The Sunday Times

July 11th, 2010

If we were to be really honest, billions have a case for asylum

One English summer day in 2004 a young gay Iranian man shot himself between the eyes with an airgun, near a children’s playground in Sussex. He had just heard that his second appeal for asylum here had been refused by the Home Office. He was to be deported back to Iran, where homosexuality is illegal, where gays are persecuted and where he was afraid he would be executed. Iran is a country so barbaric that death by stoning is still legal.

At that time gay men’s requests for asylum here on the grounds that they would be persecuted in their own countries were routinely turned down; gay asylum seekers were often advised by immigration officials to hide their homosexuality by behaving discreetly. No longer. Last week the Supreme Court here decided unanimously that men and women who faced persecution in their own countries because of their homosexuality had valid grounds for claiming asylum and should not be deported.

The Supreme Court gave this judgment in allowing the appeal of two gay men, from Cameroon and Iran, whose asylum claims had previously been turned down. Both men had been told in the usual way that if they discreetly hid their sexuality in their home countries, their situation could be regarded as “reasonably tolerable”.

Overturning this, the Supreme Court found that forcing a gay man to hide his sexuality or to repress it was not tolerable but a breach of his fundamental human rights. The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees says that members of “social groups” are entitled to asylum if they can establish a well-founded danger of persecution at home, and Lord Hope of the Supreme Court said last week that homosexuals might be considered a “social group” for the purposes of this convention. As of last week, no one like Hussein Nasseri needs to be driven to suicide in this country.

That sounds extremely good news. Who would not agree that homosexuals in danger of persecution have every right to asylum? Who would not be proud of our Supreme Court for making this ruling and of our government for welcoming it immediately? Yet the sad truth is that while the ruling is entirely right in principle, in practice it is absolutely unworkable. It serves to illustrate the way in which this country and others have failed to face up to the insoluble problems of asylum.

The unlucky people in the world with a genuine need for asylum amount not to millions but to billions. Homosexuals alone who fear persecution must number many millions. Life is hard for them almost everywhere, and there are more than 80 countries in which homosexuality is illegal — 42 where it’s illegal for both sexes and 39 where it’s illegal for men only.

In Africa alone the populations of the countries where homosexuality is illegal amount to well over 600m. If one assumes that about 10% of people are gay, that means there are 60m homosexuals from Africa who might well have a strong claim to asylum in Britain under the new ruling. That is not to count the many millions from the Indian subcontinent (about 10% of 2 billion), the Middle East and the Pacific, to say nothing of the obvious risk of fraud.

Clearly not all gay asylum seekers would come to Britain. Some, for instance, might be put off by the way gay clergymen get treated here and are expected to repress their sexuality. There are other countries, including the United States, which will take them in. But, equally, Britain is high on the list of preferred destinations for refugees and we could expect a large number.

The only real reason people in need of a safe haven don’t come here in much greater numbers than now is that they don’t have the means or the information; otherwise we would be almost inundated with vast numbers of genuine asylum seekers. That is beginning to change, and this new Supreme Court ruling augments the change. How many of these entirely deserving asylum seekers can we actually take in? Besides, there is no obvious reason to draw the line at the persecution of homosexuals. There are plenty of other “social groups” at risk of persecution or death, along with lesser infringements of their human rights. I should have thought a girl in fear of a forced or underage marriage would have an excellent case for asylum. Clearly girls at risk of genital mutilation (with perhaps infection and even death) ought to have a case, and they amount to many millions — more than 100m women worldwide have suffered this dangerous treatment. And what about the countless women regularly denied their human rights and persecuted under the inequalities of sharia? Sooner or later this country will have to face the fact that we can’t accept even a tiny proportion of legitimate asylum seekers. When that time comes we will be very much blamed. But the truth is that the finger of blame ought to be pointed at religion, particularly at Islam and Christianity in their more fundamentalist forms. It is because of religion that homosexuals are shamed and ridiculed and persecuted. I shall not be welcoming the Pope on his visit to Britain because of the Catholic Church’s monstrous teachings on birth control and on homosexuality, which condemn many millions to misery in the attempt to repress their sexuality; in this, Christianity is a force for evil. Nor is the Anglican Church much better in its apparent refusal to accept a gay bishop here. And the treatment of gays in the name of Islam in some states is an international disgrace.

The situation is much worse now than when the convention on refugees was drafted, as Lord Hope pointed out last week; more recently it has been “fanned by misguided but vigorous religious doctrine”, he said. He gave the ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam in Iran as one example. He also spoke of the “rampant homophobic teaching that right-wing evangelical Christian churches indulge in throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa”.

It is hard to imagine what can be done to resist these evils, beyond helping at least some of the victims. But this might be a moment to accept at long last that religion is not automatically entitled to respect.

When religion is at odds with human rights, when religion is a force for evil, it deserves open contempt. Respect for one’s religion should not be a universal human right and should not be protected in law, least of all when it leads to the lonely death of a man such as Hussein Nasseri. Free to be gay, Message Board, page 21