Aloysius Ssali was granted refugee status in the UK in 2010, five long years after he first fled here to escape the oppressive anti-LGBT regime of his home country, Uganda.
“I lived here from 2005 until 2010 without the right to be in the country. My visa had expired, and I was scared to even look at my passport. Every time I looked at it, it reminded me of home, and it became a symbol of torture that this was supposed to be my country, but this is what they did to me.”
Aloysius and I met for the first time in his office space in Kings Cross, a place worlds apart from the hustle and bustle of Kampala, Uganda where he was arrested for being gay. He met me with a huge smile and a meaningful handshake, offering a consolatory cup of tea for being held up in a mentoring session.Aloysius is the founder of the Say It Loud Club, a charity who provide support to LGBT+ refugees and asylum seekers in the UK. The club was originally formed in 1994, when Aloysius was a student in Uganda.
Right off the bat, Aloysius explains to me that coming to terms with his sexuality in an LGBT-repressive environment was incredibly difficult. With a lack of understanding about what was happening to him and no one to talk to, Aloysius began the Say It Loud Club, in the hope of ending his loneliness.
In 1997, he came across Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, a UK-based lobby group made up of LGBT people who formed in support of striking miners in the 80s. It was the discovery of this movement that opened his eyes to the existence of the active LGBT community, making him realise there were other people out there like him.
“That was the first time I came across the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender – before that, we just had these feelings, we just had the attraction, but we couldn’t define what it was and that was very disturbing,” he recalls.
By the year 2000, word had spread fast, and the club, which started out with just six members, had now registered more than 400 students from different colleges and universities. But as membership numbers grew, so did Aloysius’ anxiety about word getting out to the authorities.
“At this point, it was still a secret organisation, well it was supposed to be. As the numbers got bigger, we couldn’t control it like we used to when we were a group of only 50 or 60 people. I began to feel concerned about the number. People would turn up, but it was now very difficult to know from where. It was exciting, yes, but not in that kind of environment.”
The situation for LGBT people in Uganda in the early 2000s was not much different to what it is now, Aloysius tells me pragmatically. According to Amnesty International UK, it is illegal to be gay in Uganda, with the law stating that if you are found having same-sex relations, you can expect to spend around seven years in prison.
In fact, laws have become even harsher in recent years. In December 2013, an Anti-Homosexuality Bill was passed by Uganda’s parliament which meant longer sentences for consensual homosexual sex, and more severe punishment for those ‘promoting’ homosexuality.
Information from the Human Dignity Trust shows that there are actually still 72 jurisdictions that criminalise private, consensual, same-sex sexual activity. On top of this, there are still 12 where same-sex sexual activity is punishable by death.Last month the Independent published a story explaining that MPs in Uganda are pushing for new laws to bring in the death penalty for homosexual acts, with a bill shockingly referred to amongst hardliners as “Kill the Gays”.
As identifying as LGBT in Uganda now carries a potential life (or death) sentence, for Aloysius, it certainly felt this way too. He tells me that whilst living there in the late 90s and early 2000s, there was no open talk of homosexuality and there was negativity and hostility from colleges, religious institutes and local communities.
The Say It Loud Club soon realised that the way they identified themselves was not welcome – members were being arrested and young women associated with the group were forced into heterosexual marriages. By 2003, the authorities began looking for Aloysius, after identifying him as the founder of the group.
Calmly discussing this distressing period in his life, he explains to me: “I decided ‘I need to get out of here’ because it was becoming extremely dangerous.” In 2003, he applied for a student visa to come to the UK, admitting: “to be honest it was because I was on the run.”
After completing an IT course, Aloysius went back to Uganda to see what the situation was, as there was little information flow between there and the UK. During his return, he was accused of spreading homosexuality and propaganda: “I don’t know how they found out that I was back in the country and up until now it still disturbs me.”
During a meeting with friends at an internet café, Aloysius was approached by some men shouting: “This is the guy, you are under arrest!”
They checked his bag and found leaflets that he had picked up in St Thomas’ hospital about promoting safe sex for LGBT people. “When they saw the leaflets, they started punching me, slapping me, kicking me, it was terrible.”In Uganda, this hostile situation still remains. Reports in The Guardian from October explain that 16 LGBT activists were arrested on suspicion of having gay sex. The men, who worked for the sexual health charity Let’s Walk Uganda, are believed to have been aged between 22 and 35, a similar age to Aloysius when he was arrested.
The article revealed that officers found condoms, lubricants and anti-retroviral drugs at the charity and all 16 of the men had been subject to ‘medical examinations’, which established their supposed involvement in punishable sexual acts.
When Aloysius was arrested, he was held in a cell for about a week and after this time he was able to pay his way out. He tells me: “It was £50, so you can imagine how cheap life is there, that somebody can save a life just for £50.”
With three months still left on his student visa, Aloysius fled, and returned to the UK.
“I was lucky that my passport wasn’t confiscated, they never even saw it, I had it under my sock. Normally people put their valuables in their socks when travelling around Kampala because of pickpockets. Nobody checked otherwise I would have lost the only way that I could have escaped.”
Coming back to the UK this time, Aloysius was not the same person that he was before. He began to suffer from loneliness, isolating himself from the people he knew, which lead to stress, depression and a long line of mental health issues.
Without any legal documents allowing him to claim housing rights, Aloysius lived with friends and was occasionally forced to spend a night outside.
Returning to this difficult period, Aloysius explains his frustrations with the system, telling me: “All this time, I couldn’t even go to a GP and say, you know what, I’m struggling, I need help. I could just think, maybe it will go away.”
It took Aloysius five years of homelessness and emotional turmoil to muster up the strength and justifiable grounds to apply for asylum, which he did in 2010.
“I remember I was on a bus, the number 29 from Wood Green to Trafalgar Square. Somebody had stepped on a Metro newspaper and when they walked away, I could see the story of a case [of an LGBT asylum seeker] which was in the Supreme Court that had been accepted. For the first time, I thought, maybe I need to speak to somebody.”
The case marked a huge milestone in the progression of LGBT asylum seeker rights. It involved the stories of two unconnected men, known as HJ from Iran and HT from Cameroon. Before the 2010 ruling, the UK Home Office could lawfully deport LGBT people seeking asylum, as they believed they could return to their countries and hide their sexuality in order to be saved from prosecution.
HJ and HT’s cases had previously been refused on these grounds. The Equality and Human Rights Commission and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees intervened and began an appeal process. The case was heard in May 2010 and the judgement was delivered later in July where the Court unanimously ruled that the men did not have to return home and conceal their sexuality but instead stay in the UK as LGBT refugees.
A few days after reading about the case, Aloysius called the Home Office, who asked him some basic questions and gave him an appointment to come in.
Describing every detail as if it had happened yesterday, Aloysius tells me that the screening took place in a big open room where he stood behind a pane of glass and spoke into a microphone; a nerve-racking experience for anyone, let alone a person applying for the right to stay in the country.
He was asked on what grounds he was claiming asylum and after a few goes at guessing his situation, the immigration official pushed him for an answer.
“There was a pause and I said: ‘because I am gay’,” he explains to me, but this time he says it with pride.“That was very difficult, to say that out loud. It was like torture and she made me repeat it.” For the first time, Aloysius was saying who he was in front of another person, a stranger. Before this, he had never spoken about it outside the safety of discussions with his peers in Uganda.
After a few months of spending nights on friends’ sofas and on the streets, Aloysius was invited for his main interview. He was kept waiting for some hours and was eventually approached by three men who told him he was being arrested and detained due to the unclear nature of his case and that he could face deportation.
He was put in a van and taken to an immigration detention centre. Recalling the scale of the compound, but also the situation he had found himself in, Aloysius tells me he was led through a number of doors, the sound of them clanging still haunts him today.
According to the Home Office, in 2018 approximately 24,700 individuals entered immigration detention in the UK. Of the 25,587 leaving detention in 2018, 44% (11,152) were deported from the UK to another country; 55% (13,945) were released on bail; 0.2% (47) were granted leave to remain in the UK; and 1% (343) either returned to criminal detention, were released unconditionally, absconded, sectioned under the Mental Health Act or died in detention.
There is no set time limit for how long a person can spend in immigration detention in the UK, which leaves many of those entering, like Aloysius, with a lack of hope for their future in the country.
In 2018, around 65% of those leaving detention were detained for between one and 28 days, 17% for 29 days to under two months, 15% for two months to under six months, 5% for six months to under one year, and less than 1% were detained for a year or longer.
Met by people with lots of keys and walkie talkies, Aloysius compares his experience at the detention centre to a prison stay, as if his claim for asylum was being treated like a crime.
After four days in the centre, Aloysius was sent for another interview where, once again, had to recount his whole life, sexual history and trauma to a complete stranger. And still, he had not been able to see a GP or receive any kind of emotional support or counselling.
The interview was brought to a premature end, with the immigration official admitting that Aloysius should not have been in detention in the first place. The newness of LGBT people claiming refuge for their sexuality meant that there were no real procedures in place at the time and the complexity of the case meant he got lost in the system.
“All this time, I couldn’t even go to a GP and say, you know what, I’m struggling, I need help. I could just think, maybe it will go away.”
Aloysius was released and sent to Leeds, where he stayed in a hostel for a few days. Eventually, he was transferred to Barnsley, where he was given temporary accommodation while they worked on his case. He had never been to those places prior to living there and did not know anyone in the area, so he struggled to fit in.
In October 2010, Aloysius received a phone call from the Home Office, telling him that his case had been concluded and he had finally been granted refugee status.
“Wow,” he tells me, the relief still fresh on his face from that monumental day nine years ago. “You don’t understand the meaning of freedom unless it has ever been taken away from you and then somehow it comes back. I was jumping up and down, I was shouting on my own, it was overwhelming.”
As overjoyed as he was, Aloysius tells me that the real problems began after he was granted asylum, in what he refers to as the “moving on period.”
Coming back to London to restart his life, Aloysius tried to register with a doctor, open a bank account and apply for housing, all of which he struggled to do because the system did not recognise his unique history. Without proof of address or a stable income, Aloysius was once again let down by the rigid and traditional refugee support services that were in place.In 2010, he restarted the Say it Loud Club, this time as a London-based support system for people who were living underground, being exploited and facing similar issues in their asylum and moving on processes.
Starting out as a Facebook page with just five likes, to holding meetings in Finsbury Park where they would have a chat and play football, the Say It Loud Club quickly gained a loyal and trusting following in the city.
With many members unaware that they could apply for asylum in the UK on the basis of their sexuality, Aloysius guided a lot of people through this process by running mentoring events. This has helped many of them get out of their cash-in-hand jobs just to get by and has allowed them to start a legitimate life here.
“It was a big thing for people to be able to speak to someone who looks like them and someone who identifies like them, that was inspiring for so many people.”For years, Aloysius balanced a job in the NHS with running the club and attending tribunals, as many cases were being refused.
His commitment has paid off, with the Home Office making some changes based on campaigns Aloysius has worked on. For example, LGBT asylum seekers no longer have to stand up and talk into a microphone during their case or answer intrusive questions. They can now sit in an office where they can speak privately about their situation. However, Aloysius believes the Home Office can still work harder to understand people from backgrounds that do not fit their inflexible system.
Today, the club has more than 300 members, some already with refugee status, and some seeking it with the help of Aloysius and his team.
The Say It Loud Club helps more than 100 people every month in workshops, social events and educational programmes where they provide aid and information to help integrate their members back into society.
This support covers finding a safe place to live, opening a bank account, finding employment, starting or re-entering education and improving on written or spoken English, all things Aloysius wishes he had help with when he was finding his feet after gaining refugee status.
They also provide confidence-building workshops, amongst many others, which help with and encourage recovery from trauma and mental illness.
“It’s a very present project and we serve the ordinary people. It is what I experienced myself, the people who are making the policies don’t know what ordinary people on the streets go through. I believe that because we have lived the experience, we are able to tell the story and influence others.”
Since last year, the club has had support from Help Refugees, and together they launched the successful Choose Love campaign, which raised enough funds so that Aloysius can now run the charity full time.They also have backing from Notting Hill Genesis, one of the largest housing associations in London, who provide them with a free space, so they no longer have to meet in the park.
Looking to the future, Aloysius feels hopeful and recognises that attitudes towards refugees like him are slowly changing for the better. “I believe the campaigns we do here and the way the world is opening up a little bit means that we can clear the way so that other people coming after us don’t have to go through what we went through. But the task is big, and the progress is slow, especially in Africa.”
Between 2015 and 2017, government figures show that 6.6% of all asylum applications made in the UK had a sexual orientation component. During this period, 1,540 of these people were granted asylum or an alternative form of protection.
However, the rate of successful asylum claims for this group fell from 39% in 2015 to 22% in 2017, mirroring an overall downward trend in all asylum applications.
It’s hard to know exactly how many people come to the UK as LGBT asylum seekers for many reasons. Some people are not ready to talk about their sexuality, for others the burden of proof is too high, even though a genuine claim exists, and many in between become a casualty of the ‘hostile environment’.
What we do know, however, is that the work of Aloysius and the Say It Loud Club means that more and more LGBT asylum seekers and refugees are being provided with a safe space to express themselves away from any oppressive regime, where they can be accepted and celebrated for who they really are.
Featured image courtesy of the Say It Loud Club.
Edited by Franziska Eberlein & Kesia Evans.