An attack at a Kenya refugee camp earlier this month that left two gay men with second-degree burns has once again drawn attention to the plight of LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers who live there.
A press release the Minnesota-based Black Immigrant Collective sent to the Washington Blade last week notes “petrol bombs were thrown into a group of LGBTQ+ refugees, allies and their children who live in” Block 13 of the Kakuma refugee camp on the morning of March 15.
“This attack not only set people on fire, but also destroyed beddings and personal belongings as many of the refugees sleep in the open air,” reads the press release.
The press release also notes the men who are described as “organizers” suffered second-degree burns throughout their bodies.
Gilbert Kagarura, a human rights activist and refugee from Uganda who lives in Block 13, on Tuesday sent the Blade a series of pictures of the two men that show burns on their arms, legs and other parts of their bodies. Shifra, an 18-year-old refugee who also lives in Block 13, on March 24 during a virtual press conference the Black Immigrant Collective and other advocacy groups and human rights activists in the U.S., Kenya and elsewhere around the world organized recalled the attack.
“I thought we were all going to die,” said Shifra. “Everyday I relive this horrible experience that I have.”
The U.N. Refugee Agency in a March 25 statement notes it “organized” the men’s transfer to a hospital in Lodwar, a town that is roughly 75 miles away from the camp. The men are now receiving treatment at a public hospital in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.
“UNHCR organized their transfer to a regional hospital in Lodwar and, following expert advice from burn specialists, to a Nairobi hospital,” says UNHCR in its press release. “Both are receiving specialized treatment for their burns and progress in their recovery is being closely monitored by the local medical team and a UNHCR doctor.”
Kakuma, which is located in northwest Kenya near the country’s border with Uganda and South Sudan, is one of two refugee camps the UNHCR operates in the East African nation. The other, Dadaab, is located near Kenya’s border with Somalia.
Kagarura told the Blade that UNHCR created Block 13 within a section of the camp known as Kakuma 3 in May 2020.
The press release the Blade received from the Black Immigrant Collective notes “most of the 135 refugees at Block 13 fled Uganda for Kakuma when the anti-gay bill was introduced.”
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in 2014 signed his country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act, which imposed a life sentence upon anyone found guilty of repeated same-sex sexual acts. The law was known as the “Kill the Gays” bill because it once contained a death penalty provision.
Scott Lively, an anti-LGBTQ evangelical pastor from Massachusetts, is among those who urged Ugandan lawmakers to support the measure. Uganda’s Constitutional Court eventually struck down the Anti-Homosexuality Act on a technicality, but consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized in the country.
UNHCR defends efforts to protect LGBTQ refugees
Kagarura on Tuesday noted to the Blade that LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers who live in Kakuma have endured attacks, harassment and discrimination for years. Kagarura and participants in the virtual press conference on March 24 said UNHCR has failed to protect them.
They demanded UNHCR immediately evacuate Block 13’s LGBTQ residents “and fast-track the LGBTQ+ Block 13 group for expedited resettlement as they are survivors of intensive and unending homophobic violence.” They also demanded UNHCR transfer the two men burned in the March 15 attack to a private hospital in Nairobi “with specialized, competent and humane burn care treatment” and allow their caregivers “to accompany them at all times.”
UNHCR in its statement notes it “hosts around 300 refugees and asylum seekers with an LGBTIQ+ profile” in Kakuma and has “stepped up our services on the ground.” These include investing “heavily in building capacity and ensuring more attention is paid to the specific and profound challenges that LGBTIQ+ people face.”
“Despite the challenges of life in a refugee camp, the overwhelming majority report to us that they have been able to live peacefully within the Kakuma community,” reads the UNHCR statement. “This comes in stark contrast with reports of security incidents, including on social media, by a small group of refugees with an LGBTIQ+ profile residing in Kakuma 3, who are requesting urgent resettlement out of Kenya.”
UNHCR, however, acknowledged it is “concerned by these incidents as well as by the increasing tensions between this group and other refugees, including some with an LGBTIQ+ profile.”
“Several have reported being threatened or attacked by members of this particular group for refusing to join protests or lend their voice to the call for urgent resettlement on security grounds,” reads its statement.
UNHCR says “police patrols in Kakuma 3, medical, legal and psycho-social assistance has been strengthened in the camp.” The statement also notes UNHCR, along with Kenya’s Refugee Affairs Secretariat and partner organizations “have also held meetings with community leaders in Kakuma 3 to identify solutions and reduce tensions, although the smaller group of LGBTIQ+ persons has (sic) declined to engage in these dialogues.”
The statement further indicates UNHCR in recent months has “relocated” more than 30 LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers “to other parts of the camp based on the protection concerns raised by them and following careful assessment by our teams on the ground.”
“UNHCR does not tolerate discrimination or any form of violence against refugees, including violence committed by other refugees, and works with law enforcement and other branches of government in Kenya to ensure that refugees are protected and safe,” reads the statement.
State Department in ‘close contact’ with UNHCR
UNHCR says an estimated 1,000 of the more than half a million refugees and asylum seekers who currently live in Kenya are LGBTQ. It’s statement also notes Kenya “remains the only country in the region to provide asylum to those fleeing persecution based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression,” even though consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized.
UNHCR says 48 percent of the LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers who have asked to be resettled outside of Kenya have left the country.
“We strongly condemn this senseless violence,” reads the statement, referring to the March 15 attack. “We have been advised that the ongoing investigation by Kenyan police is progressing and we hope that it will bring full clarity in respect of this incident and that those responsible will be held to account in accordance with Kenyan law.”
A State Department spokesperson on March 27 acknowledged UNHCR’s statement about LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers in Kakuma.
The spokesperson noted the U.S. in fiscal year 2020 provided $120 million in humanitarian assistance to Kenya through UNHCR and other non-government organizations with which it partners. The spokesperson also told the Blade that the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration leads the U.S. government’s work with UNHCR.
“In working with UNHCR and other international organizations, we stress the need to make extra efforts and invest additional resources to ensure that vulnerable populations at risk of violence, abuse, and exploitation, as well as at risk of receiving inadequate assistance and protection, are themselves present in, engaged in, participating in, and contributing to humanitarian responses,” said the spokesperson. “The United States works with international and non-governmental organization partners to ensure and provide equal protection and support to at-risk populations who are particularly vulnerable due to their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and/or sex characteristics.”
“We have expressed our concern about this group of LGBTQI+ refugees in Kakuma and are in close contact with UNHCR on the situation,” added the spokesperson.
The Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration is among the NGOs that works with LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers in Kakuma.
ORAM Executive Director Steve Roth described the situation in the camp “as complex and multilayered, and has yet to be fully understood.”
“ORAM is committed to working with partners to gather all the facts and develop a complete understanding of the challenges facing LGBTIQ refugees in Kakuma, uncovering root causes and identifying sustainable solutions,” he told the Blade. “We do know that some of the core challenges that LGBTIQ refugees face in Kakuma are economic — a lack of income and ability to pay for basic necessities, which in turn creates other insecurities.”
Roth noted ORAM in 2019 partnered with a Kenyan NGO to support microbusinesses in the camp. One such program provides LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers in Kakuma materials that allow them to make soap and raise poultry they can sell in the camp and elsewhere.
“These programs help generate needed income for LGBTIQ refugees as well as providing skills training, a sense of purpose and the chance to improve their relationships with other camp residents by offering them products and services that they need,” said Roth.