Rejected for Choosing 'Lesbian Lifestyle,' Ghana Refugee Gets New Asylum Hearing in Israel

Woman seeks protection because of lesbian identity; tribunal says she should have been interviewed in native language, not English

Moti Milrod

The tribunal that rules on appeals against state decisions to reject asylum applications has instructed the Population and Immigration Authority to reconsider its refusal to grant asylum to a Ghanaian woman who says she was persecuted in her native country because she is a lesbian.

The tribunal last week struck down the Population Authority’s decision because it was based on interviews in English with the woman, Mavis Amponsah, although she does not speak English well.

Amponsah’s story was first reported in Haaretz about two years ago. The committee advising the interior minister on refugees decided at the time to reject Amponsah’s application because “she chose a lesbian lifestyle,” and therefore her claim of persecution due to her sexual orientation carried no weight. The committee also noted that Amponsah had had a long-term relationship with a man and had not had a relationship with a woman since entering Israel as a tourist in 2013.

However, the state made its decision based on interviews with Amponsah in English while she was in detention. After the interviews, Amponsah’s attorney, Yadin Elam, noted that the person who interviewed her stated that she had trouble understanding English, but that interview and subsequent ones were held in English. Elam demanded that his client be re-interviewed with a translator into a language she understands, Akan or Twi.

Against procedure and court rulings, in one of the interviews another woman detainee who spoke Akan was asked to translate and she refused. This interview was also held in English, and Amponsah had to ask the interviewer 35 times to repeat the question. She answered other questions only partially or with an answer that had nothing to do with the question.

The UN Commission on Refugees also reportedly had the impression that Amponsah did not speak English and recommended the interviews take place in a language she understands in order to make a fair decision.

Last week, the tribunal’s adjudicator Mart Dorfman said that looking at Amponsah’s responses to the interviewer’s questions “and the great many times she asked to repeat the questions, it can be seen that the appellant’s command of English is at a level that does not allow for a thorough interview in that language.”

Dorfman quoted the interviewer’s statement that due to her inability to fluently understand English, “a professional translator (of British origin) was brought in to assist in translation.” Dorfman concluded from this that “the interviewer was well aware of Amponsah’s difficulties in English, and still decided to go ahead with the interview in English.”

Dorfman wrote in his ruling that the Population and Immigration Authority had not made a reasonable effort to find a translator into Twi, Ghana’s official language. “The cases are not rare in which asylum-seekers from that country claim that they only speak that language.”

Elam, who is representing Amponsah together with attorney Nitzan Ilani, said, “Now it is clear that the great suffering that Mavis endured from the Population Authority, including illegal incarceration of many months, and major legal expenses, was unnecessary. We asked two years ago to interview Mavis in her own language, as is required by court rulings and the procedures of the Authority itself. But the Authority refused. Thus it is operating against the law and forced us to appeal to the Appeals Tribunal just to compel the Authority, two years later, to act according to the law.”