DAVID HAIGH: I’m an asylum lawyer, and I believe 80% of claimants who approach me are simply not genuine
Recently I received an email from someone who lives in the Middle East who hoped I could help him seek asylum here on the basis of his sexuality.
‘I’m not really gay,’ he wrote. ‘But I understand that would be the best way to get to the UK.’ I have heard many similarly fraudulent pleas over the past few years.
As a human-rights lawyer who has worked on a number of internationally renowned cases focused on the Middle East, I am the first port of call for many in the Arab region seeking asylum in Britain.
And sad though I am to write this, the unpalatable truth is that I believe about 80 per cent of the people who have approached me are not genuine claimants. That’s why I applaud elements of Suella Braverman’s speech in Washington yesterday in which she declared that merely being gay or female and fearful of discrimination should no longer automatically amount to grounds for asylum.
I have not always agreed with everything that the Home Secretary has said, but she is right to point out that where once asylum seekers had to show they were facing ‘persecution’, now they must prove only the woollier charge of ‘discrimination’. This word is open to widespread interpretation and has effectively opened the floodgates to false claims.
‘I believe about 80 per cent of the people who have approached me are not genuine claimants,’ writes David Haigh
David Haigh has applauded elements of Suella Braverman’s speech in Washington on Tuesday
And so Mrs Braverman’s intervention is welcome and timely. Yet her comments have already sparked the inevitable knee-jerk backlash from the Left, as well as prompting howls of outrage from refugee support groups citing the cases of torture they have seen inflicted on the LGBTQ community around the world.
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They are missing the point. As a gay man, I fervently believe every human being’s right to love who they choose should be protected in law – and I’m horrified by any report of abuse and torture based on sexuality. As the first openly gay boss of a top-flight English football club – Leeds United – I suffered my fair share of homophobia on my way to the top, and so I take none of this lightly.
But the Home Secretary is right: the harsh reality, as I have repeatedly seen for myself, is that the current system is widely abused.
As it stands, there are around 70 countries across the globe where it is illegal to be gay.
On paper that means anyone from these countries can claim asylum based on their sexuality. As Mrs Braverman pointed out, that confers the notional right to move country upon at least 780million people, gay or otherwise.
There is no acknowledgment of the hard truth that while there are many countries where homosexuality remains against the law, in many of them it is broadly tolerated, and lives are not at risk.
This has not stopped an endless stream of claimants knocking on my door in the hope I can help them reach Britain.
Some who contact me are gay, some not, but what many have in common is the understanding that claiming to be LGBT is a route to safety in the UK if you hail from a country that criminalises non-heterosexual relationships.
Haigh says: ‘The Home Secretary is right: the harsh reality, as I have repeatedly seen for myself, is that the current system is widely abused’
While this is just my professional experience, it does not take a giant leap of the imagination to deduce many similar approaches are made to my peers nationwide, some of whom – as a recent Mail investigation proved – are less scrupulous about turning away lucrative legally aided business, and getting rich in the process. Incidentally, this is not a charge that can be levelled at me. In common with my efforts on behalf of Dubai’s Princess Latifa, who was kidnapped and tortured by agents of her father, Sheikh Mohamed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and is restrained in her homeland to this day, all of my human rights work is conducted on a pro bono basis.
Of course, asylum seekers are ably assisted by the system itself, in the form of a Home Office that has bogged itself down in so much labyrinthine red tape that it does not have the resources – or the will – to establish whether an applicant is genuinely LGBT or merely claiming to be so in order to secure citizenship in the West.
I have some personal understanding of this problem. Ten years ago, my Arab partner at the time had been locked up, abused and tortured in his home country in the Gulf on the basis of his sexuality.
He came from an important family and his life remained at risk following his release, and so, after he entered England on a student visa, he applied for asylum.
His application took two and a half years to process – during which not one Home Office official bothered to call me, his cited partner, to check facts about his case.
What does this tell us about how the system operates? It reveals inefficiencies fail everyone, not least genuine asylum seekers who need and deserve our protection.
None of this could possibly have been forecast by the framers of the UN Refugee Convention of 1951, a 72-year-old convention Mrs Braverman is right to characterise as no longer fit for our age. In demanding an overhaul, as she did yesterday, I would argue she does not go far enough.
While we should stay within the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights (albeit a reformed one), a more meaningful action would be to repeal the Blair-era Human Rights Act of 1998 and replace it with a domestic Bill of Rights.
The government made a start on this last year, with the introduction of a bill which promised to give us more legal powers over our borders. But, this summer it announced it would no longer proceed with these changes.
Let me be clear: it is the duty of any right-thinking society to protect people around the world from human rights abuses, and I believe the UK should offer protection to genuine asylum seekers.
But the sad truth is the equality we fought for so long in the LGBT community is being turned against us by people only too willing to exploit the benefits and warm welcome of our asylum system.
David Haigh is a human rights lawyer and crisis manager focusing on the Middle East
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