LGBTQ+ protestors at Reclaim Pride march in London, 24th July 2021. Photo by Mark Kerrison via Getty Images.
With the UK set to deport queer and gender non-conforming women to Rwanda where being LGBTQ+ is criminalised, The Maya Centre unpacks the nuances of refugee experiences and the lifeline mental health charities offer.
By Hannah Uguru
Refugee narratives are often imagined through the lens of war or political persecution, but many people seek asylum in the West due to their gender identity or sexual orientation as well. This alternative aspect of asylum seeking has become clearer amid a controversial Rwanda asylum plan, an immigration policy announced by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and devised by British home secretary Priti Patel. The scheme proposes that British residents identified by the government as residing here illegally will be deported for processing, asylum and resettlement.
Rwanda is one of 34 African countries where homosexuality is illegal, and many LGBTQ+ asylum seekers in the UK are now fearing for their lives should deportation flights go through — a concern confirmed as reality by the Home Office. Prossy Nakalinzi, a lesbian refugee from Uganda (homosexuality is also illegal there) gained asylum in the UK in 2019 due to persecution for her sexual orientation. She went as far as to describe the Rwanda migration policy as a “death sentence” for LGBTQ+ deportees, saying “Taking refugees there is a real disaster — it’s like they are taking them to a killing zone, giving them a death sentence. Torture and death. They will not be safe.”
The Maya Centre response
The Maya Centre recognises the urgency of this situation, especially as it coincides with both Refugee Week (20 – 26 June 2022) and Pride Month. Our CEO, Emma Brech, reflects on her 18 years of experience working with women from refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds: “The asylum-seeking and refugee women I have met and worked with are often extraordinarily resilient and creative, able to adapt and survive in ways which would confound those of us born in the UK. Not only have these women survived terrible violence, dangerous journeys and the loss of their home and culture — they then go through a punitive asylum system designed to interrogate and humiliate them in every aspect of their experience. Faced with poverty (often destitution), racism, sexual exploitation and total exclusion in the UK, they still find ways to come together, support their families, find education and employment, keep hope alive — and even then want to keep supporting others. Given the right recognition and support, refugee women have the imagination, wisdom and determination to change the world!”
At The Maya Centre, refugee women are seen amongst a much wider demographic of migrant and minoritised women who have experienced gender-based violence and trauma. These women come from diverse African, Indian, Middle Eastern and Eastern European backgrounds as survivors of sexual violence, torture, trafficking, FGM, childhood sexual abuse and honour-based violence. With expressions of queerness remaining taboo in the vast majority of these regions, it can be difficult to offer specialised support. Emma elaborates on this challenge, saying, “Many refugee women I have supported have been totally silent about their sexuality or gender identity. If you think about patriarchal socio-political structures, or how terrifying it is to live in a country where this is illegal or punishable (and then you are cross-examined when you come to the UK) — women will not necessarily risk disclosing this unless they are part of a very safe peer support group.”
Now, during these turbulent times, it’s more important than ever that we refine our approach when it comes to supporting minoritised women. With the help of our new Community Navigators, who specialise in refugee experiences, LGBTQ+ identities, neurodivergence and the Criminal Justice System, we will be connecting with more women who have faced multiple forms of discrimination and abuse. We will reach out to them with advocacy and peer support groups – but crucially, encourage them to use their voice and experience, develop their own wellbeing workshops and play a vital role in changing society’s attitudes towards women’s mental health.
Other relevant organisations that can help
Rainbow Migration provides practical and emotional aid to LGBTQ+ people seeking asylum, providing specialist legal information and advice for those who need help navigating the asylum and immigration systems. They also campaign to improve conditions for and treatment of asylum seekers in the UK.
Rainbow Sisters is a London-based support group for lesbian and bisexual female asylum seekers and refugees. It forms part of the charity Women for Refugee Women, which works to empower refugee and asylum-seeking women through free English lessons, workshops, meetups, community organising and lobbying.