At first glance it might be puzzling to write about the virtue of Charity on World Refugee Day. Like the names of some other Heavenly Virtues the word charity has a meaning that isn’t generally remembered. Charity also has the meaning of “caring for others more than for yourself”. You give to others at your own expense. Charity is not just about donating money to organisations, it also includes voluntary action and acceptance of others into your social environment.
When we place Charity against its Deadly Sin counterpart of Greed we get a better idea of what it means. Greed is over-indulgence in anything or everything. Charity is the opposite. It’s not self-restraint in the same way as Temperance because that particular virtue and Greed are all about self and Charity is all about others. Can you see how this links to refugees? So, let’s place Charity on our Rainbow Virtue flag in the same colour associated in Medieval times with Greed.
Asylum and refuge goes way back to ancient times. The Biblical Exodus and the Mayflower Pilgrims are famous stories of refugees and asylum seeking. I’ve also written on this blog about the Masquerader, a Serbian refugee who lived in Nottingham a century ago.
It wasn’t until as recently as 2010 that the UK’s lgbt rights charity Stonewall conducted a survey into the workings of the UK immigration service when it applies to lgbt asylum seekers and refugees, which I’ll come to later.
Stonewall formed an Immigration Group in 1993 but asylum wasn’t its focus. Many foreign nationals were in relationships with UK nationals. Many of these foreign nationals were being deported because the law did not recognise same-sex relationships. Most of those were sent back to their home countries where homosexuality was not even illegal and there was no more chance of persecution than in the UK. Stonewall was campaigning for the rights of UK nationals with foreign partners rather than lgbt asylum seekers and refugees.
Stonewall lobbied Opposition parties (I can find no evidence that they even attempted any serious contact with the government or immigration service). After several years the Opposition party was elected to power and after much delay introduced the “unmarried partners concession” which applied to both lgbt and straight couples. But still Stonewall showed no interest in any similar lobbying campaign for cases of lgbt asylum seekers escaping persecution and death threats.
It was 2003 before Stonewall began to think about the issue. It took them another six years before they realised there were problems with the process and the Labour government refused to change their policy. Stonewall’s 2010 report highlighted the out-dated and unreliable information and advice the government was providing.
Stonewall’s report also found that lgbt asylum seekers were often too afraid and embarrassed to reveal the true reason for seeking asylum on grounds of their sexuality because the Labour government had introduced it’s “prove it” policy. This often resulted in their cases being turned down (the government regarded them as not being honest enough at the outset, or of using sexuality as a last excuse). Immigration officials also told asylum seekers when deported back into danger to be “more discreet” about their sexuality. The government introduced a “fast-track” procedure for lgbt asylum seekers. This was another reason many of them didn’t mention their sexuality on their asylum claim - their cases would take longer to process by doing so and they’d stay in safety longer.
It wasn’t until after Labour was replaced by a Coalition government shortly after the publication of the Stonewall report that the “be discreet” was dropped and the “prove it” policy relaxed.
There are still many problems in the lgbt asylum process in the UK. There have been successes and failures, but still the UK has a better record than most other European countries.
With the USA calling itself the “land of the free” it may come as a surprise to learn that they have often barred people from entering the country. Their Immigration Act of 1917 specifically banned ALL lgbt immigrants because homosexuality was considered to be a disease. This ban was only lifted in 1980, long after the USA began claiming to be pioneers of lgbt rights. Ten years later lgbt refugees and asylum seekers were regarded as “a particular social group” under the terms of the US Board of Immigration Appeals. The first refugee accepted into the US under those terms was Marcelo Tenorio from Brazil in 1993 (Canada, by the way, beat them by over a year, accepting an Argentinian gay refugee in January 1992). The first successful lgbt asylum claim in the EU countries was in 1997 after an Algerian activist was targeted by police and extremists. He was granted asylum in France.
The plight of lgbt refugees continues to hit the headlines. Just a couple of months ago lgbt refugees fleeing Syria were attacked by fellow refugees in a camp in Germany purely because of their sexuality.
It’s a difficult issue for governments and society in general. Asylum has never been simple or easy. Whatever ethical or spiritual opinions we all have there is no harm in following that Biblical phrase “faith, hope and charity, and the greatest of these is charity”. The asylum seekers’ faith (whether in the religion, regime or process), and their hope of escape from persecution will not work effectively without the virtue of Charity/Love from others.