Transgender women seeking asylum in the UK: shunned & sabotaged

In an era of Trump and the rise of the far-right across the globe, it’s easy to see how our attentions may be diverted from the UK’s tedious fixation on Brexit to the pressing acts of inhumanity occurring on the other side of the Atlantic. As Trump’s administration continues to subject migrants and asylum seekers to the most appalling conditions in ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detention centres, British tabloids are keen to report, with outrage, on the tragic consequences of such brutality.

In as recent as early June, reports disclosed the death of Johana Medina Leon, a transgender asylum seeker who had persistently asked for medical treatment whilst in ICE custody, and who had been denied this right on several occasions. Mocked and dismissed when articulating her pain, Johana was only permitted to access help when it was too late. This sickening infringement of human rights has been broadcast to both demonstrate the corruption and accountability of ICE authorities and to demand the closure of detention centres throughout the US. And whilst such inexcusable violations of human rights are right to be exposed and acted on, it seems the UK ought to look a little closer to home whilst in the process of criticising the practices of other governments.

As it currently stands, asylum seekers in the UK are victim to some of the grossest cases of exploitation and discrimination; particularly those who identify as LGBTQ+. Fleeing persecution from their country of origin, LGBTQ+ individuals may seek refuge in the UK – a country which prides itself on its perceived progressive values; one which ranked 14th out of 146 countries in an analysis of social advancement (including personal rights and inclusiveness). And yet the injustice LGBTQ+ individuals, particularly transgender women, face in detention and throughout the asylum process paints a vivid picture of oppression.

Transphobia in the UK is rife not only socially, but systemically. The Gender Recognition Act (GRA) of 2004 – once considered a pillar of justice and equality for transgender individuals within the UK – is both antiquated and restrictive; it is a costly process that treats transgender individuals as victims of a mental illness and does not extend recognition to those who self-declare their gender identity. Despite proposals to reform the GRA, many feel disenchanted as they are acutely aware that any reform will be made under the jurisdiction of a government which, as revealed in a recent poll, consists of ‘just over half’ who do ‘not agree that transgender women should have the same rights as people born female’.

This, coupled with the current cruel proclivity for stigmatising non-gender conforming individuals at any given opportunity, means it seems unlikely that a reformed GRA will support and protect those who need it the most.
Such transphobia spills into the UK asylum process and has been illustrated by several recent reports including Stonewall’s ‘No Safe Refuge’. This report investigates the extensive abuse faced by LGBTQ+ asylum seekers throughout detention centres in the UK, and points to the specific forms of antagonism endured by transgender women. One distressing disclosure details how ‘trans detainees face particular danger’ as they are made ‘to share bedrooms and communal showers with other detainees’. And the violence trans women suffer by fellow detainees is just one half of the narrative.

Perhaps more perturbing is the discrimination trans women are made to bear at the hands of both interviewing officers and staff within detention centres. Detention staff have often failed to prioritise or even so much as acknowledge the safety of trans women; many are placed in male detention centres despite making clear to staff that they identify as women. In refusing to provide trans women with a safe space and stripping them of their dignity, it cannot be disputed that these officers are both accountable for and complacent in the distress and brutal treatment of some of the most vulnerable in society.

Not only have detention staff been found guilty of disregarding the specific needs of trans women, they too have been reported to actively participate in their degradation. One trans woman told Stonewall of how she had been mocked and scrutinised by interviewing officers throughout the asylum process for not ‘looking’ transgender as they then proceeded to misgender her. Others have probed trans women seeking asylum with highly inappropriate, invasive questioning, despite the Home Office having discouraged questions of an explicit nature in 2015.

Sathi, a gay Sri Lankan asylum seeker who feared persecution in his home country, told Stonewall: ‘I was so confused about the Home Office. The Home Office talks about my country, but I am having the same problems in their detention centre. They control their staff, but I am still experiencing discrimination.’ Sathi manages to voice exactly what many of us know to be true; that the UK, despite its readily accepted status as a country that embraces all, is, in some ways, hardly better than the countries from which individuals fearing persecution are made to flee. The discrimination faced by asylum seekers is somehow normalised by society, perhaps thanks to the current anti-immigration rhetoric spouted by not only the press but also senior political leaders in light of Brexit.

With the odds already stacked against trans women and the wider LGBTQ+ community who seek asylum, they are also burdened with the responsibility to provide evidence of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Despite being fully aware of the barbaric conditions some trans women have escaped, the Home Office lacks empathy towards the difficulties and complexities that come with providing evidence of one’s gender identity. Applicants are often left feeling trapped; they are scrutinised if they provide ‘too much’ evidence, which the Home Office describes as ‘self-serving’, and if they are unable to provide any. It seems the entire asylum process has been curated to impose gruelling requirements on LGBTQ+ applicants and is indicative of the 2012 hostile environment policy – no longer technically in effect but inevitably still felt by migrants across the UK.

Trans women in asylum, as well as asylum seekers across the board, ought to be treated with the unwavering support and protection that they both require and deserve. It is essential that staff and officers are trained on how to address asylum claims based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity; the stigma attached to gender non-conforming individuals has no place in society but especially not in government-endorsed detention centres. The message this sends to asylum seekers suffering violence and discrimination in detention is that the British government is not here to help. This is a societal issue and one we ought to feel deep shame over.

Holly Barrow


Holly Barrow is a political correspondent and content writer for the Immigration Advice Service – an organisation of immigration solicitors that offers free advice and support for asylum-seekers and victims of abuse.