The challenges faced by transgender asylum seekers in Europe

, by Aaron Gates-Lincoln

The challenges faced by transgender asylum seekers in Europe
The transgender pride flag. Credit: UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Wikimedia Commons.

Within modern day Europe, it is assumed and believed by many that our society is one that can be classified as socially progressive. Whether this is considered positive or negative, it is a belief upheld by many. Often, these arguments come hand in hand with comparisons to other areas of the world, whether it be how human rights are handled, or how social welfare systems and healthcare provisions operate. However, it is becoming clearer that such an argument allows one to be blissfully ignorant of the issues that exist within the individual European systems of governance or societal norms because we are still arguably ‘more progressive’ than others. Progression and equality should not be a competition and should not be handled with complacency. As Pride Month has come to a close, it is incredibly important to continue to highlight some of the human rights issues that still exist in Europe at every given moment. With the rise in human rights issues in the form of ‘LGBT free zones’ in Eastern Europe, the growing alignment to right wing ideologies and the introduction of new anti-LGBT legislation in countries like Hungary; the fight for equality is far from over.

Take the UK, for example. Every year, thousands of transgender individuals attempt to claim asylum in the UK to try and gain access to immigration routes such as ‘leave to remain’. Often, they are fleeing dangerous and life-threatening situations in their countries of origin. Currently, there is no legal route to change your gender in 47 UN member states and there are 13 countries that specifically criminalise transgender individuals. Punishment in these countries can extend from fines, all the way up to corporal punishment in places such as Malawi. Any empathetic person can understand why one may wish to flee their home when one is facing such punitive measures for simply wishing to live truthfully as themselves.

However, when attempting to claim asylum within the UK, transgender individuals face challenging and unique obstacles that can prevent them from legally entering the country. It has been found that when entering our immigration system, transgender people repeatedly face being misgendered and referred to with ‘dead names’ (names used before transitioning) by Home Office officials. This is coupled with intensive questioning by immigration workers, with a “culture of disbelief” plaguing the system and trapping trans people in a cycle of being forced to prove certain elements of life that are impossible to prove.

This includes many trans people being asked to prove that they were indeed living as a transgender individual in their country of origin. However, as many would have been criminalised in their country for doing so, they would hide their transgender status and would not appear in public as their preferred gender. This results in, understandably, no existing evidence of their transgender identity. However, this is wrongfully used to justify not allowing trans individuals into the UK on asylum claims.

It could be argued that such issues occur due to the immigration system being built by, and for, cisgender individuals (those who identify with the sex they are assigned at birth). This means that Home Office officials often have no experiencing of working with trans people, are not educated on issues that trans people face and will certainly not have had sensitivity training that would help improve the experience for those seeking asylum who are transgender.

The issues do not stop there, however. In many cases, transgender individuals are placed in temporary accommodation until a decision has been made on their asylum application. During this period, it has been found that many individuals greatly struggle to gain access to hormones and necessary medication if they have transitioned or are in the process of transitioning. If the process begins before the individual enters the UK, it is absolutely vital that it is continued as medication is required daily. Despite this, the UK government has no current policy that handles the basic healthcare needs of transgender asylum seekers. This results in many individuals having to end their medical transition, which can have dangerous physical and mental consequences.

In addition to this, the temporary accommodation that individuals are placed in can sometimes be unsafe and frightening for trans people. Many others in the accommodation may have negative and deeply engrained views on LGBTQ+ individuals and can cause physical and mental harm to those which they wish to attack. Office for National Statistic (ONS) figures show that transgender people are twice as likely to be victims of crime compared with cisgender people. This figure increases when the trans individual is not white, which in many instances, migrants are not. This places migrant transgender people at significant risk of hate crimes and vulnerable to physical and mental harm in the countries in which they are trying to enter into.

These issues are not exclusive to the UK and are faced in many European countries. Due to the similar lack of sensitivity training in other European immigration systems, there is frequently little to no consideration of the dangers trans asylum seekers face in their country of origin. This creates a whole continent in which transgender individuals face difficulties entering in cases of asylum, with those that do make the journey facing discrimination and insufficient protection.

The situation that transgender people face in European immigration systems is unjustifiable and a result of complacency of the UK and other governments on ensuring that trans rights are obtained for everyone living within or entering the country. The argument of a ‘progressive’ Europe is disproved when observing the struggles that trans asylum seekers face every day, and the lack of policy and support in place to ensure their safety. As previously stated, blissful ignorance is what causes such deeply engrained issues. Sadly, transgender individuals, especially those considered as foreign, are placed on one of the lower rungs of society’s ladder of importance - and therefore lack the voices needed to pressure the UK government into reforming their current system.

It is absolutely vital that transgender rights in the UK and across Europe are improved. Our immigration systems desperately need to implement training and services within the immigration system that specialise in the needs of transgender migrants. Everyone must consider: if a white, cisgender, straight male tried to enter our country - would they ever face such deeply engrained discriminatory systems that endanger their lives? Absolutely not, so why should anyone else in a supposed ‘progressive’ society face such issues?

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