsecular City’. In: Molendijk A, Beaumont J and Jedan C (eds) Exploring the Postsecular: The Religious, the Political and the Urban. Leiden and Boston. MA: Brill, pp.223-241.

Giametta C (2014) ‘Rescued’ subjects: The question of religiosity for non-heteronormative asylum seekers in the UK. Sexualities17(5-6): 583-599.

Home Office (2019) Assessing destitution. Home Office. London. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/assessing-destitution-instruction (Accessed Date: 07/06/2021).

Snyder S (2011) Un/settling Angels: Faith-Based Organizations and Asylum-Seeking in the UK. Journal of Refugee Studies 24(3): 565-585.

UKLGIG (2010) Failing the Grade: Home Office Initial Decisions on Lesbian and Gay Claims for Asylum. UKLGIG. London. Available at: https://www.rainbowmigration.org.uk/sites/default/files/2021-03/Falling-the-Grade-April-10_1.pdf (Accessed Date: 07/06/2021).

UKLGIG (2018) Still Falling Short: The standard of Home Office decision-making in asylum claims based on sexual orientation and gender identity. UKLGIG. London. Available at: https://www.rainbowmigration.org.uk/sites/default/files/2021-03/Still-Falling-Short-Jul-18_0.pdf (Accessed Date: 07/06/2021).

Yip AK (2016) Coming home from the wilderness: An overview of recent scholarly research on LGBTQI religiosity/spirituality in the West. In: Browne K, Munt S and Yip AKT (eds) Queer spiritual spaces. Routledge, pp.51-66.



FOOTNOTES:

[1] Section 95(3) of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 provides that a person is destitute if: they do not have adequate accommodation or any means of obtaining it (whether or not their other essential living needs are met) or have adequate accommodation or the means of obtaining it but cannot meet their other essential living needs (Home Office, 2019).

[2] Appeal Rights Exhausted (ARE) defines a person whose request for asylum or immigration application was refused, and who has made all appeals that they are allowed to make, without success.

[3] A person has No Recourse to Public Funds (NRFP) when they are ‘subject to immigration control’, as defined at section 115 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. An individual who is subject to immigration control is prohibited from claiming public funds (benefits and housing assistance) unless an exception applies.

[4] Use of hotel accommodation significantly increased during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic and people placed in hotel accommodation were at first refused any form of cash support as it was argued by the Home Office that as people were support on a full-board basis, meaning all their meals and accommodation were provided for. Eventually the Home Office conceded and did grant most people £8 per week in cash support. However, people who found themselves within hotel accommodation increasingly sought help from the third sector due to unsuitable food provision, no ability to clothe themselves and very limited access to information on external services, for example how to access healthcare.

Recent Posts

See All