‘A Prison For My Heart’

Coming out is often be a nervous and fearful experience – what does it feel like to that in immigration detention? Umar (not his real name) hd to do that to protect his life. We are grateful to Umar who said he wanted share his story in order to raise awareness about the plight of LGBTI asylum-seekers and refugees and made this story publicly available, though was anxious to conceal his identity.  

Umar* (not his real name) first came out in a detention centre, to an immigration officer. ‘He wore a suit and had a badge. I didn’t like that I had to speak to him about my sexuality. I felt scared because I didn’t know if what I said would be kept a secret. But I had no choice, I had to tell him. I was very nervous as this was the first time I had told anyone that I was gay.’

Umar had no choice but to disclose his sexuality to the officer because he was in detention, and he was being questioned about his asylum claim.

Umar has sought refuge in the UK because he would face persecution in Pakistan, where homosexuality is illegal. Section 377 of the Penal Code, originally enacted by the British colonial government in the 1860s, criminalises ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’, punishable by life in prison. The social stigma attached to homosexuality is such that gay men and women suffer emotional, physical and sexual violence. Most homophobic violence goes unreported, for fear of reprisals, but reports of blackmail, gang violence, and honour killings are prevalent. The state authorities, instead of providing protection, are often complicit in this persecution.

Growing up in Pakistan, Umar had internalised much of this homophobia, and it was only in the UK that he came to realise that he was gay. Umar is from a strict Muslim family who never spoke about sex or sexuality, so realising that he is gay has left Umar in serious emotional turmoil. ‘This is something that I really struggle with because of my background. It made me feel less of a man, I felt ashamed.’

So when Umar was locked-up in a detention centre and questioned about his asylum claim, the struggle of coming out for the first time was compounded by confusion, shame and deep fear. He feared that others in the detention centre would find out. ‘There were Pakistanis, Bengalis and Indians. I was really scared that they would find out…it would spread like forest fire…they would hate me. I feared that they would hurt me.’

To stay under the radar, Umar avoided speaking to the other detainees, answering questions monosyllabically. Cooped up in this administrative cage, Umar’s mental health deteriorated quickly; his depression worsened and he struggled to sleep.  ‘There was no one in detention I could talk to. Being in detention damaged me badly.’

But Umar knew he needed to tell the truth about his sexuality to the immigration officer, to explain why he could not return to his home country. ‘I fear that I would be attacked or killed in Pakistan if I were found out to be gay’.

Nor, Umar told us, would his family protect him. ‘They would always put religion before me; they would not accept me as a gay man.’ Umar’s parents, who could not afford to bring him up, had entrusted him to his grandparents, who looked after him lovingly. But when his grandparents died, he was taken to live with his uncles. ‘They were not kind to me at all. They were controlling, critical, and prone to violence.’ On one occasion, as a child, Umar was beaten badly by his uncle in the street in front of a crowd for a minor mistake with his shopping. ‘No one helped me, people do not get involved. I know that if my family or community harmed me because I am gay, I would have nowhere to turn.’

Umar has been released from detention, and was granted asylum in September 2017. Though he is now free from detention, he feels compelled to fight the injustice he suffered for the benefit of others. He has brought a challenge in the High Court, arguing that the Government policy and practice with regards to the detention of LGBTI asylum-seekers is unlawful, in violation fundamental human rights. ‘I do not want any refugee, especially a LGBTI refugee, to go through this. Being in detention I was always scared, it was a prison also for my brain and my heart.’

(Unlocking Detention is also grateful to Duncan Lewis Solicitor’s Public Law team for connecting us to Umar.)

 

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