From Persecution to Persecution: LGBTI Refugees in Uganda and Kenya

Published: August 29, 2011

“Why would a gay refugee come to Uganda?”  This was a logical question raised by a Ugandan human rights defender the other day while we were in Kampala doing research on the protection challenges facing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) refugees in the region.

Uganda – where an infamously draconian “Kill the Gays” bill was introduced in the last session of Parliament, where last year a local newspaper published the names and photos of 100 alleged homosexuals under the headline “Hang Them,” where current law criminalizes same sex acts, where many police officers are viewed as a source of persecution against LGBTI persons rather than protection, where homophobic violence is committed by civilians with perceived impunity, where LGBTI persons are commonly discriminated against in seeking housing, employment and medical care, and where LGBTI Ugandans flee from – is far from being a “safe haven” for any LGBTI refugee. Rather, Uganda offers its own set of dire hardships for those to who seek protection there.

So why would a gay refugee flee to Uganda?

The fact that they do says as much about the dismal situation of LGBTI persons in Eastern Africa and other parts of the world as it does about the lack of options refugees – whether victims of religious, political, racial, or other forms of persecution, including because of sexual orientation or gender identity – have when forced to flee their homes.

Over the past two years, Human Rights First has worked with other organizations to encourage greater attention to the unaddressed needs of refugees who face persecution due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.  The U.S. State Department has spoken out about the need to improve access to protection for LGBTI refugees and, during the last year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has taken some important steps towards improving some of its policies and protection tools aimed at protecting LGBTI refugees worldwide, but more needs to be done – including in many specific locations where LGBTI refugees face significant risks.  We recently visited Uganda and Kenya, which also criminalizes homosexual acts, in order to help identify steps that can be taken to improve protection for LGBTI refugees.

While in Kampala and Nairobi, we learned of LGBTI refugees who are suffering greatly. We heard reports of LGBTI refugees – and even those associated with them, such as family members – being threatened, beaten, raped and possibly killed, with some groups reporting the disappearance of friends whom they believe are now dead.  We also heard reports of LGBTI refugees feeling afraid of approaching UNHCR or some of the refugee-assisting NGOs for assistance for fear of being identified as LGBTI by other refugees or of being refused assistance or belittled by insensitive service provider staff.

Furthermore, LGBTI refugees reported high levels of prejudice within refugee communities, which deny them the ability to tap into the refugee social networks many others use as a major source of social support. The net effect of this is that many LGBTI refugees do not seek assistance from UNHCR or many of the refugee-assisting NGOs or from refugee communities but instead rely on often risky strategies in order to meet their basic needs and provide for their own safety.

Kenya and Uganda combined host over half a million refugees with sizeable populations emanating from nearby countries including Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Burundi. While regional attention has recently focused on the crisis in the Dadaab region of Kenya, urban refugees in both countries have faced numerous protection challenges due the growing number of refugees in Nairobi and Kampala and the limited capacity of service providers to address the needs of all. Both capitals play host to refugees with significant vulnerabilities including survivors of gender-based and sexual violence, unaccompanied minors as well as the many who struggle to access sustainable livelihood opportunities. Within this context, LGBTI refugees are particularly isolated and, consequently, face significant risks and unique obstacles accessing protection.

Although there has been progress in both Kenya and Uganda in taking steps to address the needs of LGBTI refugees, it is evident that there is significant work to be done. Preliminary recommendations include:

    Durable Solutions and Resettlement: The United States and other resettlement countries should assist in providing durable solutions for LGBTI refugees facing imminent risk of harm, including through the development of expedited resettlement procedures.
    Safe Shelter: Civil society with the support of UNHCR should enhance protection through the provision of safe shelter to LGBTI refugees who are either waiting for resettlement or not in the resettlement pipeline. In both countries LGBTI refugees have developed limited “safer” shelter strategies that could be supported and improved through providing access to flexible funding when emergency shelter needs arise.
    Training and Addressing Social Barriers: UNHCR should assume greater responsibility in building trust between refugee service providers and LGBTI refugees in order to address social barriers preventing LGBTI refugees from accessing protection services. This requires ongoing training of staff at UNHCR and its implementing partners on social exclusion in order to address cases where personal sentiments present obstacles to providing services on an equitable basis.
    Outreach: UNHCR and its implementing partners should conduct extensive outreach to inform LGBTI refugees what services exist, as well as assuring them that their cases will be handled in a confidential and professional manner.
    Funding: Donors should support the provision of safe shelter for refugees (including LGBTI refugees) facing imminent risk of harm by providing access for local NGOs to flexible contingency funds. This will allow NGOs to support short term rental arrangements and/or relocation for the individuals they deem most at risk

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