The Home Office’s guidance and training on asylum cases based on sexual orientation was concise and clear, and most asylum interviews complied with guidance. However, the guidance was not being applied consistently and unsatisfactory questions were found in a sample of cases. These were some of the key findings of the Chief Inspector’s investigation into the Home Office’s handling of asylum claims based on sexual orientation.
Asylum is protection given by a country to someone who is fleeing persecution in their own country. The UK recognises asylum claims based on sexual orientation – lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB). The Home Office stated that, in 2013, 1.4% (283) of all asylum claims in the UK were made on the grounds of sexual orientation.
In February 2014 the Observer newspaper published an article which included an extract from an asylum interview during which an applicant had been asked inappropriate and sexually explicit questions by a Home Office caseworker. As a result of this, the Chief Inspector was asked by the Home Secretary to investigate the Department’s handling of asylum claims made on the basis of sexual orientation.
The Chief Inspector found that:
• the Home Office had worked effectively with stakeholders to produce specific guidance and training on the handling of sexual orientation claims;
• the guidance was concise and clear, addressing difficult areas with sensitivity and, in particular, emphasising that sexually explicit questions of the type highlighted in the Observer are never acceptable;
• the quality of training for new asylum caseworkers and delivery of training on sexual orientation matters was good. Refresher training had recently been provided to more experienced staff;
• there was inconsistent practice between teams dealing with detained and non-detained applicants. The Detained Fast Track (DFT) accepted sexually explicit material submitted as evidence, whereas the non-detained areas did not. There is a risk of procedural unfairness if the Department does not have a consistent approach;
• most of the substantive asylum interviews complied with guidance. There were no questions in the sampled files of the type highlighted in the Observer article, but a fifth of interviews contained some stereotyping and a tenth contained questions of an unsatisfactory nature;
• unsatisfactory questions were more than twice as common within the DFT and included questions likely to elicit sexually explicit responses or querying the validity of same-sex relationships.
• there was no direct correlation between unsatisfactory lines of questioning and the likelihood of a claim being refused.
• despite stakeholder concerns about the difficulties of disclosing sexuality, nearly all sampled applicants had been able to disclose their sexual orientation before or at their screening interviews;
• over a third of sampled applicants, however, claimed asylum on sexual orientation grounds months or years after arrival in the UK, often following a refusal of leave on other grounds. The majority of these were rejected, with decisions upheld on appeal;
• management information on sexual orientation claims was inadequate, and only around a third of sexual orientation cases had been recorded as such, so the Home Office had under reported the incidence of these cases; and
• the allowed appeal rate for DFT sexual orientation decisions was over double the rate for DFT asylum claims as a whole.
Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, John Vine CBE QPM:
“Asylum applicants, particularly those in fear of persecution based on their sexuality, are often vulnerable individuals.
I was pleased to find that guidance and training for caseworkers was generally clear and concise and dealt with difficult and sensitive areas of questioning. I did not find any questions of the type highlighted in the Observer article, but over a tenth of interviews did contain questions of an unsatisfactory nature.
Such questions are not acceptable and the Home Office must work to eradicate them. I did not, however, identify any direct correlation between inappropriate lines of questioning and the likelihood of a claim being refused.
I was concerned to find differences in the way DFT cases were handled, with more likelihood of unsatisfactory questions being asked and sexually explicit material being considered as evidence. The allowed appeal rate in these cases was also over double that of DFT’s asylum claims as a whole.
I have recommended that the Home Office ensures that caseworkers do not ask sexually explicit questions, and equips them with the interviewing skills to cope professionally when sexually explicit responses are received.”
The Chief Inspector made eight recommendations for improvement. These included that the Home Office should ensure a consistent approach towards the handling of explicit material presented to support an asylum claim, and that all asylum claims made on grounds of sexual orientation should be accurately recorded as such.