Written by By Atte Colten, CNN London, United Kingdom
Despite being a well-established refugee community in the UK, for a significant number of LGBT+ people in Afghanistan, the route to the UK remains fraught with danger.
“The biggest challenges (to asylum in the UK) were specifically to do with the safety risks that we might face in Afghanistan,” says Nasrin Osmak, who came to Britain in 2016 on a family sponsored asylum claim.
One of her most harrowing experiences came when she was tasked with helping LGBT+ people plan their weddings.
“People were really worried about what would happen at a wedding, or the safety of the wedding ceremony itself,” she recalls. “There’s a lot of Islamic culture in Afghanistan where Muslims are not expected to accept gays and lesbians.”
There were ways around this, though.
“One option was for the couple to make the wedding as a religious ceremony, while also having an interpreter read a passage which was sacred,” Osmak explains.
Another was for the two people to apply for a marriage certificate which would pass as a certificate of civil union, which is viewed favorably by some.
A third option was to secure a marriage registration as a religious marriage under Afghan law.
Because LGBT+ people are considered persecuted in Afghanistan, Osmak says British High Commission in Kabul had to undergo a rigorous screening process.
“They had to look at every refugee’s application through an Afghan point of view — not all the international ones. So they are able to understand the cultural, historical, and religious importance of LGBT+ people in Afghanistan.”
The High Commission’s regional manager for Afghanistan, Ben Hilton, says “Homophobia and transphobia remain deeply embedded” in the Afghan context, so staff have to ensure they “do not oppress them in any way.”
“People are reluctant to come forward and feel that there’s not much chance of them surviving or surviving even if they do,” he explains.
The process required for LGBT+ refugees to bring their partners to the UK must also be culturally sensitive.
“You can’t just have two people hanging around talking about sex. The fact of the matter is that nobody wants to discuss sex with other people unless it’s about sex and human rights.”
‘A significant audience’
Even though LGBT+ people in Afghanistan face difficult circumstances, and many may have fled with limited funds and tools, the UK is an attractive destination for many.
Hilton explains that UK resettlement is “within reach for so many refugees,” particularly since a small, integrated community of gay men formed in London after Afghan refugees left the country in the late ’90s.
This ultimately increased demand for asylum, and the UK is now seen as “the best choice for people who want to come and have a constructive, accepting and supportive community environment.”
This doesn’t stop misconceptions about the UK still being passed around.
“The way in which people in the refugee community receive information and get access to information about the UK is generally different to what it is here,” Hilton says.
He adds that they face particular difficulties convincing potential applicants that they can offer a safe and loving environment.
“So if somebody is finding it hard to come here and is seeking to protect themselves, they are very likely to assume that the UK is a very dangerous place.”
“Some people will be frightened of the people they know in the UK,” he adds. “They will compare themselves to their friends and relatives who they feel have had no choice but to leave because of their sexuality or because of ethnicity.”
Hilton says there are a number of reasons behind this, but largely, “it’s based on the fact that people are thrown out of their family homes for being gay.”
Osmak finds acceptance within LGBT+ communities like this to be a “really complicated question to answer.”
“I don’t know if I’d say it’s lacking, but I think there’s a lot of ways in which some people in Afghan and gay communities have had to adapt to the ways in which other communities don’t accept homosexuality.”