Back in 2010 David Cameron promised to end the UK’s shameful practice under Labour, of deporting gay asylum seekers to states where they had “well-founded fear of persecution” on the basis of their sexuality. Sadly that did not happen – not in practice anyway; and this week a 28 year-old Nigerian nursing student by the name of Ola Ayelokun became the latest victim of an asylum system that has dramatically fallen behind domestic LGBT rights legislation.
Despite a huge public outcry and intervention from within the Conservative party, Ola was put on a plane back to Nigeria, where the penalty for homosexual activity is fourteen years imprisonment and the government has been consistently criticised for failing to prevent widespread homophobic attacks. Ola’s summary of the situation was at once simple and heart-breaking: “I am very afraid they are going to kill me in Nigeria."
The crux of the problem that has led us to this point is not necessarily a dismissive attitude towards LGBT rights on the government’s part; after all, Cameron’s administration is actively trying to build on Labour’s advances in equality legislation and has threatened to cut aid to those countries persecuting their gay citizens. Nor is there any top-level policy failing when it comes to protecting LGBT asylum seekers; they are formally entitled to remain here on the basis of homophobic persecution in their home state. Rather the failing is a procedural one that neither Labour nor the coalition have ever tackled head-on.
In short there are currently no guidelines for courts dealing with these kind of cases, which effectively leaves the outcome resting on the judge’s interpretation of somebody’s sexuality. As a result we are faced with numerous situation’s like Ola’s, where lack of understanding, adherence to stereotypes, or simple prejudice has caused a judge to determine that the asylum seeker is actually not gay at all and can therefore be sent home without danger.
This of course not only leaves the judge in charge of a decision that they may be utterly unqualified to make, but also puts the emphasis of the determination in completely the wrong place as Ola’s lawyer pointed out: "with respect to the…judges here, it is not what they believe to be his sexuality that is important. It is what is believed by those people who persecute and prosecute people in Nigeria for being gay that counts."
The solution it appears, would be relatively straightforward; a number of other European countries have already put in place guidelines for judges in order to prevent travesties such as Ola’s deportation, and LGBT rights groups are now calling on the UK government to do the same. That is not only a sensible course of action, but an essential one if we are to stop any more innocent people being sent home to face persecution – or worse.