The CJEU’s judgment in the case of A, B and C is due by the end of the year. Ahead of the expected judgment, this post recaps the opinion handed down by Advocate General Sharpston in July.
In February 2014 The Guardian published details of the lines of questioning used by the UK Home Office in questioning gay and lesbian asylum seekers. The questions considered appropriate to ask vulnerable asylum seekers were shocking; including queries such as “what is it about men’s backsides that attracts you?”.
The Home Office’s prurient interest in the very private lives of asylum seekers has been attributed in part to the Supreme Court judgment in HJ (Iran) and HT (Cameroon) v Secretary of State for the Home Department  UKSC 31, where the Court found that asylum could not be refused on the basis that an individual would not face persecution due to their sexuality if they behaved with discretion when returned. The onus in questioning therefore shifted from conditions facing gay communities in the country of return to proving sexual orientation, resulting in the Home Office seeking to verify sexual orientation via intrusive questioning. Verifying sexual orientation in asylum claims is an issue that a number of EU states have sought to deal with, and Advocate General Sharpston’s opinion in ABC constitutes guidance as to what is considered acceptable questioning. However, as will be seen below, Sharpston’s opinion has to grapple with the central problem: how do you legally “verify” human sexuality? By its very nature sexuality is impossible to “prove” by reference to anything other than what an individual considers their sexuality to be.
- B and C were individuals who submitted asylum claims to the Netherlands authorities on the grounds of a well founded fear of being persecuted in their respective countries of origin because they were gay men. All were refused on the basis that their claims of sexual orientation were not “credible”. Two of the applicants had gone to some lengths to prove their sexual orientation: C had submitted a video depicting him performing sexual acts with a man, and A had been willing to submit to a test to prove that he was gay.
In her opinion, Advocate General Sharpston sought to set out some guidelines as to what was an appropriate method for assessing declared sexual orientation, and if the limits were different from the limits applied to an assessment of the credibility of other grounds of persecution. Sharpston recognised that an “individual’s sexual orientation is a complex matter, entwined inseparably with his identity, that falls within the private sphere of his life” , therefore, an applicant’s averred sexual orientation must always be the starting point in assessing a claim, however:
“The competent national authorities are entitled to examine that element of his claim together with all other elements in order to assess whether he has a well-founded fear of persecution within the meaning of the Qualification Directive and the Geneva Convention.
It therefore follows ineluctably that applications for refugee status on the grounds of sexual orientation, like any other applications for refugee status, are subject to a process of assessment as required by Article 4 of the Qualification Directive. That assessment must, however, be carried out in a way that respects the individual’s rights as guaranteed by the Charter.” [48 -49]