Despite all the discrimination and violence she experienced in Jamaica as a gay woman, perhaps the most traumatizing experience for PJ Samuels was her time in immigration detention in the UK.
Samuels claimed asylum in July 2010, and instead of Home Office staff looking at her binder of documentation, they sent her to Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre.
Under the Detained Fast Track policy, she was held for 12 days without any interviews on her claim.
Samuels, a poet and human rights advocate, was speaking at a panel Tuesday night on LGBTI asylum seekers hosted by the LSE Amnesty International Society.
Immigration detention is an extremely dehumanizing experience, Samuels said, recalling her disgust when she learned she was to be identified not by name but by number.
“I refused to say my number. I would say my name, and they would say ‘what’s your number.’ I just burst into tears,” Samuels said. “It’s this complete erasure, this absence of humanity. Just that I was no longer worthy of having a name, is something I get so emotional about.”
Samuels was initially denied asylum but that was overturned on appeal.
Debra Singer, a policy research manager at Asylum Aid, said Samuels’ experience highlights a problem in UK’s approach to LGBTI asylum seekers: 99 per cent are initially denied but then face a high likelihood that the courts will overturn that decision.
“The quality of decision-making is affected by the issue of credibility, by people not being believed,” Singer said.
Paul Dillane, executive director UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group, said legal and human rights groups have challenged the sexually explicit and degrading questions that the Home Office asks LGBTI asylum seekers.
“None of the answers to these questions provide reliable information of what kind of persecution they face in their home country,” he said.
In July 2015, the UK government suspended the Detained Fast Track asylum system after the Court of Appeal ruled it was unlawful to detain asylum seekers throughout the asylum process.
But despite those developments, Dillane said LGBTI asylum seekers in the UK continue to be wrongfully refused protection.
“We need more people to stand up and defend the rights of refugees and LGBTI asylum seekers,” he said.
There are 78 countries where it’s illegal to be gay. Even people who are not prosecuted under these laws face exclusion, ostracization, threats or are faced into a heterosexual marriage, Singer said. People who complain to police are likely to be harassed or face extortion.
Jamaica, a small Caribbean island known for its friendly, laid back people, has a troubling history of sexual discrimination.
A 2014 study conducted by West and Cowell interviewed 2,000 people across 40 communities in Jamaica and found that Jamaicans hold very strong prejudices across gays and lesbians. This has resulted in murders and violent attacks against gay people, which are rarely prosecuted by the authorities.
Samuel’s said the persecution LGBTI people face in Jamaica has only gotten worse.
“You’re finding them burnt to death in their homes, people homeless and living sewers,” she said.
She said even after she was released from detention, she was depressed and practically suicidal. She said trying to convince Home Office officials that she is actually gay was exhausting and made her feel like she was defined by only her sexuality.
“It takes away my childhood, my teens years, my religion. It’s as if the structures that everything I was built on was no longer true. All my other achievements were erased other than the fact that I was a gay woman.”
That’s why Samuels has focused her activism on empowering LGBTI people to stand up and say “I fucking exist.”
She now operates a support group for LGBTI refugees, particularly women struggling with mental health issues.
To find out more about how you can help advance human rights for LGBTI asylum seekers, visit UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group at http://uklgig.org.uk/.
Katie DeRosa, Staff Writer