Mediating Difference: Institutional Cooperation with the IRTG “Diversity”
Interview with Ahmed Hamila (IRTG Diversity)
The Collaborative Research Centre (SFB) 1199: “Processes of Spatialization under the Global Condition” has begun a closer institutional cooperative relationship with the International Research Training Group (IRTG) “Diversity: Mediating Difference in Transcultural Spaces”. An inaugural workshop was held in Leipzig in December 2016 under the title “Space, Mediation and Diversity under the Global Condition”. A detailed report on the workshop can be accessed here.
The IRTG Diversity is a collaboration of the University of Trier, Saarland University, and University of Montreal. Founded in 2013, it is the first German-Canadian research training group in the humanities and social sciences (link). It addresses the contested fields of diversity, multiculturalism, and transnationalism by examining paradigmatic changes and historical transformations in interpreting multicultural realities in North America (Canada) and Europe (Germany and France) since the eighteenth century. It does so through the lenses of three dominant modes of social action that serve as transversal themes structuring the research program: the politics, the practices, and the narratives of diversity.
To give insight into the many projects undertaken in the IRTG, we have interviewed one of the doctoral students of the IRTG, Ahmed Hamila, who is based in the IRTG’s Montreal branch. In the following interview, he introduces his research design as well as the first results of his PhD thesis on the topic “The European Asylum Policy Related to Sexual Orientation: A Common System, Several Implementation Models”.
- What is your doctoral project about? How did you get the initial idea for it?
My research analyses the way European countries have implemented the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), and more specifically the way Belgium, France, and the UK have implemented European asylum policies related to sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI).
The initial idea came to me after reading the report “Fleeing Homophobia” presented to the European Parliament in 2011. In this report, the authors highlight the considerable differences in the ways in which European States examine LGBT asylum applications despite the fact that all member states have transposed the Common European Asylum System to their national legislation. I was intrigued by the fact that countries bound by the same European directives display so many differences in the ways they process asylum applications, so I decided to seek an answer to this question.
- Could you briefly sketch your methodology and fieldwork?
I conducted a comparative analysis among three European Union (EU) member states: Belgium, France, and the UK. I looked at each of these countries from the early 2000s to today in order to understand why at a given moment these asylum authorities decided to implement SOGI instruments. My aim was to analyse the elaboration of these instruments and to identify the stakeholders involved in this process.
I conducted in-depth document analysis, semi-structured interviews with national authorities and LGBT activists, and direct observations during events organized by LGBT NGOs.
- What do you aim at with your project? What are its projected results and its impact?
I really hope that my research will be useful for asylum authorities and for civil society. The aim is to assure a fair hearing to all asylum seekers and more specifically to LGBT asylum seekers independently of the European country where they apply for asylum. Today, we know that if you are an LGBT asylum seeker the odds that you will acquire asylum status are better in some European countries than in others. This is something we absolutely need to change.
When I conducted interviews, many people, and especially members of civil society, were very interested in my preliminary results and asked me to send them my publications once I have finished my PhD. I will certainly do so and I hope my research will really have an impact on the lives of asylum seekers by disseminating my research through NGOs.
- In choosing case studies on Belgium, France, and the UK, you are addressing different spaces or regimes of asylum. How do they differ?
Yes, there are different spaces or regimes of asylum and that is in fact the starting point of my research. They differ in the ways in which they evaluate the credibility of asylum seekers (until recently, in some European countries, asylum authorities used “medical exams” to evaluate your sexuality and credibility) but they also have different criteria (for instance, in some countries, if you are married with a person of the opposite gender and have children, even if it was a forced marriage, you cannot be considered as a homosexual at risk of being persecuted because of your sexual orientation, while in other countries, this is not the case).
I chose these countries for different reasons. The Belgian agency in charge of asylum, the Office of the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons, was one of the first national asylum authorities within the European Union to implement sexual orientation and gender identity instruments in the early 2000s, many years before the transposition of the CEAS into the Belgian asylum law in 2013. The French asylum authority, the Office for Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (OFPRA), implemented its first SOGI instruments quite late, in 2015, simultaneously with the transposition of the CEAS into the French asylum law. The UK opted out of the European Justice and Home Affairs policy, including the Common European Asylum System, in 2014. However, the Home Office implemented its first SOGI instruments in 2014.
- Your project addresses a basic tension between the harmonization of asylum policies throughout the EU on the one hand, and national disparities on the other. In a broader perspective, can you already formulate first insights into the dynamics of this tension: How are these different ways of implementation within a common system mediated, and are disparities growing or shrinking?
Disparities are definitively shrinking. Once, during an interview with someone from the Belgian asylum authority, my interlocutor told me: “You know, harmonization is far from perfect currently, but it is evolving very fast and I am quite sure that your current observations will be totally different if you come back in 2 or 3 years.” And I think he was right! From the perspective of the European Union and its members states, things are definitely moving in the right direction. I think that the EASO, the brand new European agency for asylum, will help member states to harmonize asylum policies related to sexual orientation and gender identity among EU member states.
- How would you describe the agency of the refugees in all of this: are they mainly subjected to the existing disparities, or actively benefitting from them, or driving reinterpretation and change? What role, do you think do the refugees themselves play in the process of determining refugee status and driving harmonization or differentiation of refugee status determination regimes?
It really depends on a lot of factors. It can happen that some people are more informed than others and thereby benefit from these disparities by applying for asylum in countries that are more likely to grant them asylum because they are an LGBT asylum seeker. But that really is a great minority of people. We call this phenomenon “asylum shopping” because asylum seekers choose the country where they apply (something you are not supposed to do, according to international refugee laws). But with the Dublin regulation it is more difficult to choose your country of immigration because you have to apply for asylum in the first European country you reach, and most of the time those countries tend to be less LGBT friendly than, say, the Netherlands or Belgium for example.
Most asylum seekers are subjected to these questions in different ways, however. When you flee persecutions, and in some cases death because of your sexual orientation or gender identity, you don’t take the time or you don’t have the resources to check which country is more likely to give you a refugee status, you just leave to survive.
I don’t really think that asylum seekers have an influence on the way European policy evolves. When you don’t even have a legal status in a country where, most of the time, the laws are very different from those of your country of origin, you don’t try to change the system, you just try to understand how it works.
Interviewer: Elisabeth Tutschek, December 2016
Image source: IRTG Diversity, Link (12 April 2017)