Aderonke Apata Anna Fitzpatrick

Aderonke emanated a sincerity that made me feel as though her words passed through no filter. I instantly warmed to her. She took time while I tried to break through my naivety, as I grappled to comprehend what she’d told me. With unwavering patience, she recounted stories of discrimination, murder and abuse to a sheltered Cambridge student who could never truly understand what any of it was like.

The conversation I had with her will remain carved into my consciousness. She is undoubtedly one of the most powerful people I’ve ever met.

Aderonke was forced to flee Nigeria after being sentenced to death by stoning. Her girlfriend was later murdered for being gay. When she got to the UK, she was met with more of the discrimination she had tried to escape, being detained in Yarl’s Wood. Authorities demanded that she ‘prove’ her sexuality to be granted asylum, a request so impossible that she was pressured to submit sex tapes in a desperate plea to save her own life. Now, Aderonke fights to represent LGBTQIA asylum seekers.

Although Yarl’s Wood, presided over by Theresa May, is officially titled an ‘Immigration Removal Centre’, Apata is certain in her correction: it is a “detention and concentration centre.”

“Erm, yes?” Apata puzzled, alerting me of how plainly I had naivety written across my face when she explained to me: “What many people do not know is that detainees are used as cheap labour.” Patiently, she educated me. “The big corporations, they need to make money, so detention centres need to be filled up for Serco, who manages Yarl’s Wood. That is why I call it modern-day slavery. Right inside there, so many people are going through mental health problems. These are people who have been locked up, who have been through torture before, who have been trafficked, who have been exposed to honour killing or forced marriages. So when you get locked up again, it’s like double punishment.”

“We have experienced so much death in detention centres. People are dying.”

“But we shouldn’t just be thinking of how these organisations want to make profit at our expense”, she continued. Apata began to elucidate that, for many people, when they enter Yarl’s Wood they never get out. “We have experienced so much death in detention centres. People are dying. This is because they are either not cared for, or they are not listened to, or people’s experiences there can become so overwhelming for them that they have a heart attack, or they commit suicide.”

Apata emphasised to me how crucial it is to expose this, recalling how a lack of awareness galvanised her activism. “When I was in Yarl’s Wood in 2012, it pushed me to lead the demonstration,” probing me to ask her how it began. “We’d been having a build-up,” she explained. “We’d been talking amongst ourselves, asking ‘what are we doing here?’, ‘we need freedom’, and ‘we need to be released’…but the event was triggered spontaneously by something we all saw. She was naked and being taken for deportation. They’d only thrown a blanket over her and she was being overpowered by about seven or eight hefty men. She was just crying, wailing. We’d seen this happening, but this particular one seemed to appeal to everyone’s emotion at once. That’s how the demonstration started.”

"The policies of the government are not making people feel welcome."

I asked Aderonke if she thought that her demonstration was listened to. “I think they listened by bringing up a parliamentary inquiry” she began, before pausing cautiously. “But they are still not listening. The report was written in March 2015. But we are in 2017 and nothing has been done to actualise the recommendations. The government is hearing, but it is taking too long to act”.

I wondered what life is like for asylum seekers living in the UK, so I asked Aderonke if government policy is accommodating. “On the contrary,” she began to explain. “The policies of the government are not making people feel welcome. When you don’t allow people to work, they don’t have financial freedom, they don’t have fulfilment. We know what that means to any human being who can’t work, who can’t support themselves. You can’t socialise, you can’t contribute to society, even to yourself or to your immediate family. You can’t show the government that you are able to contribute positively. So people’s wellbeing and mental health are damaged and people are isolated. They need money to be able to go to this group, to that group. So the policies are very, very restrictive”, Aderonke told me.

I asked if she could give me any clues as to why this might be. “The reasons for all of these restrictions is to stop pull factors”, she explained. “They don’t want that, so they are making the environment quite hostile for people” – perhaps that is why it is so difficult to qualify for asylum in the UK. With the current system for LGBTQI asylum seekers being based on behaviour, rather than identity and experiences of discrimination, I asked Aderonke how the law needs to change.

"people have this idea that homosexuality is un-African"

A barrister who specialises in political asylum claim based on sexual orientation and gender identity, S Chelvan, came up with a ‘DSSH model’ (Difference, Stigma, Shame and Harm) to be used, she pointed out. She explained to me that “It’s based on discrimination, the stigma, shame and harm experienced”, clarifying that it “is how LGBTQIA asylum claims should be assessed”. “You should be looking at what made that person different, how they know they are different, the feelings that make them different,” she emphasised. Apata continued to articulate what kind of questions must be asked. “What kind of stigma is associated with anyone that is different in that particular society? What kind of shame has come along with that? Then you want to look at the harm that has or could happen to such person.” Further, Aderonke highlighted to me how sexuality and identity intersect, to influence how asylum claims are analysed. “A very oppressing thing is that many people have this idea that homosexuality is un-African. So if any person who isn’t white or Western says they are LGBTIQ+, people don’t want to recognise that. Sexuality is not based on where you come from. It’s based on who you are as a human being. We really do need a change of approach.”

I wondered what I could do to help. “For whoever wants to be an ally, whether you are an LGBTQI person or not, trust is the most important thing”, Aderonke began. “There needs to be trust, because people do come with good intentions, but there are some who will try to exploit the vulnerabilities of the community. Second, allies need to let us lead our own support. What you think might be right for us might really not be right for us”.

Aderonke highlighted to me that cases like hers have to be spoken about because they are a matter of life and death. “When an asylum seeker is an LGBTQI person that is on track for deportation, people should really rally around that because it is fearful. It is more fearful when you are an LGBTQI person because in most of these countries which persecute us, people in the society will take ‘justice’ into their own hands. They’ll kill you. So we want people to speak up.”