The Bristol Cable

Bristol Bison rugby player Ken Macharia speaks about his experience of detention, as the system comes under the spotlight.

“Over time I’ve become more confident about who I am, more open, realising it’s OK and normal to be gay”

“Because of my qualifications and having work experience in the UK, going back to Kenya, financially I would have been really well off. But my personal life would have been terrible,” says Ken Macharia, the gay Bristol Bisons rugby player who was detained and set to be deported when his request for asylum was rejected. “I would have had to go back into hiding, go back into the closet.”

He faced persecution and discrimination in a country where same-sex intimacy can get you up to 14 years in prison and you are vulnerable to be beaten up by members of the public – they call it ‘mob justice’.

Macharia first came to the UK, and Bristol, in 2009 to study engineering and stayed for several years on post-study and work visas after graduation. With family in Bristol and working, volunteering and becoming a keen member of the Bristol Bisons rugby club, he became a settled and popular member of his community.

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It was only in 2016, after visa eligibility rules changed, that he realised he was at risk of being forced back to his home country of Kenya. After lodging the asylum application in 2016, Macharia had two interviews over the following months with the Home Office. In late 2016, he learned the Home Office had rejected his application.

“It was a big surprise. The reason they gave was that they claimed that they don’t believe I’m gay, which was absurd,” he says.

When Macharia appealed the decision, the judge agreed he was gay… but said that he would be safe if he returned, claiming gay men can live openly and freely in Kenya with no risk of persecution. His appeal was rejected. “That was the beginning of this long process,” says Macharia – one that ended up with him being imprisoned in detention, and to this day still fearing that he may be deported.

Moving to the UK allowed Macharia to live openly as a gay man for the first time in his life.

“I used to call myself a perpetual failure, because I was always failing to bond or get into relationships, because I was hiding who I am,” Macharia remembers.

He recalls his first nervous attempts to connect with the gay community and establishments: “I was still in the closet at the time. Over time I’ve become more confident about who I am, more open, realising it’s OK and normal to be gay.”

The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights reported in April 2012 that “LGBTs are discriminated, stigmatised and subjected to violence because of their sexual orientation”.

Not being able to live openly and freely as a sexual minority is a basis for claiming asylum, but in reality LGBT asylum seekers face significant barriers to claiming this human right.

Macharia is one of the many people who’ve been refused asylum because immigration judges say their sexuality is not proven – or think that the threat is less than it is if they return to their home countries.

“Basically, they wanted to remove me… They didn’t tell me the decision, when I went to the police station, I was presented with the documents,” says Macharia.

They asked if he was going to leave voluntarily, and when Macharia requested to talk to his lawyer they put him in the cells. A van came and took him to Harmondsworth detention centre near Heathrow. He arrived at the centre on Friday morning. The Home Office said he was eligible for removal from 5pm the following Monday.

The realities of detention

At any one time, up to 3,500 people are in immigration detention in the UK’s nine detention centres – or ‘immigration removal centres’ – as the government prefers to call them.

It’s a system that has come under fire recently locally and nationally. The council late last year voted in support of a motion slamming the detention system as inhumane and ineffective and ready to be scrapped.

A dire report into the system was published by a parliamentary group in 2015 which outlined the same problems. Nationally, a network of campaigns organising as These Walls Must Fall have thrust the issue further into the spotlight.

Ken’s community fights back

“I was extremely traumatised the first few days. I was really nervous, really worried, thinking ‘Monday’s coming and I could be forcibly removed’,” he says. He’d managed to inform teammates at his rugby club, Bristol Refugee Rights, where he volunteers, and a group he was part of, Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants.

His friends and supporters launched into action with incredible success. Macharia’s plight became national news, he was backed by MPs, and a petition for his release has (at the time of print) garnered more than 100,000 signatories.

Without regular access to the internet, Macharia only became aware of the extent of the campaign for his release through reports from his mum of the media attention, first regional and then hitting national headlines.

Macharia’s now on immigration bail. He now signs on at the police station every month, and is continuing to fight for his right to remain in the UK.

He is eager to point out how fortunate he was to have so much support from his community, and how important that was to achieving bai – and how it’s important to highlight that so many people are not as lucky.

But what his case does show is that both in terms of protecting the human rights of LGBT people, and the cruelly complicated and unjust system of immigration detention and removal, the recent increase in pressure for a radical reform of the system can’t come soon enough.


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