More and more, we hear stories of gay Russians seeking asylum abroad as they fear their country’s crackdown on so-called “non-traditional sexuality.” What hope is there for LGBT Russians looking for asylum, and what are the unique challenges gay asylum seekers face?
LGBT rights observers may have been cheered this week by the news that the Emilia Romagna general assembly, a regional left-wing administration that is possibly the most gay friendly in Italy, passed a resolution offering gay people in Russia the chance at asylum. This is a move that has been made by other local and indeed national governments around the globe and is by any standard a commendable act that recognizes the dire situation Russian LGBTs may face.
Unfortunately, and despite the best of intentions, the offer might not add up to all that much.
Italy’s system for asylum seekers is, in broad terms, rather generous. The mere fact that LGBTs have been criminalized by Russia would mean a claim for asylum should be compelling. However, comments made by gay rights hostile politicians after the Emilia Romagna assembly passed its initiative give insight into the limitations of this well meaning act.
Enrico Aimi, the regional councilor from former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s anti-gay PDL party, is quoted as saying: “The Russian law is aimed at protecting the children. Now Russian gay couples can not adopt children, but this is not allowed in Italy as well. So why are we complaining about Russia?”
Other lawmakers have made similar statements, asking on what grounds Italy has for involving itself in Russia’s affairs.
Unfortunately, critics may have a point. Italy’s domestic laws on gay and trans rights aren’t massively ahead of those Russia uses. While we can argue that there is a vast difference in tone — institutionalized homophobia might be strong in Italy but there isn’t the scale of violence witnessed against Russia’s LGBT community — in terms of administrative attitude, there is strong agreement between the two countries.
For instance, Italy denies LGBT citizens discrimination protections in most sectors other than employment, does not provide for any partnership recognition or joint adoption rights and, despite citizens actually polling in favor of LGBT rights, the country’s politicians remain hostile to the point of outright bigotry.
Indeed, far right factions among Italian lawmakers have even gone so far as to call for the enacting of their own Russian style propaganda law. Seen through this lens, the success of an asylum application might be significantly hampered.
Certainly, gay Russians will have to work hard to convince Italian authorities that the persecution they face in Russia is of such urgent remedy that the Italian authorities can overlook such similarities. Italy has in the past given asylum to gay people, in particular from countries like Iran that overtly seek to obliterate gay communities, but the Russian law, while chilling, is more subtle and more easily overlooked. That could be problematic. Italy isn’t alone in being a difficult asylum prospect, however.
Even in countries like the UK, which are domestically aggressive in pursuing equality for LGBT citizens, there are significant, even dehumanizing barriers to asylum application.
UK asylum officials are still hampering LGBT asylum applicants by asking them to “prove” their sexuality and the persecution they face as a result. While to some this might seem like a reasonable request in theory, in practice it means many gay asylum seekers are having to face dehumanizing questions about their identities and might have their applications rejected if they do not conform to stereotypes of what LGBT people are like. So desperate are some asylum applicants, they have even begun taking pictures or filming themselves in same-sex sexual encounters so they can supply “evidence” of their sexual minority status.
In addition, asylum officials have been skeptical of whether applicants are “gay enough” to be credible, with applications being denied because the applicant didn’t attend gay clubs or Pride parades — quite ignoring the fact that beyond LGBT identity, the group is a diverse population of differing sensibilities, not to mention cultural and ethnic tastes and views.
Such cases were again highlighted this month as the UK Home Affairs Committee investigates the situation, with MPs and gay rights groups within the UK calling such practices incredibly distressing for applicants and against the UK’s equality mandates.
Still, there are some Russians who have won asylum in the UK and no doubt for those who are able to, life can be vastly improved.
Ivan Mihalev, originally from Russia but now a resident of Hull in East Yorkshire, UK, has spoken out about the “dictatorship” Russia has become and how he was actively persecuted and lived in fear of intimidation and violence. Since moving to the UK, his life has been difficult, as it would be for anyone with only a loose grasp of English and no support system, but gradually he has managed to form friendships and find volunteer positions that mean his life has improved greatly.
The UK isn’t alone in having difficulties assessing LGBT asylum claims.
Even Canada, which was one of the first countries to offer asylum to LGBT Russians, has had its share of problems on the LGBT asylum front.
Chris Alexander, Canada’s minister for immigration, was quoted as saying in August when protests over Russia’s anti-gay laws were at their strongest, “[Claims] related to this particular issue will of course be looked at very seriously by our very generous system.”
That is a welcome statement, but in the recent past a number of gay asylum seekers have been refused residency because they have failed to adequately convince authorities that they are “gay enough” to face persecution in their home countries, a standard that would never be applied in the case of heterosexuals.
Most stark was the case of Nigerian Francis Ojo Ogunrinde, whose application was refused by the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board in 2010 who said he had failed to prove his identity despite providing pictures of himself and a same-sex partner as well as a number of other pieces of evidence, including a letter from a gay group of which Ogunrinde had been a part of for a number of months. Ogunrinde’s case was later granted a review with officials saying that stereotypes should not be used for gauges of appropriate asylum applications, but difficulties persist.
Such cases aren’t just confined to the countries detailed above, though. Countries and governments throughout Europe, South Africa and indeed even the United States, have all had difficulties in deciding what constitutes a credible LGBT asylum claim. That, as in the UK, the United States and several European countries, is often further muddied by agendas that are hostile to immigration.
So, while countries and regional governments offering statements of support for LGBT asylum seekers from Russia and other LGBT-hostile countries is not just welcome but to be encouraged, such offers are unfortunately meaningless unless said countries are willing to tackle the endemic problems LGBT asylum applicants face when fleeing their hostile home nations in the hope of finding safety abroad.
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