Home Office advice to gay asylum seekers criticised

The Home Office has been accused of telling gay and lesbian asylum seekers to avoid persecution back home by keeping their sexuality secret.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees claims the UK is turning international convention "on its head".

The UK Supreme Court will rule on the legality of the advice on Wednesday involving countries where it is frowned upon or even illegal to be homosexual.

The Home office says it is committed to safeguarding gay men and lesbians at risk.

The UNHCR told the BBC that under the so-called "discretion test", in use by immigration officials and courts since 2006, gay or lesbian asylum seekers are regularly told to go home and keep their sexuality secret to avoid repercussions.

'Torture or execution'

Many are from countries where homosexuality is unacceptable - such as Iran, Cameroon and other African nations.

In a BBC interview, Alexandra McDowall, the UNHCR's legal officer in London, says the discretion test "introduces an element that shouldn't be there".

She says it forces failed gay and lesbian applicants to live "under a veil of secrecy" back home.

People facing threats because of their sexuality count as a "protected group," alongside those facing religious or political persecution, she adds.

"Would we have asked a Jew to hide in the attic to avoid being sent to the concentration camps?" she told the BBC.

"Persecution does not cease to be persecution just because an individual can take avoiding action by being discreet."

A Home Office spokesman says the new coalition government was "committed to ending the removal" of gay or lesbian claimants facing "proven risk of imprisonment, torture or execution".

The government does not keep official figures on how many failed or successful asylum seekers claimed on the basis of their sexuality or gender identification.

Angry mob

But according to a recent report by the gay lobby group Stonewall, 98% of all gay or lesbian asylum claims are refused in the first instance.

In almost all of these cases the "discretion test" was used, it adds.

In one case, currently before the UK Supreme Court, a gay man from Cameroon was told he should relocate elsewhere in his country and be "more discreet" in future.

The man, only identifiable as "HT", was attacked by an angry mob back home which had seen him and his partner kissing in public.

"Some people stopped me and said we know you are a gay man," HT told the BBC.

He has been fighting removal from the UK for the past four years.

"I cannot go back and hide who I am or lie about my sexuality," he says.

The Supreme Court is due to announce its decision on HT's case on Wednesday.

Also under consideration is the case of a 31-year-old Iranian gay man, who was attacked and expelled from school when his homosexuality was discovered.

Like HT, he has been told he could be "reasonably expected to tolerate" conditions back home that would require him to be discreet and avoid persecution.

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