I am a gay immigrant to Canada who fled here from Jamaica. And today I sit my Canadian citizenship test here in Ottawa.
I lead the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network’s LGBTQI initiatives. And it’s fair to say I am privileged compared to many other LGBTI immigrants and refugees to this country.
400 million LGBTI people face criminal imprisonment
As a gay Jamaican, the path to this momentous day was possible because of my Canadian marriage to my husband, Tom.
It’s true our marriage led to multiple people threatening to kill me upon my return to Jamaica, forcing me to flee to Canada. But on the other hand, I did not have to endure the challenges of an Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) hearing. For so many already traumatized individuals, these hearings are dehumanizing and unjust.
Approximately 400 million LGBTI people live under the threat of criminal imprisonment, violence or even death. That is why thousands of them apply to Canada’s IRB for refuge each year.
All of them are trying to escape persecution in their home country simply because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
On Tuesday (27 March) I gave evidence to a committee in Canada’s House of Commons looking at the way the Immigration and Refugee Board is appointed and trained, as well as it’s complaint process.
I told them the IRB has made strides to improve the cultural sensitivity of its members. But it needs to do more to enhance their cultural competence.
LGBTI claimants report the IRB still demands excessive evidence of self-identification.
Immigration officials asked to see his phone to check he was using gay apps
For example, in one case the board spontaneously asked to examine a claimant’s cell phone. They wanted to see if he had been chatting to other gay people on hook-up apps.
In another case, board members said the fact a claimant had posted pictures on social media with the opposite sex, meant they weren’t gay.
Of course, these experiences are both humiliating and wrong-headed.
In countries that still criminalize LGBTI sexualities and gender expression, it is often too risky to self-identify. So for many, having an opposite-sex partner is often a ‘mask’ or even a perceived ‘cure’ for homosexuality.
In yet other cases, IRB members have also demanded refugees give them police records as proof of homophobic attacks.
However, LGBTI people in many countries distrust the police. When they do report homophobic attacks, police sometimes use the evidence to punish them for illegal same-sex activity. So often, in the very worst cases, they can’t report attacks and they have no police report to show.
‘If you say you are gay, you get to stay’ is an asylum myth
Many Canadians appear to have the unfounded belief that claiming you are LGBTI is the easiest way to get asylum. Therefore, they assume migrants must be abusing the system. Quite simply they think: ‘If you say you are gay, you get to stay’.
However, to date the IRB has only found 3% of LGBTI refugee claims to lack credibility, so this is hardly an epidemic of abuse.
Asylum in Canada is quite simply a lifeline for people like me. And we should ask that IRB officers have the skills and knowledge to assess our cases fairly.
To improve their cultural competency around LGBTI refugee claimants, we recommend:
- IRB members should undertake multiple days of LGBTI sensitivity training. This should include them meeting refugees from our community and learning about their personal experiences.
- The IRB should have a meaningful dialogue with agencies and lawyers serving LGBTI refugees, to establish clearer guidelines and expectations.
- And claimants and their counsel should have the chance to provide post-hearing feedback. This will help IRB members to improve their questioning without asylum seekers fearing it will hurt their applications.
Canada likes to tout our human rights track record. But we cannot justify doing that at the same time we compound the worldwide discrimination against LGBTQI people.
The time is now for meaningful IRB reflection and reform.