One of the current research themes in the Institute for Social Justice is Social Inclusion, with a focus on the experience of asylum seekers and refugees. As a linguistics student and a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, I was especially interested in a project titled ‘Barriers of Language and LGBT+ Asylum Seekers’.
To learn more, I sat down with Helen Sauntson, Principal Investigator on this project and Professor of English Language & Linguistics at York St John.
It was a real privilege to speak to Helen about this fascinating and important research, and I have been very inspired by the whole project.
What is the research and why is it important?
This project explores the queer refugee experience, focusing on what happens after refugee status has been granted. Through the lens of applied linguistics, queer theory, migrant studies, and participatory filmmaking, it will culminate in a documentary which follows the stories of six LGBTQIA+ refugees who have been granted refugee status in Western Europe.
This project focuses on individuals who are seeking asylum based their sexual orientation or gender identity. In many countries homosexuality is still criminalised, and the death penalty remains in place. LGBTQIA+ people in these countries face constant threat of abuse, discrimination, physical violence and murder. When seeking asylum, they face double minoritization and continue to experience hardship as a result of their queerness. Research reflects that queer refugees and asylum seekers are disproportionately affected by homelessness, housing complications, finding stable employment, mental health difficulties, isolation, and discrimination.
What has linguistics got to do with LGBTQIA+ asylum seekers?
Helen’s research background is in linguistics, and this project focuses heavily on the linguistic experiences of LGBTQIA+ asylum seekers, especially in the aftermath of their Home Office interviews.
Queer people who seek asylum in the UK need to go through the Home Office Substantive Interview, which in Helen’s words, ‘makes or breaks an asylum claim.’ In this interview, and to legitimate fleeing their home country, the individual must prove to the government that they are queer and actively participating in the local LGBTQIA+ community. They are often coming from cultures which actively discriminate against LGBTQIA+ people, and are now expected to attend events as an openly queer person, and participate with pride and confidence. Helen expresses that ‘pride is a key cultural indicator’, and that these asylum seekers are required to assimilate to ‘a very western model of sexuality’.
The Home Office interview presents a number of linguistic problems. English is often not their first language, leading to miscommunication and cultural misunderstandings. Helen says that language is ‘so closely tied to cultural experience. A lot of the asylum seekers simply don’t have a language for talking about their sexual orientation, or gender identity. Words like gay and lesbian don’t exist. They don’t exist in other languages. And they don’t translate.’ These interviews may well be the first time LGBTQIA+ asylum seekers are talking openly about their sexuality or gender identities.
Helen tells me some have argued that this is ‘a very colonial way of doing queerness’.
Film as a Research Tool
As well as some peer-reviewed academic journal articles, this project will culminate in a series of short films, and one feature length documentary film. Due to the variety of language problems identified above, the researchers wanted to have data that wasn’t purely language based. Helen explains there is a shift in linguistic research towards multimodal analysis, and an ‘increasing acknowledgement that language as a form of communication doesn’t operate in isolation. Actually, meanings are created with the way that language interacts with other modes of communication as well.’
The documentary films will follow the lives of six queer asylum seekers who have been granted refugee status. There is very little research about the post-asylum experience, and this project hopes to shed light on the day-to-day experiences of these people. The refugees will document their experiences through a series of self-executed video diaries, and some walk-along style research conversations.
One recurring theme in asylum seeker research is the fact that refugees are often ignored and silenced. The video diary aspect of this project allows refugees to tell their stories in their own authentic way. It gives them flexibility and control over their own narrative, giving back the power often taken away from them by the dehumanising process of seeking asylum.
In this way, the refugee participants become co-researchers in the project rather than a simply a subject of academic study. The walk-along interviews are a more relaxed way of getting to know the participants, and may take place on their daily commute to work, or anywhere they feel comfortable.
These methods of information gathering are especially important when we take into account the previous traumatic experiences these participants have had when it comes to interviews. To be able to co-research this project in a way that is authentic, creative, and agential is surely the best way to tell this story. Helen says ‘we’re hoping that the narrative analysis will reveal the kind of intricacies and the nuances of those experiences in ways that other kinds of analysis won’t’.
In providing a multidisciplinary exploration of the queer refugee experience, the project team hope to amplify queer migrant voices, overcoming their previous silence in an authentic, empowering way. In seeing the film, Helen hopes that all audiences will benefit by gaining a better understanding of LGBTQIA+ asylum seekers. She says ‘raising awareness usually translates into action’, and hopes that seeing these stories will inspire critical insight, and lead to positive change.
If you would like to hear more and find out how you can help, visit the ‘Time To Be Out’ website. Time To Be Out are a York based organisation that support queer asylum seekers and refugees in England and Wales.