Discover more from Byline Supplement
It's not just people seeking refuge in the UK by small boat who are being targeted by the Government, reports Charlotte Hall
Like any other day, Gem woke up early and dressed for work.
But when she left her family home in Kuwait that morning, she wasn’t heading to the school where she had taught for just under a year and earned a good salary. She was heading to the airport.
Gem was fleeing.
She was a gay, androgynous-looking woman in a country where the practice of ‘honour killing’ – the murder of women by male relatives to maintain the ‘moral integrity’ of the family – is unofficially tolerated by the state. Gem knew that if she stayed, it would only be a matter of time.
Byline Supplement is an entirely reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
But two years after she arrived in the UK, Gem is still stuck in asylum-seeker limbo. Not allowed to work and battling anaemia from undernourishment, she’s facing destitution, homelessness, and displacement in a country she thought she would by now be calling home.
“I did not think I would be treated like this. I'm less of a human here,” she said.
That’s despite the fact that Gem has done everything ‘right’. She arrived by one of the few routes available to the UK that Suella Braverman would describe as “legal”. And because she was able to bring her savings with her, has managed to support herself. Until now.
Braverman claims stopping “illegal” routes will “focus resources upon those who really need our help”. But even if there was a difference between ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’ routes to claiming asylum – which according to the Refugee Convention, there isn’t – Gem’s case suggests that the asylum process is just as broken for everyone.
“I've never seen things as bad as they are now for people,” said Mary Keane, Head of Asylum Services for the charity Refugee Action. “Their routes might be different, but we're talking about people who, for reasons outside of their control, need the protection of this country.”
People like Gem.
Now 25, she left one of the richest nations in the world. She turned her back on a wealthy family and bright prospects in exchange for a life she hoped would offer greater safety, but where she now faces daily prejudice and an uncertain future.
“If I'm just here for the money, like people claim, why would I ever have left Kuwait?” she said with an ironic laugh. But the reason she did leave is clear. Amnesty International has repeatedly highlighted the legal and violent discrimination against women in Kuwait, where domestic violence is not criminalised, but same-sex relationships are.
“It was always hard being gay in Kuwait,” Gem said. “But it got worse after 2015, when they started to spread awareness of LGBT in the Middle East. They started to notice us and that endangered us. The religion says to execute us. Being gay is seen as something disgusting.”
Gem could never come out to her family – “I would be killed immediately,” she said – but she suffered severe physical and psychological abuse from both her mother and her brother, who wanted her to conform to social norms.
“I was 22 and I couldn’t choose my hair, had to wear a hijab, I couldn’t choose my friends or when to see them. I rarely saw my girlfriend. It was suffocating,” said Gem. “And I felt hatred towards myself, to be living a double life, lying all the time. But I had to lie to survive.”
Though honour-killing is illegal in Kuwait, the maximum sentence for men is three years. Gem said: “Men in your tribe would rather go to prison for those two, three years. My family would rather kill me than leave me like this. And they would feel so honoured and relieved.
“When people hear ‘asylum seeker’, they think of people on a boat. People in a war. I was in a different type of war. I don't need to be bombed to be always in danger.”
Because the honour killing tradition works under a tribal system, Gem knew she couldn’t be safe anywhere in Kuwait – or indeed, anywhere in the world if her family found out where she lived. So she left Kuwait in 2021 on a first-class flight – “my last treat to myself” – and has been in hiding since, declining to publish her surname or location for fear of repercussions.
Since landing in the UK and applying for asylum, she’s become one of around 161,000 people waiting for the Home Office to make an initial decision on their applications, according to the Government’s latest figures. 74% of those people have been waiting for more than six months, and a third of them have been waiting between one and three years, like Gem.
Refugee Action’s Mary Keane, who has spent two decades supporting asylum seekers, said: “We are supporting people who are so broken by this system, which is also awfully broken. The impact that it has on people's mental health is absolutely immense.”
The Government has acknowledged the delays and blamed them on the increase in applications and a decline in staff productivity. A House of Commons Committee Report suggests that decline is linked to outdated equipment and inefficient processes.
Asylum lawyer Alasdair Mackenzie told OpenDemocracy last year that ministers had prioritised headline-grabbing measures – such as the controversial Rwanda scheme – whilst neglecting their most basic ministerial function of making the existing system work properly.
Professor Gargi Bhattacharyya, a sociologist at the University of East London, agreed. “As well as creating a hostile and racist environment for asylum seekers, the Home Office is also in chaos,” they said.
Yet, what remains a matter of outdated software and inefficient processes on paper is an existential threat to Gem.
“There is no process,” she said. “It’s made me more vulnerable. I created a life here that I’m not sure I’ll be allowed to keep. I don’t know if I’ll be here in a year, I just don’t know. I hear they reject a lot of people for stupid reasons.”
And she fears the uncertainty will only grow with the latest Government’s latest initiative to ‘streamline’ the asylum process: replacing in-person interviews with questionnaires. “We are paperwork now,” Gem said fiercely. “We answer questions, and they decide on our lives. How dehumanising is that? Written words are not like spoken words.”
It’s not just asylum applications. When Gem became eligible for the Permission to Work in January 2023, she applied straight away. Six months later, she has heard nothing. “It's a joke,” she said. “I'm not homeless because I can work but don't want to – it's because I'm not allowed.”
Even if she were to receive the permission, it would only entitle Gem, who has a bachelor’s degree in linguistics, to work a slim list of mostly highly specialised jobs like professional ballet dancer or computer scientist. “It makes me angry because I would do any job I can, even the worst jobs, but I'm not allowed.”
In several significant ways, Gem’s story is different to those that dominate the current media landscape.
Braverman has taken aim at the 45% of asylum applicants who are left with no choice but to endanger their lives on crowded boats across the channel. But Professor Bhattacharyya noted that it doesn’t really matter that Gem arrived in the country “legally”.
“Everyone is treated exceptionally poorly through the asylum system,” they said. “It's humiliating, and re-traumatizing. And it's designed to make you feel your life is on hold. And there's not some other more polite system for depending on how you arrived.
“I think the problem is not the distinction between legal and illegal routes. The problem is that when it comes to asylum, the ‘illegal route’ is a fiction.”
After sustaining herself for two years, Gem now faces an impossible choice: homelessness or displacement. The Government has offered her accommodation in an asylum seeker hostel, but it’s more than 100 kilometres away from the small support network she has built up in her new city – including her new girlfriend.
“I can’t leave my girlfriend,” she said, “she’s all I have.”
A Home Office spokesperson did not comment on Gem’s circumstances, but insisted the backlog has already been reduced by over 17,000 cases since the end of November 2022.
“We are also doubling the number of caseworkers to further speed up the system as well using asylum questionnaires in appropriate cases to simplify the decision-making process,” the Home Office added.
But in the meantime, Gem is left waiting.
She hopes a crowdfunder will keep her off the streets for a few months until she hears from the Home Office and can move in with her girlfriend. But she has no way of knowing how much longer it will take.
“I don’t know if I can do this for another year,” she said. “I’m stuck. I thought I’d have a whole life at 25, and I’m stuck.”
Charlotte Hall is a freelance journalist specialising in environmental and social issues, currently completing a multimedia journalism NCTJ at News Associates Manchester.
Byline Supplement is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.