UK: Queer Omani woman takes her own life while waiting for asylum
The death of a queer Omani woman in the UK in early September has highlighted the vulnerable position LGBTQ+ asylum seekers are placed in when trying to navigate the British asylum system.
Rima al-Badi, a 21-year-old from Oman, took her own life after spending more than a year in a hotel waiting for the UK's Home Office to make a decision on her asylum claim.
A group of young asylum seekers, most of whom fled countries from across the Gulf, organised a vigil on Friday to commemorate her death.
According to a statement from her friends, Badi fled an abusive family in Oman, arriving in the UK in May 2022. She was found dead in hotel accommodation on 1 September.
According to her friends, this was not the first time she had tried to take her own life.
“She had tried many times before. The staff at the hotel knew about it and reported it to the Home Office - the hospital sent her back to the hotel every time,” Badi's friend Dev said in a statement.
Human rights campaigner Nabhan al-Hanshi had met with Badi a few days before her death. His organisation, the Omani Centre for Human Rights, supplies letters of support for asylum seekers from Oman. He was about to draft one for Badi.
“Usually in this letter, we will explain the situation in Oman… [and] the laws criminalising any LGBTQ activities,” Hanshi told Middle East Eye.
“I think one of the reasons she committed suicide was that she felt hopeless. I was surprised when she told me that for more than a year… she didn’t even get her first interview,” he said, referring to the Home Office.
Because of delays in Home Office decision-making, those seeking asylum in the UK now routinely wait for many months - or over a year - to be given their first screening interview.
“We are saddened by the death of Miss al-Badi, and our thoughts are with her loved ones," a Home Office spokesperson told MEE.
“We take the welfare of those in our care extremely seriously. At every stage in the process our approach is to ensure that the needs and vulnerabilities of asylum seekers are identified and considered, including those related to mental health and trauma.”
No one cares about us
Sarleen*, a 26-year-old asylum seeker from Saudi Arabia, first reported Badi's death to Revoke, a grassroots organisation advocating for the rights and welfare of displaced young people, via a WhatsApp message on 3 September.
“I can understand why she did what she did, because it’s not easy to get help here,” Sarleen told MEE. “As asylum seekers, no one cares about us. Even if you said 'I'm really struggling, I need someone to help me,' no one listens.”
Sarleen fled Saudi Arabia for the UK in 2021, where she waited in a hotel for a year for a decision on her asylum application. During that time, she says she was frequently sexually harassed by male security guards.
“I escaped sexual violence and harassment in Saudi Arabia, and it was happening to me again in the hotel,” she said.
When Sarleen tried to report the harassment, she was accused of lying. “I have been called a liar a lot of times,” she said.
'I escaped sexual violence and harassment and it was happening to me again in the hotel'
- Sarleen, asylum seeker from Saudi Arabia
“I only met Rima once,” Ryan, a trans man from Saudi Arabia, told MEE. “But maybe I know how she felt.”
Ryan tried to take his own life on three occasions during the two years he spent awaiting an asylum claim decision in hotel accommodation. Each time it was reported to the Home Office but, he said, “No one cared.”
“I was doing it because of the waiting… at the time I didn’t know that,” he said.
Lynn*, a 23-year-old non-binary person from Saudi Arabia, knew Badi through friends who lived at her hotel. Lynn fled Saudi Arabia for the UK in March 2020, after being assaulted and threatened by family members.
Lynn had to wait 11 months for a decision on their asylum claim in hotel accommodation, where they were subjected to repeated sexual harassment and assault, often at the hands of hotel security staff.
In one incident, they were followed by a staff member to their room.
“That didn’t make me feel safe,” Lynn told MEE.
When they tried to complain a week later, they were told by hotel staff that they were “too late”, as CCTV footage could not be retrieved.
'I wasn't feeling OK. I tried to explain this to the Home Office multiple times… my anxiety couldn't take it'
- Lynn, asylum seeker
“Due to previous experiences of victim blaming in Saudi Arabia... I’m kind of traumatised about speaking up about these things,” Lynn said.
Their precarious asylum status and the experience of living in hotel accommodation led to crippling episodes of depression.
“I wasn't feeling OK. I tried to explain this to the Home Office multiple times… my anxiety couldn't take it,” Lynn told MEE.
“I came here to feel safe… and it's still happening… Waiting for a year and a half... I woke up every day not knowing what would happen with my life,” they said.
Burden of proof
Around 2,000 people a year flee persecution because of their sexual orientation and seek asylum in the UK, with only a quarter of these claims granted by the Home Office.
LGBTQ+ claimants are subjected to “tests” to prove their sexual orientation or gender identity, something that is near impossible to prove for many who have had to conceal their sexuality in their home countries.
With the introduction of the Nationality and Borders bill this catch is set to harden, as the new legislation demands an increased burden of proof and a sharp reduction in the time allowed to produce this evidence.
According to an FOI request filed by the Refugee Council, the asylum backlog has quadrupled in the past five years, with a third of claimants waiting between one and three years for a decision.
“It’s not just the waiting times, but the conditions that people live in while they wait,” Mona Bani, founder of Revoke, told MEE. “For many... this is in asylum hotels.”
The Home Office is housing over 50,000 asylum seekers in around 400 hotels, often run by privately contracted staff who lack adequate training.
In a report by the charity Migrant Voice, 170 asylum seekers they spoke to who were living in hotel accommodation reported overcrowding, “filthy rooms”, abusive staff and “dangerously erratic” healthcare.
“We've had multiple women come to us and report sexual abuse by hotel staff,” Bani told MEE.
Just another case
According to Hanshi, who has worked with many young Omanis like Badi, the numbers of young queer people fleeing the sultanate have grown in the past year because of an anti-LGBTQ+ campaign fuelled by the authorities.
In Oman, same-sex relations are criminalised, carrying a sentence of up to three years in prison.
Hanshi added that often, asylum seekers coming from Oman will be reluctant to contact his organisation for fear of being traced by their families.
“They just want to disappear, they’re scared," he told MEE.
“I think the Home Office… they don't care at all about it. For them, it is just another case. That's all.”
If you need support in the UK, then the Samaritans can be contacted at [email protected] or on 116 123. For the US, please try the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 1-800-273-8255. For other countries, please see befrienders.org.