When you are ushered into Danielle Cohen Immigration Services in Camden, London, you are met with a reception room decorated with thank-you cards.
The cards are mostly humble and inexpensive, hung on strands in every corner of the room. Many of the cards are the £2 ones you get from a supermarket.
Behind every simple thanks is a story that goes back decades.
Imagine living for years struggling, facing discrimination, fearing for your life in a country that hates your very existence.
These people have fought for the freedom to be themselves. All they can give back is gratitude to the people that helped them get there.
Danielle Cohen, a suited woman of small stature and fierce intelligence, is the boss.
Behind that undeniable tenacity and confidence, her warm eyes reveal kindness, empathy and drive.
Those cards, while telling a multitude of individual success stories, are unified by a common theme: Danielle is a winner.
She’s won hundreds, perhaps thousands, of LGBTI asylum cases. And now she’s taking on the British asylum system.
Immigration lawyer redresses balance between humans and the bureaucracy
‘You have the right to live and be,’ she tells Gay Star News. ‘It is the right to speak your mind. There’s nothing else more sacred.
‘Not dying for who you are, not being persecuted for being who you are. My job is about redressing the balance between us the humans and the “bureaucracy”.
‘What do our clients want? They just want to be and to live their lives.’
Danielle says her success rate is ‘phenomenal’, noting her ability to prepare and select her cases. She never allows her clients to do anything degrading, unbecoming or anything under pressure.
‘I almost always win. You can quote me on that,’ she said.
But she’s up against the Home Office – a system that has turned away thousands of genuine LGBTI immigration cases.
Ignorance of UK Home Office officials
‘I have a case of an asylum seeker who was not believed to be gay because he did not fall into the stereotypes of what a gay person might do. He doesn’t go clubbing, he doesn’t like Kylie, doesn’t dress in a particular way,’ she said.
But while his story was credible, the heteronormative attitude of the Home Office interviewer pigeonholed him.
‘[The Home Office have an] expectation of what a gay person or what a gay attitude might be like,’ she said.
Sometimes officials have little understanding of what it is like for people to grow up gay in their home countries.
‘I had a lesbian from India who previously submitted an asylum application and it was refused,’ Danielle said. ‘It was refused because she had never come out.
‘She had never spoken openly about her sexuality. Yes, but if you’re an Indian woman, you would not speak about this topic openly.’
‘People are presumed liars’
And sometimes you’re dealing with a Home Office official that has little sense.
Two men, one from Pakistan and an Indian man, fell in love.
‘The Home Office had allowed them to enter into a civil partnership and then he was refused because they didn’t believe that he was gay and the relationship was genuine,’ she said.
‘How many men enter into a civil partnership? You already agreed that one of the parties is a homosexual. The man that he married is not a homosexual?
‘We had to go to court and we had to win it.’
She says the Home Office attitude is an atmosphere ‘where people are presumed to be liars’.
‘The culture of the organization is one of disbelief,’ Danielle said. ‘[They are] looking for opportunities to discredit, to find inconsistencies, to judge.’
Danielle met a trans Indian man, and did the case pro bono.
Pre-transition, he was in a same-sex relationship with a British woman. When he wanted to extend his stay, he was refused because he no longer had a ‘same-sex’ private life.
He was in the transition process at this point, and had bulked up considerably.
‘You’re built like Arnold Schwarzenegger!’ Danielle remembers her saying to the client. ‘I reassured him that we will be able to win the case under Articles 8 and 3 because of social prejudices and the obvious physical transformation.’
The Home Office must start with ‘treating people with respect’
In October 2017, Danielle gave a passionate speech while giving expert evidence at the House of Commons Select Committee. The inquiry is examining the Home Office’s capacity to deliver immigration services.
‘I would like the Home Office to start with treating people with respect,’ she tells GSN now.
‘They are not doing anybody a favor. We have a right to come and put our story and receive protection.
‘That’s the beginning, let’s start respecting all people who come because they are accessing a service.
‘It’s no different to those who go to the doctors. Then these cases should be assessed fairly, with respect, with time and sensitivity.
‘The Home Office should compare and analyse the situations in the country in an intelligent and fair way, and reach sensible decisions, and in a timely manner.
‘Nobody’s doing anybody any favors. Once we start looking at clients as consumers, we can demand some service as well.’
‘The whole narrative should be more humane’
Everyday, Danielle is dealing with intimate and personal immigration stories.
Every single one of them is individual, but many gay, bi, or trans people share a universality. We all remember that moment we realized we were a little different, and that’s no different worldwide.
‘Gay asylum claims are different to other asylum claims,’ she said.
‘If someone’s been bullied as a homosexual and threatened or exposed by family members… there is no evidence.
‘There’s no objective evidence that can tell your own story. We each have our own story. As much as it’s universal, it’s also very individual.
‘We are talking about intimate and personal stories that need to be dealt with care and respect. The whole narrative should be more humane.
‘Unlike other cases, this goes to the heart of humanity.’
Danielle Cohen is shortlisted for the 2018 Human Rights Lawyer of the Year category by The Law Society. The award is given to the best of the best from across 140,000 solicitors in England and Wales.