LGBTQI+ refugees in Africa struggle to find a country to call home
When 27-year-old Jerome Chamwanga’s neighbours in Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo found out he was gay, they started attacking his family, branding them as having given birth to an "outcast".
Fearing for his life, Jerome - who was a community development student in Goma at the time - fled to neighbouring Uganda. But his stay at the Kyangwali refugee camp in Uganda was short-lived; it was 2016, two years after the scrapping of a bill that proposed life imprisonment for anyone believed to be gay. Same sex relationships were, and still are, punishable by up to 14 years in prison, and Jerome found public discrimination towards the LGBTQI+ community to be fierce.
“In Kampala I worked as a tutor teaching French and Swahili language but Kampala was also not safe and I had to leave,” he said.
For 27-year-old Marianne (not her real name), who identifies as a transgender woman, her woes started after she and her partner decided to flee their hometown in Masisi, also in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Unknown to them, Marianne’s family had been trailing them.
“They constantly accused my partner of making me believe I am a transgender woman, and when they caught up with us, they beat him to death. I was lucky I managed to escape,” Marianne said.
Jerome and Marianne both made it to Kenya, joining the 750-strong LGBTQI+ refugee community in Kenya. According to the World Bank, Kenya hosts approximately 421,248 refugees in total who have fled war, persecution and tough conditions.
Although Kenya is the only country in East Africa that grants asylum to refugees fleeing persecution based on their sexual or gender orientation, the country still upholds a tough stance towards the LGBTQI+ community. Activists were taken aback in May, when Kenya’s high court upheld a colonial-era law to punish gay sex with up to 14 years in jail. They had been hoping the law would be struck down on the basis of human rights.
Refugees who identify as LGBTQI+ face discrimination, and say they are constantly harassed by fellow refugees despite being under protection by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Over the past six months, Jerome and Marianne have lived in a shelter in Nairobi and at Kakuma refugee camp after fellow refugees started attacking them. With an uncertain future ahead of them, they face yet another obstacle: the underfunding of humanitarian organisations operating in the region, following budget cuts by major donors like USAID.
According to statistics from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs its funding to Kenya was slashed by 35% in 2018.
Humanitarian budgets are routinely underfunded, but in this case the funding shortfall has impacted several programs that reach the refugee community. Last year, the World Food Programme cut food portions for refugees living in Kakuma refugee camp by 30%.
“Budget cuts do have an effect on our programmes, for example we are receiving only 1/3 of the funding we received last year for our livelihood (vocational training) programmes,” said Neil Turner, Tanzania and Kenya Country Director for the Norwegian Refugee Council.
When I caught up with Jerome and Marianne recently, they told me that although the funding cuts have hit all refugees in Kenya, those in the LGBTQI+ community have been disproportionately affected.
In January, UNHCR moved a group of about 200 LGBTQI+ refugees from Kakuma camp to the site of an abandoned school on the outskirts of Nairobi as an emergency measure - a decision the refugees say was prompted by a spate of attacks on Kakuma’s LGBTQI+ population. But then police evicted them from the new site and seized Jerome, Marianne and 72 others, driving them back to Kakuma.
According to Joseph Mwika, the officer commanding the Kajiado North police division, the refugees had to be relocated back to Kakuma for their own safety.
“From the way affairs had been unfolding in June, it was clear that the members of the community would have attacked them in that shelter. So they were escorted back to Kakuma because we felt it was safer there,” Mwika told IOL news.
Then in May, a group of disgruntled refugees mostly from the LGBTQI+ community started protesting outside the UNHCR headquarters demanding their protection. The protests turned violent when police officers clashed with the refugees, leaving 21 of them injured. Seven of them were arrested.
Although the UNCHR insists that the May standoff between security officers and protesting refugees was not fueled by problems related to underfunding, Jerome feels otherwise.
“The situation has been deteriorating since 2017, the food is little, I can’t get someone to protect me when I am going to the dispensary and every week a refugee who identifies as LGBTQI+ is attacked at the camp. That’s why you find most LGBTQI+ refugees opting to escape to risk it all in Nairobi,” he says.
Jerome is calling for more protection for the lesbian and gay community at Kakuma. He feels that UNHCR is not doing enough to protect them.
When contacted, UNHCR’S Public Communications Officer Rose Ogola said that “UNHCR looks at the protection needs of each individual and provides protection assistance based on individual needs. This may include needs based on an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Attitudes towards the LGBTQI+ community in Kenya are beginning to change, but the gay and lesbian community still faces verbal and physical homophobic attacks from members of the public.
“You find that people have never really accepted the LGBTQI+ community and many will profile and judge them…leaving them vulnerable to homophobic slurs and attacks,” says Esther Adhiambo, Executive Director for the Initiative for Equality and Non-Discrimination - a Kenyan NGO that runs programmes to promote the peaceful coexistence of members of the public and sexual and gender minorities.
Activists agree that despite worsening conditions at the refugee camps in Kenya, most refugees would risk putting themselves at greater harm if they were to return to the countries they came from, given that the conditions that made them flee have not changed.
“It’s dangerous because the people who found it right to beat them, deny them housing and discriminate against them are still living in those villages,” says Rose Muganzi, a journalist and human rights activist working for Kuchu Times - the first African news platform focusing solely on LGBTQI+ issues.
For Jerome, who now spends his days outside the UNHCR headquarters in Nairobi hoping to be allocated a shelter away from the camp, he only prays that his asylum application to the United States which was submitted last month will be accepted. Marianne went for the eligibility test in April, and likely has a long wait at the camp ahead of her.
Even then, being granted asylum outside of East Africa is not guaranteed: UNHCR says resettlement places are limited
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