UN fails Ugandan LGBTI refugees abused in Kenya

Homophobic UN staff and beatings by police & other refugees


London & Nairobi – 9 May 2018

“Ugandan LGBTIs have fled attempts to arrest and kill them. They have sought safety in Kenya but instead suffer arrest, beatings, hunger, insanitary conditions and sexual exploitation. The UN refugee agency that is meant to help them is staffed by homophobic officials, fails to protect them from police and mob violence and takes years to process their resettlement applications. We commend this excellent expose by Richard de Luchi.”
Peter Tatchell, Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation.


Richard de Luchi writes:

In early 2014, Uganda passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act in an atmosphere of toxic, belligerent homophobia. It was overturned later, on a technicality, but the damage had been done – and is still being done.

The hateful, often violent, “kill the gays” rhetoric has encouraged much of the population to turn on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people. Many LGBTIs had no option but to flee to neighbouring countries – notably Kenya – as their families, friends, neighbours, employers, landlords and society at large, hunted them down. They faced discrimination, mob violence and the threat of arrest under a British-imposed colonial-era law that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for same-sex acts.

Now, Ugandan MPs are agitating to re-introduce the anti-homosexuality law, and they have the support of Rebecca Kadaga, the aggressively homophobic Speaker of the Ugandan Parliament. This is prompting more LGBTIs to flee across the border into Kenya. They fear jail – and worse.

Until recently, the time required to screen, process and resettle a Ugandan LGBTI refugee who sought asylum in Kenya was around 18 months, if they were one of the lucky minority to get resettled. But now it extends to three years or more as the number of LGBTI asylum seekers has dramatically increased, in parallel with homophobic prejudice, discrimination and violence in both Uganda and Kenya – and alleged obstruction by anti-LGBTI refugee agency officials.

According to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) news sheet, Refugee Resettlement Facts, published in January 2018, less than 1% of refugees are ever resettled.

Nowadays, new LGBTI asylum seekers are not accepted by the UNHCR in Nairobi. They are sent direct to Kakuma refugee camp in the north of Kenya.

The Government of Kenya, GoK, does not recognise LGBTI people as refugees. It considers them as illegal sexual criminals under a law dating back to British rule in 1897 and has taken over the resettlement process from the UNHCR. The UNHCR appears to be powerless to challenge the GoK’s determination to invalidate the requests for safe haven made by LGBTI asylum seekers from Uganda.

The UNHCR has ceased granting monthly stipends of some 4,000kes, roughly US$40, to all but a few of the several hundred men and women who remain in Nairobi, and who struggle to survive there, often alone and isolated.

While the official line of the UNHCR is that all is calm, and that harmony reigns in both Nairobi and Kakuma, the situation described by many LGBTI refugees is very different.

Kenyan law makes it very difficult to get the required Aliens card in order to work. The Kenyan police are a particularly brutal force and frequently round up LGBTIs, especially Ugandans, and cart them off to jail – often beating them up and humiliating them sexually in the process. They usually only get released on the payment of bribes. UNHCR appears to be powerless to stop this arrant abuse of human rights.

The general Kenyan population is frequently hostile. They are responsible for much of the violence towards LGBTI people; being deeply suspicious of the Ugandan refugees renting houses in their neighbourhoods.

The profile of LGBTI women and men in Nairobi follows a pattern. On arrival in the city, having often fled families who threatened them with murderous intent, refugees try to go undercover, hiding behind a pseudonym on social media, and, if lucky, lodge with people they’ve befriended or other refugees while trying to get accepted as an official asylum seeker.

The appointments for asylum interviews take place at six monthly intervals, and even then there is no guarantee that an agreed appointment will take place. Innumerable times refugees turn up at the UNHCR offices with the necessary authorisation to enter the building, only to be turned away with no reason given and told to wait another six months.

This was the experience of Callum,* a young TV presenter and dancer, who fled Uganda in March 2015 after being told that his father and one his brothers were organising a contract killing, as they decided he had brought shame on the family name by being gay. He was considered a curse and possessed by demons, deserving of death.

For three weeks he slept rough and was then sent to Kakuma refugee camp. He experienced a brutal, violent time there; frequently beaten by police, camp guards and homophobic, mainly Somali, residents. After a terrifying few months, Callum managed to get back to Nairobi. Joining a cultural dance troupe brought some income from performing at weddings, but there were times of no money, no food and days of starvation. Callum managed to avoid selling his body, but many others see no alternative. They run the risk of HIV/AIDS transmitted by Kenyan punters who exploit vulnerable Ugandans, who they see as inferior.

Through sheer determination to survive, against seemingly insuperable odds, Callum was able to keep going until his resettlement authorisation eventually came through. Even so, he was picked up at random by the police some ten days before leaving the country, driven round for hours in a police van, roughed up, humiliated and pressured to perform oral sex on the police officers holding him. He was only released on payment of a bribe of some 6,000kes collected by LGBTI friends.

Callum was lucky. After having suffered three years of abuse, insecurity and fear, he is now finally resettled in a safe country where LGBTIs are treated as full human beings. But even today, as he talks about the mindless brutality he was subjected to, and his fear that it would never end, he bursts into tears; evidence of the extreme trauma he, and other LGBTIs, have suffered.

Callum’s experiences are echoed by Justin* who, like so many LGBTIs from Uganda who made it to Nairobi, narrowly escaped murder at the hands of his family. Lonely in the big city, he was introduced to some men by a fellow LGBTI, who he took to be a friend. These men pulled a gun on him and forced him into sexual slavery. This lasted for some two years until one day he was driven out of Nairobi, dumped near Lake Naivasha and told to walk ahead and not look back unless he wanted to be shot. The horrors of those two years have left a permanent psychological scar on Justin.

This is another example of the many cases recounted by LGBTI refugees who have had similar traumatic experiences. Coming to terms with the betrayal and abuse by their family, community, church and even friends is a process that many do not know how to handle and cannot cope with, as support systems are few and far between, and the sensitivity that is required to help them move on is lacking.

Ugandan LGBTI refugees complain that the UNHCR is precisely the opposite of what they seek and need: a safe haven. It is staffed by many homophobic Kenyans who do their utmost to humiliate persons of concern, as refugees are termed, often interrogating them in a hostile manner. They question their genuineness; telling them to go back to Uganda and to pray to God to make them stop their sinful ways.

The homophobia freely expressed by assessment officers at UNHCR is in direct contradiction to the User Guide published by the UN, which clearly states that “personal, religious and cultural barriers of staff members (both UNHCR and partners) must not stand in the way of responding to the protection and needs of LGBTI refugees on a non-discriminatory basis.”

As related by so many LGBTIs, this policy is not adhered to, and individual officers sometimes pursue personal vengeance on particular LGBTI refugees. They threaten them, try to pressure them out of the asylum process and seem to maliciously delay their resettlement process. Some officers have been known to harass LGBTIs on Facebook, get them evicted from lodgings and do deals with other LGBTI refugees – employing them as spies on fellow asylum seekers and in return promising to speed up their resettlement (which rarely happens).

What motivates these UNHCR officers, other than pure homophobia, is unclear. They rarely answer emails and are prickly about requests for information concerning the cases and plights of individual LGBTIs. Far from being the helping agency that its remit demands, UNHCR is seen by many LGBTI refugees as a hindrance; lamentably failing to live up to its much-vaunted pledges and reputation.

Women asylum seekers face the same difficulties as men, with the added dimension of being women in societies that are mostly patriarchal. While many Kenyans may feel that a certain amount of physical affection is acceptable between women in public, this nevertheless has not prevented LGBTI women being outed, threatened and forced to run for their lives.

Salma* is a case in point: raped by her Ugandan uncle, this twenty year old woman now has a baby and is struggling to survive in Nairobi, along with a younger sister who fled with her. She has contemplated suicide but is aware that her baby and sister depend on her. Like so many Ugandan LGBTIs, Salma has a moral strength despite the staggering degree of hardship she faces. She hopes that “someday the rain will stop and the sun will shine.”

Her experiences are mirrored by other lesbian refugees who are kicked out of lodgings when denounced by homophobic neighbours and then denied help by the UNHCR.

One LGBTI woman, Mary*, was kidnapped by a family member, taken back to Uganda, and badly beaten before managing to escape to Kenya again.

Religion, whether Christianity or Islam, plays a major role in the reasons many families abuse and threaten their LGBTI members, particularly women. Very few religious people show kindness or concern for the plight of LGBTI refugees in Kenya. Indeed, faith is often cited to justify their homophobic abuse.

Nairobi may be grim, but Kakuma refugee camp in Turkana county, northern Kenya, is even worse by many accounts. This UNHCR camp is overcrowded, insanitary and subject to disease-ridden flooding from frequent heavy rains. Refugees there describe their life as hell – a word frequently used to convey the measure of despair felt by the LGBTIs inhabitants. They are at daily risk of violence, disease and malnutrition.

The World Food Programme reduced the monthly rations to camp inmates by 30% in October 2017. This has been particularly dangerous for LGBTI refugees diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, for whom adequate food and good nutrition is important. The lack of proper washing and toilet facilities also puts them at risk of potentially life-threatening infections.

Meetings with some UNHCR officers have resulted in promises of increased food, protection against violence and improved housing and sanitary conditions, but so far nothing has been done.

LGBTI refugee leaders have even met the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who visited in January. All was smiles and promised remedies. But the LGBTIs there, a large number of whom are transgender, still await action to render their lives tolerable.

At the moment, there seems to be some doubt as to whether the UNHCR will continue its resettlement of Ugandan LGBTI refugees. A recent meeting with UNHCR’s focal person, the officer for mediating between the agency and asylum seekers, gave an uncertain, unclear response. The UNHCR, in an email to me, maintains that Ugandan LGBTIs have not been singled out for cessation of resettlement. The refugees are not convinced and have been debating whether to demonstrate outside the UNHCR offices in Nairobi – a sign of their grave desperation.

African LGBTI refugees are the forgotten ones; being black, African and LGBTI is enough to be ignored. Attempts to enlist the sympathy and practical support of international organisations, even LGBTI ones, are often met with silence. The media occasionally publish coverage, but then the issue fades away.

What will it take to win justice and safety for Ugandan LGBTI refugees in Kenya? This is a question they are asking – and we should be asking too.

  • Names have been changed to protect the individuals from reprisals. Richard de Luchi’s report is based on his contact with Ugandan refugees and his experiences with the UNHCR.