In the eyes of some, Kampala has indeed fallen in a way, first when leading local tabloids published the names of suspected gay Ugandans, then followed by the 2014 passing of the Anti-Homosexuality Act criminalising same sex relations – proposing life imprisonment and penalties for individuals, companies, media/other organizations supporting homosexuals (although it was later overturned by the courts). The outing by tabloids put the lives of those mentioned at risk, making some leave Uganda and seek asylum elsewhere. The Act generated an atmosphere of fear and insecurity for sexual minorities thanks to the high political temperatures raised both inside and outside Uganda, and it is no coincidence that it was in 2014 – after the passage of the bill – that the number of Ugandans crossing into Kenya increased markedly.
After spending time in Kampala, listening to different perspectives, I knew I had also to speak to UNHCR and other organisations working around this crisis in Kenya, in order to fill in the picture that was emerging.
In early 2011, a group of Ugandans on a journey to an unknown destination was intercepted by Kenyan police in the Northern Kenya town of Lodwar. On interrogation, the group told the police they were Ugandan lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex asylum seekers escaping from Uganda. They were on their way to seek refuge at the Kakuma refugee camp, not too far away from Lodwar. At this point, the police didn’t know what to do with them.
They resorted to making one phone call.
“Ray*, come and see your people,” a policeman told a gentleman on the other end.
Ray quickly understood what the police meant by ‘his people’.
Ray works for an organization that runs support programmes for LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers both in Lodwar and at Kakuma. The only difference was that he had never interacted with Ugandan asylum seekers before. This was the first batch of LGBTI Ugandans arriving in Kakuma, now famous for having their cases expedited. Today, four years later, over two hundred Ugandan asylum seekers have gone through Kakuma, and they persist in the hope they will get lucky and be resettled.
Yet this dream proves elusive to most refugees. UNHCR points out that there are 13 million refugees spread across the world – with over 586,000 in Kenya as of May 2015 – and that only 100,000 of the global refugee population can be resettled annually, a mere 7-8%.
According to Eva Camps, a Senior UNHCR Protection Officer based in Nairobi, someone must have misled the Ugandan refugees and asylum seekers in Nairobi who are now demanding financial assistance and the fast tracking of their resettlement, which they should know isn’t guaranteed. She reiterates UNHCR’s procedures – which she says the Ugandans have been made aware of time and again – saying that asylum seeking is a long and tedious journey. That the UNHCR is bound by rules and procedures within which it must operate – regardless of exceptions that may have been made for the earlier arrivals from Uganda.
The same message is reinforced by George Onyore, a Legal Officer from Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) Kenya, UNHCR’s NGO implementing partner. George says there are hundreds of other vulnerable urban refugees and asylum seekers, aside from the Ugandans. They include unaccompanied minors, the terminally ill, the elderly, and so on. For this reason, he says, the scarce resources shared between HIAS and UNHCR have to be used sparingly. HIAS does a continuous assessment of the needs of all refugees and asylum seekers and, based on this assessment, specific assistance is given to individuals who are found to be most needy. In this situation, blanket assistance cannot be extended to the Ugandans.
But no one disagrees that the issue of LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers is a complicated one.
According to Rachel Levitan, Associate Vice President of Global Programs, Strategy and Planning for HIAS – who has worked on the issue of LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers for close to seven years – refugee protection, assistance and relief are not simple processes. These have been further complicated by the unexpectedly high refugee flows of the past five years, she says, and in the case of Kenya the granting of asylum is delayed by increased security concerns. Aside from the urgent need for funds to cushion all at-risk refugees including LGBTI asylum seekers, Levitan says there’s always need to safeguard both the refugees and asylum seekers alongside their host communities, to diffuse inevitable tensions and incidents between the two.
For Eric Gitari, Executive Director of the Kenyan National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC), the situation faced by the Ugandans is dire. Yet, he says that unless the Ugandans understand the predicament they are facing, it won’t be easy bailing them out. Whatever UNHCR’s shortcomings, he says, at the end of the day the Ugandans have to work closely with whoever is trying to assist them. He says the Kenyan LGBTI movement plays a double role as both a partner to UNHCR and a support for the Ugandans. Sometimes they advocate for the Ugandans by pushing their case with UNHCR; sometimes they play on the side of UNHCR in reiterating its positions to the Ugandans.
In February 2013, HIAS published a report, by Yiftach Millo, entitled Invisible In The City: Protection Gaps Facing Sexual Minority Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Urban Ecuador, Ghana, Israel, and Kenya. It points out that the needs of LGBTI asylum seekers become invisible because it is near impossible for them to quantify their exact level of urgent need.
‘Although the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has made significant strides in its headquarters and in some country operations to protect sexual minority refugees, protection in the field remains extremely limited. Their protection is affected by a general misconception of lack of need and urgency resulting from the ‘invisibility’ of their plight,’ reads a section of the report, before going on to state that ‘persecution on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity (SOGI) is often the motivating factor for flight, but is seldom expressed as such by refugees and asylum seekers themselves.’
Adrian Jjuuko, Executive Director of the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Foundation (HRAPF) – the leading LGBTI litigation organisation in Uganda – says the majority of Ugandan LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees find it hard to quantify then qualify what is considered persecution. This is because persecution is a deeply personal experience, and sometimes what passes as persecution in an individual’s life might not hold water when they are subjected to the legal rigours. This has led to many escapees forging documents, including warrants of arrest which, when referred to his organisation for verification, are often found to be fake. Yet this doesn’t mean the escapee using fake documents was never persecuted, only that their true story of persecution might not be electrifying, and so they seek alternative narratives.
Some Ugandan LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers feel comfortable telling their secrets to Makerere University’s Dr. Stella Nyanzi of the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), who they simply call Mama Stella. Dr. Nyanzi doesn’t tell me the secrets the escapees have deposited but she paints me a two-hour picture. She says, simply, that here are human beings trying to make the best out of the situation in which they have found themselves. Some have even invited her to sleep on their couches if she visits the countries in which they hope to be resettled. They might not even own couches in Kampala, she says, but their hope is that one day they will – in their new lives.
Dr. Nyanzi says things get tough, especially for transgender women. They tell her they want to go to the market and buy a skirt, but this is impossible to do in Kenya because how do you even try on the skirt? So they do it when they sneak back into Uganda. In Uganda they know their way around. Similarly, they will sneak back to Uganda to try and find work because making a living in Kenya is harder for them than in Kampala – or because the food they can afford in Kenya is terrible. Sometimes, she says, having that skirt can mean feeling dignified. These are the little details that get overlooked.
In the meantime, the Ugandans remain holed up in the slums of Nairobi, where they live illegally. The Kenyan government recently ordered all urban refugees to relocate to refugee camps due to the suspicion that Somali refugees were harbouring members of Al Shabaab. UNHCR says this creates a precarious security situation in which it is very difficult to provide protection to the over 52,000 refugees and asylum seekers currently residing in Nairobi.
On the morning of 19 April 2015 the world woke up to news of the death at sea of over 700 Africans whose vessel capsized off the Libyan coast. They were on their way to Europe. The House of Kongo, as @MvembaDizolele calls himself on Twitter, asked, “How do you face the Mediterranean and still decide to forge ahead?” #Africa was his hashtag of choice.
One might ask the same of the Ugandans.
Why do they live in deplorable conditions in refugee camps knowing resettlement isn’t guaranteed, or that if it comes it might take up to three years? Why do they squeeze into cubicles in Nairobi slums, hoping for survival money when there are no guarantees it will come? Why do they choose to face their particular Mediterranean?
To these and other questions, I never found any one consistent answer.
 Data provided by Eva Camps, Senior Protection Officer at UNHCR Nairobi.
Back to the beginning of the story