Dr Laura Harvey’s research shows that LGBTQI+ people continue to face harassment, bullying and deteriorating mental health while in immigration detention.
Conducted by Dr Laura Harvey who teaches Sociology at the University of Brighton, and supported by the charity Rainbow Migration, the study looks at the experiences in detention of five members of the LGBTQI+ community – three gay men and two non-binary people. Four of the participants were held in Immigration Removal Centres for several months, and one in a Short-Term Holding Facility for 48 hours.
The findings show that participants experienced verbal and physical homophobic abuse from other people held in detention, including from individuals they were forced to share locked rooms with at night. With a participant describing how someone “spat on my face for being a gay.”
As a result, participants feared being ‘out’ while in detention and felt a need to hide their sexual orientation or gender identity. However, they were not always able to do this despite trying to, so they remained exposed to the risk of bullying and abuse. One of the research participants said: “I don’t want to hide my sexuality here but I didn’t tell anyone because I was so scared.”
Although some participants found staff to be a source of help and support, others reported problems including verbal homophobic abuse from staff, being afraid to report homophobic bullying to staff, inaction from staff in the face of escalating homophobic bullying and misgendering by staff.
Overall, participants experienced worsening mental health and delayed access to mental health support while in detention, as well as being put in situations that resembled past traumatic experiences.
Lastly, being held in detention and trying to remain in the closet made it hard for participants to keep in contact with or seek support from LGBTQI+ community groups and networks, as did the confiscation of their personal mobile phones. However, in some cases LGBTQI+ people within detention formed their own informal communities of support to share information and advice.
This research aimed to explore whether experiences of LGBTQI+ people in detention had changed significantly since the last piece of research on this topic in 2016 and after the introduction of the Adults at Risk in Immigration Detention policy that same year, which recognised the risk of harm to trans and intersex people in detention.
According to the findings, LGBTQI+ people still face considerable and ongoing risk of harm in immigration detention in the UK. The data suggest that detention centres are inherently risky for LGBTQI+ people, who are trapped in a space that they cannot leave, in which abuse and harassment are difficult to escape.
Dr Laura Harvey, senior lecturer at the University of Brighton, said: “This study makes clear that LGBTQI+ people are still at serious risk of harm in UK immigration detention. The people we spoke to feared being ‘out’ while in detention and felt a need to hide their sexual orientation or gender identity. They also experienced verbal and physical homophobic abuse from other people held in detention, including from individuals they were forced to share locked rooms with at night. This has to change.
“LGBTQI+ people fleeing homophobic and transphobic abuse and violence should be supported and welcomed, not locked in unsafe spaces that can cause further trauma. I hope that this research, as the first step in a larger project, will help improve the lives of LGBTQI+ people going through the immigration system in the future.”
Leila Zadeh, Executive Director at Rainbow Migration, said: “We have long argued that all LGBTQI+ people, not just trans and intersex people, should also be considered at risk in detention. The initial findings of this study show that these calls remain as urgent as ever. LGBTQI+ people being detained for more than six months while suffering verbal and physical abuse is unacceptable and should be unthinkable in a country that prides itself on promoting human rights and LGBTQI+ equality.”
The learnings will be used to develop a larger study on the experiences of LGBTQI+ people in immigration detention since 2016. This wider study, currently in the planning stage, will involve people with experience of detention from the outset in the design of the project, using creative, participatory methods and involving participants as co-researchers.