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    First Published: January 2003
       This is an OutUK Archive Item and so some of the links and information may be out of date.

With the government saying they'll be looking at how to cut down the number of people seeking asylum here in the UK, OutUK's Adrian Gillan finds out from the Stonewall Immigration Group how easy it currently is for gay partners and asylum seekers to come and live in Britain.
"At first most legal opinion - even Stonewall itself - thought that gay immigration was a lost cause," claims Mark Watson, Chair of the Stonewall Immigration Group (SIG) ten years on. "But the small number of dedicated solicitors and the courageous couples who risked everything proved everyone wrong. Gay immigration was in fact the first gay legal reform undertaken by New Labour."
The White Cliffs Of Dover - A destination that's still possible for gay immigrants to the UK.
When SIG was set up in 1993, there was no provision for a foreign person from outside the EU to live with their same-sex partner in the UK or for a person to seek asylum in the UK on grounds that they feared homophobic persecution back home.

"The group was initially formed," explains Watson, "when gay people facing separation refused to enter into bogus heterosexual marriages of convenience just to stay in the country. They took on the Home Office. SIG not only changed the law within a few years but - more importantly - until that time, kept every couple who applied in the way it suggested together. Not a single member was deported."

Indeed, unmarried straight couples had always been able to get married to gain entry for the overseas partner. Thanks to lobbying from SIG, an Unmarried Partners Concession was eventually introduced in 1997 allowing a foreign person from outside the EU to live with their same-sex partner in the UK if the relationship had demonstrably existed for four years (reduced to two years in 1999) and if the entrant would not require welfare. This 'Concession' was upgraded to become a 'Rule' in 2000.

Application periods now range from same-day in straightforward cases to 6 -12 months with complications and appeals. Watson advises couples to take legal advice in all but the most simple of cases: "The worst thing a couple can do is to make a poor application which is doomed to fail, or put themselves in a position where they are illegally in the country, so breaching the immigration laws."

"Many couples struggle to find ways to physically stay together for the required two years," he explains. "However the cohabitation does not have to be in the UK and it is often possible to find ways to legally build up the required period overseas - couples might even take a long holiday together."

He continues positively: "Unlike many countries, the UK Home Office will not refuse an application because someone has HIV. Indeed, in cases that do not meet the criteria, it might even be useful to mention positive status - especially if the foreign partner is on treatment not available back home."

If an application is successful, the entrant is put on a further two-year probationary period - with most domestic and travel rights granted but still with no recourse to welfare benefits - after which an assessment may grant settled status and so on to British citizenship if sought. Additionally, in February 2002, the Home Office ruled that all proven unmarried relationships of five years or more, gay or straight, could apply for immediate residency, without the two-year probation.

At the last count SIG had almost two thousand people on its database and it has helped several hundred couples stay together and settle. It still holds monthly meetings, as well as offering telephone advice from volunteers and solicitors and hosting a highly useful website.

And SIG has not just supported same-sex partners. A House of Lords ruling in 1999 forced the government, for the first time, to consider claims for asylum from those fearing persecution because of their sexuality. The Home office now judges each case on its merit, assessing the homophobia present within the country in question and the authenticity of the individual claimant.

"The major role for SIG now is to inform and support," concludes Watson. "However, there is still some campaigning to do. The only way we will achieve full equality is when lesbians and gays can marry. It is still true that a straight couple can just meet, marry a week later and then apply to remain whereas gay couples have a two year wait. If the Home Office treat the proposed Partnership Register the same as marriage this may help, but we'll have to wait and see what the terms are."

Stonewall Immigration Group

 

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