London, United Kingdom – The message delivered to Irina Putilova’s friend, a fellow political activist in Russia, was blunt: “You should stop your activities, otherwise you might lose both your legs.”
It was not an idle threat.
A short time later, Putilova’s friend was attacked in the park and, as promised, both his legs were broken. Soon afterwards, she began receiving similar emails: “Do you want to get the same? Aren’t you afraid to go out of your house?”
Putilova believes that the police were behind the attacks and the threats, but she has also faced violence from Neo-Nazi groups in Russia. As a bisexual woman, her fears of the far-right are further compounded.
“They attack you because you’re a political activist,” she says. “If they also know that you’re LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender], they can really kill you.”
Putilova fled Russia and made it to the United Kingdom. Here, she decided to claim asylum, as she had visited before, has friends here and speaks English. Yet her hopes for safety have been far from straight-forward. Following her initial asylum interview in November 2013, she was held in custody. She was at risk of being deported to Russia within days.
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Recent figures suggest that Russians comprise a huge number of asylum seekers in Europe – second only to Syrians. The number of Russians claiming asylum in the UK is small but growing steadily. Home Office figures show that Russian asylum claims have risen from 72 in 2008 to 104 in 2010 – and to 168 in 2012. The exact numbers of LGBT asylum seekers is unknown, as the Home Office refuses to release such information.
As with all LGBT asylum cases, the biggest hurdle faced by gay Russian asylum seekers is in proving their sexuality to the authorities.
“There’s a real kind of culture of trying to catch people out and trying to prove that they are a liar, rather than starting with the question – is this person in danger?” says Russell Hargrave, communication and public affairs officer at Asylum Aid.
Recently leaked documents show that some Home Office officials have been asking LGBT asylum seekers degrading questions that focus on sexual conduct, including: “What is it about men’s backsides that attracts you?”
Asylum Aid has documented similar practices, including requests for information on sex toys and footage proving LGBT sexual intercourse, as well as asking whether an LGBT asylum seeker had read any Oscar Wilde.
“In 99 percent of asylum cases, harm is not in the bedroom – it’s outside the home by the mob or the state,” says S Chelvan, a barrister specialising in LGBT asylum cases.
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agree that she is at risk of persecution
“It’s because they don’t conform to a specific stereotype of heteronormativity – or how a straight person ‘should’ be. That’s what identifies them and makes them a target for the persecutor.”
Some organisations have also criticised the Home Office for failing to consistently apply the correct standard of proof when assessing LGBT asylum claims. Asylum should be granted if there is “reasonable likelihood” that the claimant would be at risk of persecution if returned home – sometimes referred to as the “1 in 10 chance of risk” – a much lower legal threshold of proof than in civil or criminal court cases.
Yet Asylum Aid have documented LGBT cases in which asylum was refused because the decision was based on “the balance of probabilities”, which is the civil standard of proof, or “beyond reasonable doubt”, the criminal standard of proof. Around 30 percent of all asylum refusals are overturned by judges, often because officials haven’t applied the correct criteria in reaching a decision.
Research by the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group (UKLGIG) showed that, in 2009, there was an initial refusal rate of 98-99 percent in sexual identity-based asylum claims, compared with a general initial asylum refusal rate of 73 percent.
Alex is a 30-year-old gay Russian man. He is considering claiming asylum, though he is currently living in Barcelona on a working visa. Alex – not his real name – claims he was a victim of a hate crime in Russia several years ago – he was hospitalised with concussion after he was beaten up for being gay. The perpetrator was convicted for assault, but, at the time, Alex didn’t mention his sexuality to the police “because I’m sure that if I told them maybe it would go a different way. They would say: ‘Oh, then it’s your fault.'”
From the advice he has been given, Alex is sceptical that he would meet the necessary standard of proof for asylum in the UK – it is not enough to be fearful, he must prove persecution. “With my hate crime, I don’t even know if I can prove it because in my official papers, if I ever go back to the police and ask them to extract this information, there is nothing to say that he beat me because I was gay.”
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As a result, Alex has ruled out applying for asylum in the UK, fearing that officials’ tough stance would describe his fears as “discrimination” rather than “persecution”. Under asylum law, discrimination can amount to persecution, but it doesn’t always meet the threshold necessary for authorities to grant asylum.
Stuart Hanson, founder of No Going Back, says that he was recently contacted by a Russian LGBT asylum seeker who claimed that he was in detention in the UK and was about to be sent home, after having exhausted the appeal process. He claimed that the basis of his refusal was that he was facing “discrimination”, not “persecution”.
When Irina Putilova was detained, she says that the form she filled in during her initial interview only provided two or three lines for her to outline why she was claiming asylum. Detained fast-track cases are those in which it is deemed that a quick decision can be made. The Home Office denies that this necessarily presumes a quick removal. However, research by the Refugee Council shows that just three percent of those placed in the detained fast-track system are granted refugee status.
Putilova was held in Yarl’s Wood – an immigration removal centre run by the private company Serco on behalf of the Home Office. She claims that there was a high degree of cynicism regarding her detention. On the one hand, the detention centre itself was comfortable; her en-suite room had nice furniture and a flat-screen TV. They even offered free hairdressing and manicurist appointments to detainees.
However, she says that the material comfort belied a lack of substantive legal and emotional support for many detainees. Many detainees were highly distressed, said Putilova, often without legal representation, bewildered by their situation. Detainees could be handcuffed and forced onto a plane to be deported with little notice. In addition to holding women in the fast-track system, Yarl’s Wood has also come under criticism recently for indefinitely detaining other female asylum seekers.
LGBT advocates agree that there has been some progress made in dealing with LGBT asylum claims since 1999, when asylum claims based on sexual orientation and gender were first recognised in the UK. Court rulings have limited some of the more egregious practices. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that the Home Office could no longer deport LGBT asylum seekers on the basis that that they would be safe in their home countries as long as they were “discreet” about their sexuality.
“The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need it and we do not deport anyone at risk of persecution because of their sexuality,” said a Home Office spokesperson. “All applicants are required to establish that they face persecution, inhumane or degrading treatment in their home country to qualify for our protection. Any matters concerning an individual’s sexual orientation are dealt with as sensitively as possible, and staff are not permitted to ask inappropriate or intrusive questions.”
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The Home Office added that every “Fast Track” asylum applicant in detention has the opportunity to access legal representation, and that duty solicitors provide free legal advice surgeries at immigration removal centres, including Yarl’s Wood. Each centre also has a welfare team which provides emotional and practical support to applicants.
The Home Office was ranked joint fifth in Stonewall’s “Top 100 Employers 2014” list of “most gay-friendly workplaces”. But Stuart Hanson of No Going Back remains unimpressed. “The irony of that is phenomenal,” he says. “At the same time, you have this kind of very hard-line approach to LGBT asylum in the UK.”
Hanson says that the public rhetoric on immigration is overwhelmingly one of toughness and deportation, rather than of sanctuary. “It really tells me that the whole system, and the UK’s approach to asylum and immigration, is one of negativity. We are saving people’s lives and I think we have lost sight of this. There are opportunists, as in every system, but immigrants [overwhelmingly] come to the UK to ask for protection because they’re scared.”
Following protests, a media campaign and a petition signed by several thousand people, Irina Putilova was taken out of the fast-track system and released, after three days of detention and just one hour before her scheduled manicure appointment. She says that the reasons for placing her in fast-track detention were never explained and she wasn’t told why she was released.
The Home Office might say: 'Look, it's not that homophobic anymore and they released political prisoners.' But it's not like that, because after the Olympics it will just be hell.
Putilova has since been preparing for her next interview with the Home Office, where she will present her full case to be given asylum in the UK; which is based both on her political fears from the state and society, and on her experiences as an LGBT woman in Russia.
When she first came to London, Irina began spending time with gay activists, and she began to think about how repressed she had been in Russia in considering her own sexuality. Her parents didn’t know, or wouldn’t believe, that she was bisexual and she did not feel comfortable telling many of her friends.
She has also encountered homophobia from within the leftist and liberal groups that oppose Putin.
“I was so limited all the time in Russia, and so deep inside, so I couldn’t even be honest with myself,” she said.
After spending some time in London she says she could start embracing her sexuality. “I could relax about it; it was a really cool moment.”
Putilova worries that the Sochi Olympics may actually have harmed her asylum claim. As global attention has turned to Russia’s homophobia and political repression, Putin has tried to soften Russia’s image, releasing key political prisoners and toning down the harsh rhetoric.
As the Olympics come to an end, Irina fears what the fading of international attention will bring.
“The Home Office might say: ‘Look, it’s not that homophobic anymore and they released political prisoners,'” she says.
“But it’s not like that, because after the Olympics it will just be hell.”
Follow Patrick Keddie on Twitter: @PatrickKeddie