Kenya is now the second biggest refugee hosting country in Africa. Of its over half a million refugees, over a thousand from neighbouring African states have sought asylum on the basis of persecution over their sexual orientation or gender identity.
For instance, approximately 400 asylum claims by Ugandans were registered with the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) Kenya between 2014 and 2015. This surge followed state-condoned violence against gays and lesbians in Uganda during the 2014 debate of an ‘anti-homosexuality bill’ which initially included the death penalty for ‘practicing homosexuals’.
However, expecting a safer, friendlier environment in Kenya, asylum seekers are quickly disillusioned. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) rights are still a point of tense political negotiation.
In 2019, the Kenyan High Court voted to uphold a colonial era law banning consensual homosexual activity, despite a long history of queer activism and protest in the country. LGBTI refugees find themselves confronting a similarly hostile and homophobic environment to that which they had fled – on top of marginalisation related to their refugee status.
The UNHCR is responsible for the protection of refugees but, as I argue in a recent paper, when operating in contexts where LGBTI refugees’ rights are not recognised by hosting states, UNHCR’s position as a protection actor is clearly compromised.
More sustainable and long-term solutions are needed to provide LGBTI refugees with safety and assistance. LGBTI refugees are trying desperately to survive not only in the face of violent homophobia, but broader poverty and marginalisation. UNHCR must try a different approach and place the agency and rights of refugees at the centre of its work – as it claims to do. Its current mode of crisis management and political negotiations within a hostile environment renders protection an impossible task.
Life in Kakuma
My research with LGBTI refugees took place in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp in northwest Kenya and in the capital Nairobi. In 2018 and 2019, I interviewed LGBTI refugees in the camp and LGBTI refugee activists. I also gathered information from Kenyan international nongovernmental organisations, UNHCR partners, and advocates in other countries.
After taking the often treacherous journey to reach Kakuma, LGBTI refugees were faced with violence and discrimination in trying to access services, opportunities and resources in the camp. This was particularly the case for those coming from Uganda. “If you come to Kenya as a refugee and you’re from Uganda, people automatically know it’s because you are gay,” one refugee pointed out.
To handle this, many Ugandan refugees were sequestered by UNHCR in a ‘protection zone’ in Kakuma, under the care of one of the implementing partners of UNHCR, to keep them safe.
The protection zone comprised a small field filled with plastic tents. There were basic toilet facilities, but no kitchens. Refugees were provided with the same combination of corn and beans at every mealtime. There was medical care in the camp, but most refugees felt it was inadequate to meet the needs of the growing LGBTI population. Transgender refugees reported being mocked and denied treatment.
Stuck in limbo
By 2019, with the LGBTI population in Kakuma growing, the situation for LGBTI refugees began to deteriorate. Refugees engaged in protests to demand safer accommodation and resettlement opportunities outside UNHCR offices in the camp. These were perceived as antagonistic by both its staff and other refugees. The protection zone was the subject of a number of attacks.
Many of these refugees were subsequently transferred to a safe house in Nairobi, about 700km away. But antagonistic dynamics between LGBTI refugees, UNHCR and its implementing agencies, and the Government of Kenya continued. After several months, the LGBTI refugees were evicted from the arranged accommodation.
At the heart of these dynamics was an irreconcilable difference in the perception of the situation.
On the one hand, LGBTI refugees felt that UNHCR fell short in delivering the promise of upholding their human rights to dignity and freedom from persecution.
On the other, UNHCR claimed they were doing all that they could to protect LGBTI refugees in the context of Kenyan law. They argued that the source of problems in Kakuma were a small group of refugees, intent of causing trouble. And that they were not representative of the broader LGBTI population.
After the evictions, many returned to Kakuma Camp, although some remained in the capital where reports emerged of brutality. This included imprisonment, rape and other forms of violence by Kenyan police and other urban refugees.
LGBTI refugees that remained in Nairobi to this day continue to be in urgent need of healthcare and employment assistance, not just protection, for survival. Many lack the support networks necessary to find informal work and obtain secure housing.
As of 2020, resettlement opportunities for LGBTI asylum seekers were also at the point of stopping. This was in large part due the COVID pandemic and drastic cuts to quotas by destination states. This has left sexual minority asylum-seekers in a dangerous limbo – they increasingly lack ‘protection’ in the camp or the city.
Despite UNHCR’s best intentions – which include the establishment of guidelines and policies to promote best practice – the UNHCR operates in Kenya under a government that is not only openly repressive of LGBTI individuals, but also assumes a hostile stance towards all refugees.
It is urgent that UNHCR moves beyond its mandate of simply protecting LGBTI refugees from violence. It must recognise its role in addressing the broader challenges that structure their experiences both now and in the future. Without opportunities to rebuild their lives, LGBTI refugees will remain dependent on its basic assistance. This is clearly at odds with the emphasis of various global agreements on supporting refugee ‘self-reliance’ and participation in development progress.
While recommendations often focus on programming to help encamped LGBTI refugees develop skills, these fail to reflect local realities. Kakuma is built in a remote, arid area of Kenya with little market access. And, as LGBTI refugees observe, people are reluctant to buy their goods anyway due to stigma.
More meaningful would be connecting LGBTI refugee activists with Kenyan LGBTI community-based organisations. At present there is little overlap or communication between the two movements. There is a precedent for this in UNHCR Kenya’s selection of various Kenyan NGOs as implementing and operational partners. While this may present a challenge for UNHCR’s relationship with the Government of Kenya, it is a vital first step in enabling LGBTI refugees to make a home in the country, and to form the networks and systems of support that would in the long term reduce demand on UNHCR.
Just as monumental a challenge is the resumption and speeding up of the resettlement processes for LGBTI refugees. This will provide what many LGBTI refugees see as the only realistic durable solution. It starts with two shifts that require political will: the processing of a huge backlog of refugee status determination claims by the Government of Kenya, and with countries which can offer safety to LGBTI refugees significantly enlarging their quotas.