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  • Lifting Veil of Suspicion that Clouds Asylum Cases


    The Irish Times - March 11, 2008

    Why we should take note of the case of a gay refugee in Britain? asks Quentin Fottrell . THERE IS good reason to be concerned about the British case of Iranian teenager Mehdi Kazemi who faces deportation to Tehran by British prime minister Gordon Brown to near-certain imprisonment or death. Concern because the British government isn't the only one tightening the screws on the asylum process of late: our own is keen to clear a backlog of 9,427 asylum applications it has racked up since 2000 . . . one way or another.

    Because, where the UK leads on asylum and immigration issues, we invariably follow. 

    The Minister for Justice's Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill won't publish decisions on asylum cases; could limit the case for appeals; and restrict solicitors' access to decisions. The Government doesn't want to compromise the identities of those involved, but it manages to protect identities in family law cases, so it more likely fears that would-be asylum seekers could make a "study" of successful refugee cases. 

    Meanwhile, the UK wants to deport Kazemi. He travelled there in September 2005 to study English. In Iran, he had been in a relationship with a boy named Parham. But in December 2005 Parham stopped replying to his e-mails. He had been arrested, interrogated and forced to name his gay friends. The British government erroneously insists that it's okay to be gay in Iran if you're "discreet". It's too late for that now. 

    In April 2006 Kazemi was told that Parham had been hanged, and police called to his home in Tehran, so when the UK turned down his application for asylum, he fled to the Netherlands. The Dutch government must now decide whether it should send him back to the UK under the 2003 Dublin II Convention, which says would-be asylum seekers in any EU member state must have their claims processed in the country where they first entered the EU. In Kazemi's case, that means the UK. 

    Faced by this awful situation, Kazemi is now reportedly on suicide watch. In another case, lesbian Iranian Pegah Emambakhsh (40) also faces deportation from the UK. 

    Iran is a notorious flashpoint for gay executions. In 2005, two gay teenagers, Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni, were hanged publicly in Iran's Edalat Square in Mashhad. Since Iran became an Islamic Republic in 1979, the government has routinely indulged in homicidal bigotry of harassment, lashings, imprisonment and executions. 

    Yet Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a crowd at New York's Columbia University last year: "We don't have homosexuals like you do in your country." How can you execute someone for a crime that doesn't exist? They do it anyway, or invent one. Lawyers here say Irish authorities have also dealt with gay refugees from the former USSR, Lebanon, Cuba, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, Yemen, Kenya and Palestine. 

    Ireland doesn't give numbers on gay refugee cases, and many are unlikely to declare their sexuality for fear of being "outed" and having to go back if their case is refused, like Kazemi. On that basis, Muslims from brutal regimes are unlikely to make a "study" of gay refugee cases. It would be too hazardous if they failed. Many more have hidden their sexuality their whole life and they choose other reasons for seeking asylum. 

    On the upside, one Irish lawyer told me he has successfully processed 30 cases of gay refugees, helped by the fact that the 1996 Refugee Act and the new Bill cite sexual orientation under "social group" as a basis for seeking asylum. Dublin-based gay teenage group Belong2 have also worked with several gay teenage refugees. Their two most recent cases - from Albania and Kenya - are now studying in college. 

    However, direct provision centre staff need more intercultural training, especially on bullying. I've heard of three cases, one of a gay Romanian man who left his accommodation centre in Cork due to harassment, a Kenyan man in Dublin ostracised because he was damned if he was going to deny his sexuality after everything he had been through, and a Kenyan lesbian in accommodation who hides her sexuality to survive. 

    For those granted full refugee status - about 10 per cent of applications, according to the Irish Refugee Council - it can be just as emotionally bewildering. Some are known to return to the centres to visit people they met there because they are so alone in the world. "It can be heartbreaking to see someone struggling," one activist told me. This doesn't exactly tally with the bogus asylum seeker portrayed by some sections of the media. 

    Still, it would be churlish not to mention at least one happily-ever-after. Christina Farrell (27) came here in 1997 . . . as a gay Pakistani man. He subsequently decided he was transgender and had a sex-change operation. (She chose the name "Farrell" after the actor Colin Farrell.) She is now engaged to a man from Denmark. "I appreciate this country and everything it has done for me," she says. "I will never forget that." 

    But as Britain stands defiantly behind its closing-door policy to deport Kazemi, and as we toughen our asylum process, it's worth remembering the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees was endorsed in direct response to the Holocaust. It hasn't gone away. It's just more broadly scattered. We can help by sharing with refugees what is great about our country, and to lift the veil of secrecy and suspicion that surrounds them. 

    © 2008 The Irish Times