By David Kwoba, GALCK’s Communications Intern
Due to the increasing enforcement of strict anti-LGBTQ laws in East African countries, there has been a surge in the number of queer refugees seeking asylum in Kenya. More than 750+ LGBT refugees in Kenya are forced to live in the shadows, and undergo inhumane treatment, pushed to the brink due to a lack of protection, safe housing, and employment. LGBTQ refugees are attacked with knives, stones, and clubs, and a quick google search reveals images of refugees with severe head and body injuries. They have also become the targets of blackmail and extortion by both the police and other Kenyans. Despite this, the Kenyan government instructed that all queer refugees should only be hosted at Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps, UNHCR reported. Although living together provides them with safety in numbers, it also leads to them being easy targets for homophobic attacks. Despite the increasing risks the refugees are placed in, the Kenyan government instructed that only refugees with specific documentation can live outside the camps.
Queer Africans started coming out about their sexual orientations and gender identities in the 20th century. The invention of homophobia in state laws was a result influence of colonization by European powers. For example, in Kenya, the current law criminalizing gay sex was written by the colonial British administration. This led to emboldened and often deadly homophobic rhetoric taking root in the country. In its wake, LGBTQ Africans came under intense scrutiny, often victims of violent attacks. Politicians have used LGBTQ people as scapegoats to evade accountability, fueling tensions, and leading to an increase in the number of attacks. Often, the burden is heavy on the LGBTQ Africans fighting against the politicization of their identities. Due to the increasingly hostile attitudes and discrimination of LGBTQ folk in East Africa, there has been a surge in the number of queer refugees seeking asylum in Kenya.
However, what most people fail to consider are the additional hurdles that come with being a queer refugee in another country. When the LGBTQ refugees first arrive in Kenya, many of them are usually traumatized. As such, they require support structures that will enable them to confront this trauma and safe spaces that will allow them to overcome their PTSD. Immigration to new countries is in itself a tiring challenge, on top of this, the refugees also have to navigate culture shock and homophobic attitudes from both Kenyans and other refugees. In Kenya, accessing facilities like these becomes even harder, especially as Kenya increasingly plays a host to political refugees from neighboring countries such as South Sudan and increasingly the DRC. I will not purport that the government can’t afford to cater to all these groups of people effectively, as increasingly hundreds of billions of shillings in Kenya are lost to corruption and mismanagement of funds by government officials. Simply, the government doesn’t care.
Queer refugees have struggled to find interpreters for the language they speak – support groups that are sensitized to the unique experiences of queer refugees. In order to get the right support, LGBTQ refugees rely on organizations specialized in queer issues. More often than not, the financial burden falls on Queer rights activists, who are often grossly underfunded, understaffed, and also actively fighting against the discrimination of queer Kenyans. As such, although the organizations continue doing everything within their means to assist the refugees, even their effort remains inadequate. As a result, the refugees continue to undergo these human rights abuses. Other refugees have even advised queer people still in their countries to remain there, one noting ‘Kenya is far worse than Uganda’ due to the unique challenges that come with being a queer refugee.
Given the relatively small number of queer refugees in Kakuma, it is shocking that UNHCR has done little to address the active physical harm that poses a danger to the lives of queer refugees. An organization with its level of influence should be able to actively address the issues that currently face the queer refugees. UNHCR has even admitted that some of its staff are homophobic and hostile to queer refugees. The Refugees Affairs Secretariat has also been slow in assisting queer organizations with the resources required to set up dedicated sub-organizations dedicated to queer refugee groups. It is simply infuriating those homophobic civil servants are left to draft laws that directly impact thousands of queer people. It is not uncommon to hear of queer refugees being beaten to near-death by mobs yet somehow they refer to these blatant human rights abuses as non-issues. In fact, hate leaflets are now regularly spread through the camp warning other refugees not to mix with the LGBTQ+ refugees. This institutional queerphobia has grave impacts on the lives of queer refugees. For example, it has led to intentional delays in determining their refugee status, making them live with uncertainty and continue to be exposed to harm. This has increased the mental and emotional toll on refugees, who continue facing discrimination and violent attacks.
Recently, UNHCR has begun relocating small numbers of queer refugees to a safe house in Nairobi, usually after attacks. However, some of the 200 LGBT refugees who were relocated were arrested and returned to the camp. Police with guns escorted the queer refugees to buses headed to Kakuma, photos sent to the BBC showed. This showcases that the UNHCR should dedicate more resources to the support of LGBT refugees. However, it also showcases how already marginalized people are impacted by the sudden uprise of right-wight ideology over Europe and North America. As a result, there has been a wave of anti-LGBTQ sentiment which has in turn led to delays in the processing of queer refugees.
The various organizations that work with queer refugees should fast track the application process and reduce the amount of time it takes the refugees to be granted asylum in safe countries. They should also increase their protections against attacks by other refugees at the camp. These can be through direct partnerships with law enforcement and bolstering their accountability process. Law enforcement officials who harm LGBTQ refugees through mental and physical violence should be held accountable by their supervisors. By reducing the amount of time the refugees spend in Kenya, we can ensure that the number of threats that queer refugees are exposed to is significantly reduced, and ensure that they are able to have access to accepting communities.