“I’ve found my place in Manchester” – Lesbian Immigration Support Group’s conference

lisgconf

“Without the support of LISG, I know those women would have been removed”.   Keelin McCarthy, barrister at Lamb Building, was just one of the people singing the praises of the Lesbian Immigration Support Group (LISG) at their fantastic conference on Thursday.  LISG are more than just a support group to its members – “It’s emotional, it’s social, it’s everything.  But also you have to help yourself” said one asylum-seeking member.  “I’ve found my place in Manchester”, said another, comparing the safe space of the group and people’s individual and complex identities within it to the ludicrous asylum process, during which you are meant to explain who you are “in a few sentences, in a few pages”.

Lesbian Immigration Support Group

The group was established in 2007 following a successful anti-deportation campaign for a lesbian woman seeking asylum.  The LISG volunteers who spoke about how the group got started, volunteers who have been with the group since its beginning, acknowledged that the campaign in itself didn’t get Florence refugee status (echoing the conclusions I drew in my talk later in the day) but Florence had said, without the group’s support she couldn’t have kept going.

LISG is a very impressive local grassroots group, and organised an impressive conference, with help from money from the Edge Fund.

It was a day full of commitment, passion and ideas – but most of all a day of laughing, warmth and togetherness.

LISG provide vital support to their twenty-or-so members, assisted by about eight active volunteers.  They have no paid staff, and run on a shoe-string budget.  The group provides emotional support, accompany their members when they have to go and sign at the Home Office, help women prepare for their asylum interview, attend appeal hearings as both supporters and witnesses, and write support letters for their members’ legal cases.

When there is bad news – such as news from back home, or a member is detained – “it can feel like we’re going from one crisis to another”, but the group are tough and strong.  None of their members have been removed/deported, and many have been granted refugee status and have been able to begin new lives with the security of that status in the UK.

The group also provides a pathway into LGBT+ communities in the UK, including through attendance at Manchester’s famous annual Pride event.  Whilst aware of problems with Pride – not least its depoliticisation – the volunteers recognise that Pride can have a powerful symbolic and psychological significance to asylum-seeking and refugee women.  As one member said:

You feel like people are on your side, and it’s worth living again.

The conference

The conference was truly inspiring, and in its structure, organisation and atmosphere was welcoming, inclusive and respectful throughout.

Keelin McCarthy provided an excellent overview of the landmark HJ/HT case, in its fifth anniversary year, in which the Supreme Court ruled the Home Office could no longer tell gay asylum seekers they could go back to their country of origin and ‘live discreetly’.  Keelin explained how problematic interpretations of this ruling by the Home Office and judges continue, either through the ‘discretion by choice’ (the individual would not be forced to be discreet due to persecution but would ‘choose’ to do so for societal or family reasons) loophole or because of credibility findings (‘we do not believe you are gay’).

Stuart Hanson of No Going Back managed to make a talk on evidencing sexuality in asylum claims funny and entertaining, while also cogently explaining S. Chelvan’s Difference/Stigma/Shame/Harm model of evidencing sexuality and how to establish a chronology of sexuality and risk of persecution.   Moud of the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group then spoke about her work with lesbian and bisexual women in detention, explaining the stark experiences women face including homophobic abuse and bullying, isolation and depression, and severe obstacles to gathering evidence for legal cases (with many key websites blocked) and communicating with lawyers.  I then gave a talk on campaigning for the right to remain, and for migration justice more broadly – you can read a version of the talk here.

The afternoon involved interactive information sessions (‘LISG speed-dating’), and action-planning for the future.  It was fantastic, but not surprising given how energising the day was, to hear that attendees were hoping to set up similar groups in other towns and cities, such as Nottingham, Liverpool, Brighton, London and more.

The conference was intended to inspire others to set up support groups like LISG, and succeeded in doing so.  The cooperative, collaborative approach of LISG; its clear methods and ethics; and the amount of fun had by everyone involved in the day, can give hope to us all.

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