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The charity helping LGBTQ refugees escape deadly persecution and find safe homes

Rainbow Migration is among those being honoured at the Attitude Pride Awards 2022, in association with Magnum.

By Alastair James

Words: Jamie Tabberer; Photography: Markus Bidaux

Last year, 80 percent of the members of our Men’s Support Group were granted asylum and are now able to rebuild their lives here in the UK!” enthuses Leila Zadeh (pictured above left), executive director of Rainbow Migration, an organisation which helps LGBTQs navigate this country’s infamously punishing asylum and immigration system.

She adds: “That’s a huge achievement given the challenges and personal struggles they face.”

Zadeh and her team have helped thousands of refugees over the years. Their services include free and confidential advice on asylum claims, plus connecting people with lawyers, charities, and housing providers — and the benefits they’re entitled to.

“We also meet with Parliamentarians or civil servants to improve policies and the way they work with LGBTQs seeking asylum,” explains Zadeh. Recent achievements include getting the government to acknowledge “that trans and intersex people are at risk of harm inside of immigration detention centres. I’m also really happy that we managed to get the government to recognise that forcing LGBTQs seeking asylum to share bedrooms with others seeking asylum may not be appropriate, given their need for privacy, and the risk of homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in shared accommodation.”

It’s urgent, necessary work, and the stream of people who reach out is constant: after all, gay sex is still illegal in at least 69 countries worldwide, and punishable by death in at least 10, including Yemen, Iran, and Mauritania. Furthermore, according to a 2020 International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) report, it is illegal to be trans in at least 13 countries, including Oman, Malawi, and Jordan, under so-called ‘cross-dressing laws’.

Adams Kofi Asamoah, a bisexual man and current service user of Rainbow Migration, fled Ghana in West Africa, where gay sex is illegal and punishable by up to three years in prison, in 2011.

“I was with my boyfriend in an apartment one morning when guys from the community came and attacked us,” he recalls. “Due to that, I travelled from my country to here. When I came here, I heard my partner had been killed by the people from the community. They’d burned him alive. It was very bad and very horrible.”

Adams Kofi Asamoah (Photo: Markus Bidaux)

Asamoah joined a dancing group and arrived at Heathrow on a 30-day entertainers’ visa. He lived in secret in the English capital for the next eight years, before finally deciding to claim asylum in 2019 and being detained. His initial claim in December 2019 was refused, as were many after that. After a fraught couple of years, however — and since connecting with Rainbow Migration, who have found him a new solicitor — he is optimistic about his future.

“They’ve helped me a lot,” admits Asamoah, who is a keen photographer and a snappy dresser. Having suffered poor mental health, including insomnia and anxiety, since arriving in the UK, he says staff have arranged for him to access therapies to address these issues.

“They also helped me with my applications, they [sorted out] a bicycle for me — I’m happy always. All my previous claims weren’t like this. I have confidence.”

Asamoah’s plight is unimaginable — as are the stakes for the Rainbow Migration workforce, who are fiercely protective of those they support. The work has its “highs and its lows”, admits Zadeh.

It’s hard, for example, when people “are made to feel not welcome. And government policies put lives at risk by potentially denying people the chance to rebuild their lives here. On the other hand, the difference we make to the lives of people we see is affirming.

Leila Zadeh (Photo: Markus Bidaux)

When you watch somebody build their confidence, make friends, overcome a lifetime of isolation and get granted refugee status… to see people, working, studying, forming relationships, and do what they want to do… It’s one of the most wonderful things.”

Rainbow Migration was started in 1993 by a group of same-sex couples and their lawyers who were “working to help these couples stay together in the UK. At the time these relationships weren’t recognised.

What they found was they couldn’t stay together here if one of them didn’t have citizenship or residency. With the help of the lawyers, these couples fought their cases and campaigned for policy change in the UK.”

Some of the original founders are still involved in the organisation — volunteering, representing clients, giving advice, making donations — almost three decades later. The actual workforce has grown from four in 2017 to 13 today.

One of Rainbow Migration’s greatest achievements, says Zadeh, is “achieving the first positive recognition of same-sex relationships in UK law, which was actually an immigration policy.” Over time, it became apparent that another group of LGBTQ people — those escaping persecution in their own country of origin — also needed to stay in the UK.

Leila Zadeh (Photo: Markus Bidaux)

“Since 2003, we’ve been focusing on [those people], primarily,” explains Zadeh, who has previously worked at Frontline AIDS, Oxfam GB, and ActionAid EU. “It’s thanks to the support we’ve received from people in this country who recognise the importance of protecting LGBTQs from persecution — trusts, foundations and individual donations.”

One person who is fully behind Attitude’s decision to give Rainbow Migration an Attitude Pride Award is Asamoah. He has an appeal hearing in August, at which a Rainbow Migration worker is giving evidence. “The lawyer is very powerful, so I’m hoping to get it done!” he says, with a smile. 

The Attitude September/October issue is available to download and order in print now and will be on newsstands from Thursday 4 August.