LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
Asylum Seeker Fearing for His Life -
Md. Sadiqul Islam with Jeremy Hart
Date of photography: 8th March 2018
Sadiqul’s initial asylum application was rejected by the Home Office on two grounds: that he could offer no adequate proof that he was homosexual; and that, should he actually be a homosexual, his life would not be in danger if he were to return home to Bangladesh, a devoutly Muslim society where his perceived sexuality had already so besmirched his family’s good name that he ran the risk of being murdered by the community, or by his own relatives, just to restore family honour. Homosexuality is, of course, illegal in Bangladesh and the sentences imposed upon offenders are severe. Jeremy, a retired gentlemen of 71, is Sadiqul’s friend and supporter; I call him a ‘guardian angel’ because he strives to help gay men who have fled their home country but who struggle to be recognised here as genuine asylum seekers. Jeremy says: “Milan, as a member of London Friend, I have met many people in Sadiqul’s predicament; they are often deeply bruised, confused, in a foreign country, and overwhelmed by the Byzantine bureaucracy of the Home Office. These men are just like you and me, for I remember only too well the days when here in Britain we had to hide our sexuality too. We were arrested, we lost our jobs, we were rejected by our families, and we were spurned by our friends.”
In the recent past, we have all seen on our televisions the French authorities’ attempts to dismantle the ‘Jungle’ camp outside Calais and their efforts to disperse the hundreds of refugees there; mostly young men, many are attempting to get across the Channel and then to seek asylum in the UK. Some of these are men from various parts of the Middle East, much of it in flames since the Iraq War, but the rest are men fleeing from conflicts elsewhere, from chronic poverty, and from repressive regimes in Africa, Asia and, indeed, from some parts of Europe. In Britain, we seem to have gained the impression that everyone is trying to get into our small, overpopulated island; there is therefore a popular backlash against all kinds of immigration, which is intensifying, and the populace is demanding that our island borders should once again be made impenetrable. Many of those who manage, by hook or by crook, to get through the nation’s defences and lodge their claims for asylum, will often fail to achieve it, for the Home office is devising increasingly ingenious means of refusing asylum applications and deporting asylum seekers back to where they hailed from. Around half of all applicants (ie some 13,230 in 2016) are expeditiously placed in prison-like, detention centres from where they can be ruthlessly deported as soon as their applications fail. (These numbers should be viewed against a current estimate of over 60 million forcibly displaced persons around the world.)
The British popular press, also affectionately known to the chattering classes as the ‘gutter press’, appears to relish the demonisation of these people, almost as a rule, rarely pausing to mention the fact that following the wars in Iraq, in Afghanistan, against ISIS and a myriad of other, perceived enemies in Syria, millions of people have been forced to flee from their homes, not in order to secure greater economic wellbeing and comfort, but simply to save their lives and the lives of their immediate families. While many of these refugees are still incarcerated in vast, grim camps in Lebanon and Turkey, many thousands, in one year alone, headed for central Europe via Greece and the Balkans. Generously, if controversially, Germany accepted almost a million refugees in one year alone, while many thousands are still trapped in Greece and Italy, some are even marooned in Serbia and Croatia, because a number of EU states have been forced by their domestic populations to hit the panic button and to close their borders with fences and patrols. The westward movement of refugees has therefore been halted, though recent times have seen the largest movement of peoples that Europe has experienced since the Second World War.
It is interesting to note that in 2017, when Germany accepted over 900,000 refugees, the number of asylum applications in Britain actually fell, by almost 14%, to 26,350 (with the highest numbers coming from Iran, Pakistan and Iraq, followed by Bangladesh, Sudan, Albania, Afghanistan, India, Eritrea, and a small number from Vietnam). It is not perhaps adequately understood that gaining asylum in the UK is very difficult: during that same year, 2017, 68% of initial decisions were refusals, with only 28% being granted asylum at that first stage. Also, the rate of refusal has increased markedly in comparison with previous years - the drawbridge is definitely being raised.
It has already been suggested that there are manifold reasons why people flee from particular countries and from the war-torn regions of others - there is always, of course, the perennial search of humankind for a ‘better life’ but most leave their hard-earned homes and give up what are often successful, professional careers, simply in order to survive and to save their children’s lives. Others flee from oppressive political or religious regimes that would like to do them harm because of what they believe; while some have to flee from their own communities, sometimes even their own families, simply because of who or what they are.
In London, we have amongst us several thousands of people whose asylum applications are currently under consideration - often, a very slow process. In addition, there is an unknown number of those who, having lost their cases and having not yet been deported, have now consciously ‘disappeared’ below the official radar. Consequently, it was extremely difficult to find a volunteer who was willing to come forward, to join this project, and to tell how it is to be a asylum seeker in London. Success has not been serendipitous, for considerable time and effort have been expended in the search, but it has nevertheless been my very good fortune to come across such a person, a 52-year old gentlemen, Mr Md. Sadiqul Islam, from Bangladesh. Though returning home will put him in fear for his life, his asylum application has been turned down; he is currently awaiting the final decision of the Upper Tribunal (Immigration and Asylum Chamber). Only then, will he know for certain about his future, and he could be deported at any moment.
I met Sadiqul in the central London flat of his partner and ‘guardian angel’, Jeremy Hart. He is a dignified, modest man with a memorable, deeply contoured face, and eyes that radiate intelligence. Knowing hardly anything about him at all, I ask him to enlighten me a little and to tell me what brought him to London.
“Milan, I was born in the northern part of Bangladesh, near the Indian border, in a place called Nachol, Chapainawabgonj - it’s about 260 km away from the capital, Dhaka. Ours was a quite religious Muslim family: our house was next to the mosque and my father prayed there five times each day. It was a fairly typical, extended family and I have four brothers and four sisters. My father was a successful, hard-working businessman and we could certainly have been described as a prosperous family. Indeed, all nine of us were given the advantage of university-level education.” I interrupted to ask Sadiqul if his had been a happy childhood and he continued: “Yes, it was, very much so. All I was expected to do as a boy was to play and to study. I went to a local primary school and, though I was not exceptional, certainly not the brightest student, I did OK. From there, I progressed to secondary school, finishing when I was 16. I was quite sporty too and I played both cricket and football.”
Sadiqul paused for a moment at this point and then continued, reticently: “Milan, I need to tell you something that was to be quite critical for my life: when I was 6 or 7, our neighbour made sexual approaches towards me. Of course, we lived quite close to nature and, as a boy, I had started to understand a little about sex by observing the natural world around me. No force was involved, I didn’t find the experience either repulsive or unpleasant, nor was I traumatised by it, but from that moment, I learned that men could also have sex with men. Of course, at that age, one is not necessarily aware of one’s own sexual feelings or inclinations, all that came much later.”
I asked him if, as a teenager, he had been attracted to girls. “Not really, but I knew that the other boys were. You have to remember that I grew up in what was a quite traditional community, where openly-expressed sexual approaches to (or from) the opposite sex were not to be tolerated. Also, as Muslim youngsters and young men, we were taught not to attract or to respond to girls; we were told we must keep ourselves aloof. I was therefore under no peer pressure whatsoever to make advances to girls.”
“By the time I was 14, I had become aware of my attraction to men. I also understood very well that this was not acceptable, so I kept these feelings entirely concealed. Though I kept this secret to myself, I did make one exception and confided in my home tutor, a lovely Hindi man who was about ten years my senior - my father had hired him to help me with my Maths and Science, as these were essential for my successful progress into higher education. I very soon discovered that my tutor and I were kindred spirits, as it were, and it was with him that I first experienced the delight of sexual union with another man. Our relationship continued for over a year and a half until, sadly, his family emigrated to India. Of course, our loving relationship had to be conducted in complete secrecy. We knew that what we were doing would have been seen as wrong and, if discovered, would have had very unpleasant consequences; but to be honest, Milan, what we were doing, both for me and for him too, felt like the most natural thing in the world. I was heartbroken when circumstances parted us. I still think of him now, often.” Sadiqul finishes this recollection in tears.
But life goes on and, just as was expected of him, Sadiqul progressed to High School and then on to the region’s University of Rajshahi, where he studied for an MSc in Chemistry. This also meant that, for the first time, he was living away from home. At that stage in his life, Sadiqul was a young man clearly aware of being sexually attracted to other men, and not women. In that respect, he was certain that such feelings were natural and thus right for him. Of course, from his Muslim education, he well knew that in the Quran, a same-sex relationship was seen as a mortal sin, punishable by humiliation, excommunication, long-term imprisonment or perhaps even death. But he also knew from his experience of life, that human beings are complex creatures, sometimes concealing within themselves feelings and actions that must remain private, hidden away from public view. What Sadiqul did not understand, at that point in his life, was that many other men (and women) shared his feelings for his own sex - the concept of an ‘LGBT community’ was not known to him at all. Indeed, it would be many years on before the idea of such a thing would gain a foothold in Bangladesh. So, this became the time when Sadiqul concentrated on his studies, led a simple life and expended his energies in sports, keeping his sexual desires locked away, deep inside. It was the only way to live, the only way to survive.
“At the age of 27, having completed all my studies, I went to Dhaka to start my professional life as a teacher of Maths and Science. Mostly, I taught in a secondary school. I also attended school again myself, to improve my English, which was at that stage rather limited. Concurrently, and not unexpectedly, my father and the rest of my family had identified a potential spouse for me and had begun making detailed preparations for the wedding. By then, of course, all my sisters and brothers were in arranged marriages and were having children; I was the exception. Marriage remained the only viable option open to any gay man in Bangladesh.” Sadiqul’s predicament made me think of the advice given to Naseer, a gay Pakistani Muslim friend of mine, by his sisters, advice that surely says it all: ‘Get married, have children and carry on with your dirty ways, if you have to.’ Needless to say, Sadiqul declined to fall in with his family’s wedding plans; it would have been, perhaps literally, a shot-gun wedding and Sadiqul simply could not contemplate it.
“When I declined, plans were already at a very advanced stage, so you can probably imagine the furore that my response caused. Of course, as the real reason for my reticence could not be disclosed, the pressures from my family became intense, creating much hostility between us. All that saddened me greatly, because I respected and loved both my parents; I also cared about the rest of my family too and I didn’t want to be seen as letting them down. I lived in a small flat in Dhaka, leading a solitary existence for nearly 20 years. My work was demanding and fulfilling but my personal life was empty - I never thought I would be able to experience the love of another man, ever.”
The Bangladeshi Penal Code, Section 377, is part of the British colonial legacy from 1860 and it is abundantly clear. The Code: forbids anal or oral sex, regardless of the gender or sexual orientation of the individuals, and regardless of the fact that it was consensual and done in private. Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine. Homosexuals in Bangladesh are not put to death by the state (as they are in many other countries) but every year, many men, who are caught in homosexual acts, are then murdered by members of the community, or even by their own families, in what are ludicrously called ‘honour killings’. Such honour killings have also taken place here in Britain, amongst the Sikh and Muslim populations who originate from the Indian Sub-Continent - Jasvinder Sanghera’s organisation, Karma Nirvana, now helps many such young men who are faced with the appalling dilemma of being gay and being forced into an arranged marriage.
During 2009, and again in 2013, the Bangladeshi Parliament came under pressure from the more liberal elements of society to discuss the deletion of Section 377 of the Penal Code; on both occasions, Parliament refused to repeal it. It is also sadly evident that, during the years since then, there has been further polarisation in that country on the issue of sexuality; dark clouds have descended on Bangladesh and, in common with many other parts of the Muslim world, the fundamentalists have been gaining ground. In April 2016, this increasingly intolerant climate resulted in the murder of Xulhaz Mannan, a prominent member of Bangladesh’s nascent LGBT community, and of Mahbub Rabi Tonoy, a well-known artist and activist. Both men were brutally murdered in their own homes by six, so-called jihadists. This was a shocking watershed for an LGBT community that was barely formed. Many gay men and lesbians were forced to erase their social media profiles, arrests were frequent, and death threats commonplace. Inevitably, many gays and lesbians fled to the United States, to Sweden and to Germany. What used to be safe houses in Dhaka had been identified; there were no longer any safe places to gather. Recently, the openly homophobic, fundamentalist Hefazat network of madrassa leaders, together with their student zealots, have begun campaigning for the introduction of Shariah Law into Bangladesh. On 19th May 2017, twenty-seven young gay men were arrested in a community centre just outside Dhaka and their names publicised as homosexuals, with predictable consequences. They were not charged with any homosexual act, with any breach of the Penal Code; they were arrested simply because they were homosexual.
In 2013, at the age of 47, Sadiqul could see the writing on the wall. Every day, he was witness to how things were deteriorating; as a single man, he knew he had to get away. Increasingly, he was aware that he could not live forever in the closet, yet if he were to come out, his job, his livelihood, perhaps even his life would be in danger. The options were to go to Canada, to Australia or to the UK; he decided to come to Britain and to take a three-year course in Accountancy.
As one might imagine, on his arrival from Bangladesh to the vast and complex city that is London, Sadiqul encountered many obstacles that had to be overcome - this is something all new arrivals to the capital have to contend with. Understandably, he relied on the support, advice and guidance of his fellow countrymen living in Tower Hamlets. He concentrated on his studies but confiding in anyone, admitting that he was homosexual, was out of the question. He did muster the courage to visit a pub where most of the clientele was gay but all he could do was to observe; he had to learn to accept that here in London, it is mostly OK to be what you are or what you want to be.
At the same time, Sadiqul’s family in Bangladesh, still fretting about his longstanding bachelorhood, took it upon themselves to liaise with connections they had in London’s Bangladeshi community and before too long, a suitable, respectable, potential bride had been found for him, with both families enthusiastic about the proposed marriage plans. Needless to say, this latest endeavour to have him married off was no more acceptable to Sadiqul than earlier attempts, and again he declined the offer of matrimony, confessing, perhaps unwisely, to one of the intermediaries that he had no choice but to decline, because he was gay.
Soon afterwards, this intermediary and fellow countryman, no doubt feeling it was his duty, let the family back home know that Sadiqul was a homosexual. The reaction was inevitable and immediate: the entire family felt a deep embarrassment, Sadiqul was seen as a stain on the family’s honour, and it was made very clear to him that, should he ever return to his homeland, he would not be welcome at any of his family’s homes, and he might well run the risk of being murdered by the community, or by members of his own family.
With all this going on in the background, Sadiqul came to the view that Chartered Accountancy was not quite the right thing for him so, having completed his first year, he attempted to switch to an MBA course that he thought might suit him better. It was then that things started to go seriously wrong. The Home Office decided not to extend his Student Visa and, virtually overnight, he found himself carted off and incarcerated in the notorious Dover Immigration Removal Centre (formerly Dover Prison) which has since been closed. It was from there that Sadiqul lodged his request for asylum on the grounds of his homosexuality. While this request was being considered, and after three months in detention, he was set free and told to await the Home Office decision.
One must not underestimate the difficulty of the work of Home Office officials who have to distinguish between genuine refugees and those who are basically economic migrants, sometimes labelled as ‘bogus asylum seekers’. The Home Office Immigration Department has been notoriously understaffed for years but its officers also have to work in a climate of increasing hostility towards all kinds of migration, often having to meet unrealistic and arbitrary targets set by politicians who are cowed by the right-wing popular press.
Yes, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) helpfully defines the differences between various types of refugees, while an ‘asylum seeker’ is described as someone who has applied for asylum and is waiting for a decision as to whether or not he or she is a legitimate refugee. The UNHCR also maintains that there is no such thing as a ‘bogus’ or ‘illegal’ asylum seeker, for an asylum seeker is simply a person has entered into a legal process of refugee status determination. Everybody has the right to seek asylum in another country but even those people who do not qualify for protection as refugees, who will not therefore receive refugee status, and who are therefore likely to be deported, cannot be deemed ‘bogus asylum seekers’. As Kofi Annan, then UN Secretary General, clearly stated: “Let us remember that bogus asylum seeker is not equivalent to criminal; and that an unsuccessful asylum application is not equivalent to a bogus one.” Regrettably, this fundamental point is often overlooked or deliberately ignored by those who are tasked with separating the goats from the sheep.
While waiting for a Home Office decision, sometimes for very long periods of time, those who are not held in detention centres are required to survive on less than £6 a day for food, clothing and toiletries and, while they are theoretically provided with free accommodation, the reality is rather different. They are not allowed to take up even temporary paid work and, as an ineluctable consequence, many become destitute and are left to sleep rough on the London streets; they only survive thanks to the unstinting, noble work of a number of key charities.
“Milan, I am here alone; my dear father has been long deceased; my mother refuses to speak to me; and I have been rejected by my entire family. All this because they learned who I am. My sexuality is seen as a disgrace, a sin against God, a stain on my family, and an offence against all those with whom I once shared my life. Milan, why, why has it to be this way? My own family now want to see me dead, not for anything I have done, but simply because of what I am! They have cut me off and I feel a great pain deep in my heart.” Contemplating what he has lost, Sadiqul stares blankly into space, looking completely lost, his eyes glistening with tears.
The Home Office rejected Sadiqul’s initial asylum application on the grounds that he could not prove adequately that he was homosexual, that the evidence he submitted was inadequate, and that he was unable to prove that his life was in danger, were he to return home.
How can one prove that one is homosexual? In the past, it was often the case that claims for asylum from gay men and lesbians would be automatically refused as the Home Office took the view that they could always return to their own countries and just be discreet - they were advised not to have sex with anyone and to conceal their sexuality. The Supreme Court rightly overturned this stance, stating that it is not reasonable to require any human being to hide his or her sexuality. The Home Office now relies entirely on written evidence, together with oral testimony taken during a personal interview. This interview is innately problematic because translators are frequently involved and, unsurprisingly, in such fraught circumstances, lots of asylum seekers find it very difficult to discuss openly their sexual desires and practices - often, they don’t even have adequate terminology in their own tongues, they don’t know what it is acceptable to say, and in many cases, they become immensely distressed by the whole process. One must not forget that many such individuals will have fled from violence, imprisonment, rape, and ostracism, all in consequence of their sexuality. And asylum applicants have to contend with all of this trauma, with all of these emotional burdens, while sometimes getting the clear impression that their Home Office interlocutors are intent on catching them out, finding inconsistencies in their evidence, or proving that they are lying. One woman, having recently undergone this process, commented: “It’s my life … And you look at me and you tell me that you don’t believe me … It’s almost as if you’re denying me my very existence.”
Sadiqul’s case, challenging the Home Office’s refusal of his application, has been heard in court and the earlier decision upheld; it is now subject to a final appeal. Sadiqul is no longer entitled to any state support at all and he is now wholly dependent upon his partner, Jeremy.
I call Jeremy, a retired gentlemen of 71, a ‘guardian angel’ but he dismisses this with a smile:
“Milan, as a member of London Friend, I have met many people in this same predicament. These poor souls are often deeply bruised, confused, in a foreign country, and overwhelmed by the almost Byzantine Home Office bureaucracy they have to deal with. Of course I want to help; of course I try to find them shelter, feed them, help them with paperwork, hold their hands during court hearings, and lots more. Milan, these are human beings, just like you and me. I remember only too well the days here in Britain when we also had to conceal our homosexuality. We were arrested, we lost jobs, and we were also rejected by our families and spurned by our friends. Thankfully, that has all changed for us now but not for these people, so I want to extend my hand to help people like Sadiqul; this can be a matter of life or death for them. I have no Idea what the future will bring for him; I don’t know if this last legal step will give Sadiqul the freedom to stay here, to settle here, and to rebuild his life. The only thing I know is that I will be holding his hand, I will be with him, supporting him to the very end, whatever that is. That is the only thing we can do for each other, that is the very purpose of life, nothing else matters.”
Jeremy is right: being forced to deny what you are is like being forced to deny your very existence.
Text edited: 17th March 2018
Page modified: 17th March 2019