The fifth in a series of posts that portray the complex journeys of individual asylum seekers who come to Asylos

by Julia Z. Pohl

This edition of our asylum stories brings you the journey of J, a young gay man from Serbia who moved to the UK to escape violent homophobic attacks.

When J came to the UK as a student four years ago, he was looking forward to a life in which he could live openly as a gay man without fearing violence and assaults. J’s arrival in the UK marked the end to living in a constant state of fear, instilled and perpetuated by a series of brutal homophobic attacks to which he had been victim in Serbia. Like so many who are subject to human rights abuses, J's injuries were compounded by the failure of the justice system: the local police officers to whom he had reported the crimes recorded his accounts of the first two attacks, but, upon learning about J’s sexual orientation, had refused to record the third consecutive instance of physical assault. To J, this reaction was a clear manifestation of the officers’ homophobic attitudes.

In the UK, authorities believed neither that J was gay, nor that he was facing threats of violence in Serbia

Scared of returning to Serbia and facing renewed assault, J filed an asylum application in the UK, but the British authorities denied his asylum application on several grounds. Firstly, and fundamentally, the Home Office questioned whether J was actually homosexual. Secondly, they pointed to alleged improvements in the treatment of the LGBTQ+ community in Serbian society: Serbia had its first first openly gay prime minister and the Serbian government had recently tolerated a Gay Pride event in Belgrade. According the Home Office's evidence, the climate for gay individuals in Serbia was better than ever.

But J knew what he had suffered, and what was potentially waiting for him back in Serbia, so his lawyer decided to appeal. To substantiate the request for an appeal, they turned to Asylos for information about the situation of, and protection available to, gay men in Serbia and particularly in Belgrade.

Political progress does not automatically translate into real societal change

Our report’s findings suggest that, despite indications of recent political progress, day to day violence against LGBTQ communities has not been eradicated. In particular, we found evidence to suggest that there is a high number of unreported hate crimes towards LGBTQ+ individuals and that such crimes are therefore significantly more prevalent than statistics have us believe. While the Serbian government has taken measures to improve state protection, such as by training and appointing of LGBTQ+ officers, in many cases the existing legal framework has not been applied to counteract homophobic violence. Furthermore, there are reports that the authorities refused to conduct investigations into cases that did not receive considerable media coverage, reports of police violence towards LGBTQ+ individuals and of instances in which these individuals were deprived of medical care. Political progress does not automatically translate into real social change and individuals' lived experiences.

All of these findings were mentioned in the judge’s written decision to allow the appeal and dismiss the previous negative decision. Asylos' report constituted new information presented in the case, without which the appeal would have been denied. J does not yet have a final decision on his case, but Asylos' report will feature as substantial evidence during the appeal, providing hope for justice where there was none before.

In 2019, more than 50% of immigration appeals against Home Office decisions have been successful, in particular those regarding human rights violations and claims for asylum, meaning the British authorities get their decisions wrong more than they get them right - in large part due to the fact that asylum-seekers struggle to produce the evidence required for their claim and often have to battle against the limited information provided by the Home Office's own reports on country conditions. A COI report from Asylos assists in making these appeals happen, supporting asylum-seekers with valid claims to stand their own against a complex and hostile immigration system.