LGBTI refugees and Western saviors: Ugandans facing violence in Kenya, and how you can (and can't) help

Published: July 2, 2014

My friend Victor Mukasa, a distinguished Ugandan human rights activist, helped to found Sexual Minorities of Uganda (SMUG) many years ago. Now he’s leading a Kuchu Diaspora Alliance for Ugandan LGBTI people abroad; yesterday the group posted its first videos on YouTube. They describe violence beleaguering Ugandan queers who fled the country and now subsist in a refugee camp in Kenya. They’re based on Victor’s phone interviews with the victims.  I urge you to watch:

… the sequels are hereherehere, and here. This is my summary:

In Kakuma camp, there are 58 known LGBT Ugandan refugees. 23 who came earlier — before the Anti-Homosexual Bill was passed — have moved into the camp’s more permanent sections, which have small, dirt-floor huts. 35 more recent arrivals are in the camp’s “reception” area, where housing consists of tents.  

Other residents have steadily harassed the Ugandans. On Friday afternoon (June 27) a group ganged up on a Ugandan in the reception area and beat him badly, saying “This camp is for refugees, it is not for wild animals.” When he ran, they chased him and started beating other Ugandan LGBT people. Some of the victims went to the camp “security organ” to complain, and were reprimanded: “Why do you show that you are gay?”

All 35 Ugandans decided to march in protest to a UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) office near the camp.to demand protection against the ongoing violence. It took two hours. The head of security at the office opened the gates, let them enter, and gave them mats to sleep on in an area that also had toilets and working water taps — scarce commodities in the camp itself. The next morning, though, “UNHCR officials” told them to leave, and turned off the water. When they insisted on remaining for a peaceful sit-in, the officials called in Kenyan government representatives: someone “in charge of refugee affairs,” and the “regional police commander” for the area. These ordered them back to the camp, threatening to use force. One refugee watched the regional police commander make a call to someone, saying “come in and take control of this area.”  At 5 PM, some 70 “military” (it’s not clear to me whether these were police or soldiers) arrived.

After discussions, the refugees decided to go back,; UNHCR officials told them a “safe place” had been prepared. When six got in the truck, the soldiers started beating the rest, throwing them inside and insulting them: “This is Kenya, you shouldn’t have come here! We should apply Kenyan law on you.”

Back in Kakuma, they found their tents in the reception area had been reallocated to others, and the harassment continued. Eventually they were relocated to an area on the margins of the camp, with little water, in a “desert.” They’re still terrified, and they report that the ringleader of the Friday attack — who at first was taken into police custody — has been released. 

 

Already this year, there’s been huge publicity about LGBTI people fleeing “Africa” (it’s always treated as a single country) to the friendly West to escape persecution. “Will the next decade see Wall Street’s millions build an underground railroad from Lagos to New York, whisking Africa’s LGBT youth to safety and freedom?” a writer asked in a US gay magazine. No. As this story shows, it’s not so easy. I’ve accumulated some experience in asylum and refugee issues over the last 20 years, and in 2009 I worked with regional groups in a successful projectto help LGBT Iraqis targeted by death squads leave the country.  Here are my reflections on this disturbing story: what’s the background, and what well-meaning Westerners can and can’t do to help.

1) What is Kakuma camp?

Kakuma (its name supposedly derives from a Swahili word for “nowhere”) is an enormous refugee camp in the remote northwest of Kenya. It’s hellish. An online zine on refugee life published within the camp says stoically, “The area has always been full of problems: dust storms, high temperatures, poisonous spiders, snakes, and scorpions, outbreaks of malaria, cholera, and other hardships. The average daytime temperature is 40 degrees Celsius, or 104 degrees Fahrenheit.” The region is semi-desert — earlier this year, “huge sandstorms … swept through the settlement, which was believed to be the root cause of fire outbreak of which more than ten incidents were reported.” But it can become a swamp: “The camp is near a dry river bed that is prone to flash flooding after heavy rains,” making it a malarial breeding ground.

The site was picked for its remoteness: Kenya wanted to shunt refugees as far from Nairobi as possible. Some 125,000 lived there at the beginning of this year, according to UNHCR. Now it also hosts almost 40,000 South Sudanese who have fled their disintegrating country and reach the dusty mud flat at the rate of nearly 500 a week; by June, the swollen populationneared 170,000.

Kenya held some 540,000 refugees as of December 2013; with the torrent of South Sudanese, the figure is now closer to 600,000. Almost half a million come from Somalia. Its camps are gorged to overflow; Dadaab, a concentrationary complex in eastern Kenya, is, with over 400,000 inmates, the largest refugee camp in the world.

Till a few months ago, the camps weren’t the only option. Refugees who could support themselves, or who needed special medical care or other attention, could settle in Kenya’s cities. In March, though, Kenya’s government abruptly ordered all refugees to the camps – and began raiding homes and rounding them up. Authorities suspected Somalis in urban areas of aiding Al-Shabaab, the feared terrorist group, in retaliation for Kenya’s military incursions in Somalia. (In this sense, the refugees were victims of indirect blowback against US imperialism in Africa; Obama has prodded US allies into a proxy war against Somali Islamists.) A few refugees, including some LGBT Ugandans, hang on in Nairobi, evading constant police crackdowns in search of illegals. But most are now locked behind camp walls.

The  camps are bad news for women, LGBT people, and others vulnerable to violence. Hugely overcrowded (all the more so since the dual influx of onetime urban residents and South Sudanese), they offer little privacy; security forces patrol the fences, but are inadequate to control what’s inside. An extensive study of sexual and gender-based violence against refugees in Kenya found 530 cases in Kakuma in 2011 (469 against women, 61 against men). While the researchers interviewed LGBT refugees in urban areas, they apparently couldn’t find similar communities in camp environments. Thus nobody has tabulated incidents of homophobic violence so far, but the absence of evidence is mainly evidence of people in hiding. Those who are gender-nonconforming or suspected of being LGBT are targets for punishment. The study did conclude that many available care options for survivors of sexual violence in the camps were easy potential targets themselves, and “were not able to handle serious security issues.”

In the dry season: Tents in the reception area at Kakuma. Photo by James Macharia/Lutheran World Federation

2) What does it mean to be a refugee in Kenya?

Both for Western readers and for Ugandans who read this, it may be helpful to explain how the refugee process works.

A refugee is different from an asylum-seeker. To oversimplify, an asylum-seeker goes directly from danger to a safe country, and appeals to its government to stay there. A refugee usually flees to a country that isn’t safe, or will not accept her, because it’s the only accessible place to go; then she appeals to be resettled in another country. Until she is moved from the “second country” to the safer “third country,” she’s trapped in limbo.

Much of the distinction between “second” and “third” countries has to do with wealth. Built into the system is the assumption that poorer countries cannot be burdened with permanently absorbing large refugee populations — it’s an obligation the rich developed world should shoulder. The poorer countries agree to be waiting rooms. Unfortunately, because rich countries admit vastly fewer refugees than our violent world produces, the waiting rooms turn slowly into makeshift homes.

You get refugee status, mostly, through the UN. It’s all about waiting. A Ugandan fleeing to Nairobi would go the UNHCR office to register as a refugee applicant. She would be given a date for a face-to-face interview, the main basis for deciding whether her claim is valid. So she waits for the interview. After the interview, she waits for the UNHCR’s decision — Refugee Status Determination (RSD).  If the answer’s yes, she is eligible for resettlement, but she has to wait while UNHCR shops her file around from embassy to embassy, looking for a country that’s willing to take her. Times vary from one UNHCR office to another, but each stage of the process can take months, even years.

Egypt, where I am now, has massive numbers of refugees (from Sudan, South Sudan, elsewhere in Africa, and Syria). With so many people to process, it has one of the slowest UNHCR offices anywhere. I know of Syrian migrants newly arrived in Cairo whom the UN assigned an interview date three years away. Some Sudanese have been in Egypt waiting for resettlement since the last century.

 

Kenya is not that slow. In 2010, though, the wait between arrival and RSD averaged over two years; it’s probably longer now. That doesn’t include the wait to get resettled after you get a positive RSD. After the claimant is recognized as a refugee, she gets official papers that are supposed to give her legal status in Kenya and protect her against being deported. (There’s still bureaucratic confusion about whether these papers should come from UNHCR or the Kenyan government, however.) She’s also eligible for limited material support from UNHCR. Migrants who haven’t been given refugee status yet are largely unprotected, get very little financial assistance, and mostly depend on the charity of NGOs working in the country.

UNHCR is a sluggish bureaucracy which I’m loth to defend, but it has a serious responsibility to protect migrants and refugees. In recent years, it’s become more sensitive to the needs of LGBT migrants, and has dedicated staff in Geneva to address the issue. But its powers are limited. It can’t override the laws and sovereignty of the host country. Kenya’s decision to “warehouse” refugees, confining them to camps, violates human rights law — freedom of movement is protected in Article 26 of the Refugee Convention and other international treaties–  but UNHCR can’t change it. Mainly, they can complain to the host country’s authorities, and I wish they’d complain more loudly; but it’s up to those authorities whether they pay attention. In Turkey, I found that the government regularly put LGBT Iranians (along with other Iranian refugees) in small towns in the conservative eastern part of the country, where they were harassed constantly. Some of them begged us to advocate for camps, because at least they would be isolated from the local Turkish public. UNHCR was sympathetic, but powerless to change the Turkish government’s policy.

From Victor’s account, though, there are some serious problems with how UNHCR dealt with this situation in Kakuma. Calling the Kenyan police to evict refugees staging a peaceful sit-in is dangerous and excessive. You may not be able to change how Kenya’s authorities treat LGBT people, but you don’t need to give them opportunities for abuse, either. (UNHCR should have learned its lesson. In 2005, Sudanese migrants staged a sit-in outside the UNHCR’s Cairo office to protest slow resettlement and the constant violence they confronted. UNHCR eventually summoned the police to break up the demonstration — and they killed at least 27 protesters.)

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