On January 9th, at a hearing convened by the Home Office, Serigne Tacko Mbengue, a gay Senegalese immigrant based as a student in Britain since 2008, was told that he must prove his sexuality in order to avoid deportation. Mbengue’s case for asylum is based on the fear that he will almost certainly face persecution upon his return, including a possible five-year jail term. He was originally forced to flee his home nation after being attacked and tortured due to his sexuality, yet the Home Office has adjourned the case for a second time pending ‘proof’ of his homosexuality.
The dangers faced by individuals such as Mbengue in their home country depressingly comes as no surprise. After spending two months in the West African nation of Senegal as part of the Student Volunteers Abroad (SVA) scheme, we found that general attitudes towards homosexuality could be summarised as “you believe in human rights, we believe in morality.” These exact words were spoken to us by an NGO official, in reference to the country’s ferociously homophobic culture and the general view that Western attitudes towards homosexuality is abhorrent. Such views are unfortunately hugely prevalent. Senegal is a Muslim majority nation, with around 94% of the population practicing a conservative form of Islam, making homosexuality morally reprehensible.
Such intolerance forced Mbengue to escape. He arrived in England five years ago as an illegal immigrant where he was subsequently held in detention for two years without explanation. Since then he has become an LGBT and human rights campaigner at Newham College in East London, where he is enrolled in an English course. The case is important on more than one level; it is not simply about gay rights and modern prejudices, but also about human morality and the difficulties surrounding immigration.
First of all, the notion of someone being forced to prove their sexuality is farcical. How can a government body attempt to establish a criteria which encompasses or seeks to grade a natural aspect of human nature? Such a concept is incredibly difficult to quantify, and to attempt to do so is absurb. What instead must be viewed is the empirical evidence in Mbengue’s case: eye witness accounts, medical records and physical scars testify to his torture in Senegal, while in December last year he was attacked by a group of Senegalese men in London shouting homophobic slurs. If Britain seeks to maintain its reputation as a leading promoter of human rights, then surely one of the most basic of those rights, freedom from harm and from the threat of harm, must be upheld. Having also been held in detention for two years whilst his case was reviewed, Mbengue has suffered a double injustice at the hands of a government that likes to portray itself as the foremost proponent of international justice. If the government actually wants to live up to these aspirations and refute allegations of hypocrisy it must lead by example by ensuring its policies stand in sharp contrast to the repugnant intolerance and bigotry enshrined in law by the Senegalese government.
On the other hand, although the government has a clear moral prerogative to ensure Mbengue’s safety, the case adds another dimension to the ever-present immigration debate. Current public opinion highlights growing concern about British migration levels. A poll conducted by the Migration Observatory at Oxford University found that around 60% of respondents felt that immigration levels should be “reduced a lot”. In 2011, the Westminster Government introduced annual limits on non-EU economic migration, reflecting the public’s generally unwelcoming attitude towards high number of immigrants. But surely Mbengue’s case should force the government to re-examine its current immigration policy and look beyond its rigidly figures-obsessed criteria?
The recent case of Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan illustrates that the UK government does have the ability to adapt its existing policies to account for the human costs involved in seeking asylum. Malala was shot in the head by the Taliban for her overt support of women’s education in Pakistan – but is now likely to be granted safe asylum with her family in Britain, allowing her to escape persercution once and for all.
Mbengue’s case offers a palpable challenge to the prejudiced, but unfortunately prevalent, stereotype of immigrants coming to the UK to simply live off the hard work of others. Mbengue’s case demonstrates the very real hardships endured by those seeking to escape their own countries. Now the government needs to look beyond the rigidity of its own policies in order to ensure that Britain maintains its leading role in the promotion of human rights, and offer a safe and prosperous future for those who are denied it at home. This is not an issue that should be dictated by mere practicalities, but instead by a clear sense of right and wrong.