LGBTQ+ Africans fled to a UN refugee camp to escape brutal persecution. It followed them there.

Isaac Smith has been on the run for years. He’s tired but still determined. Right now, he’s hoping an online fundraising campaign can help him and 19 other queer people make it safely from Kenya to South Sudan. There, they hope to find acceptance, and most importantly, they hope it will be the final leg of their journey. 

Ten LGBTQ+ folks Smith knows have already made it across the border after leaving the Kakuma Refugee Camp, but he and the rest remain trapped in a nightmare.

Smith’s life on the run began in Uganda in 2021, when his world was shattered before his eyes with the murder of his partner of two years, Johny Wasswa, by a mob that broke into their home. 

“It is one of those memories I never wish to remember again,” Smith told LGBTQ Nation. “His only crime was being queer.” 

After rumors of the couple’s well-hidden relationship leaked, locals conspired to murder them both on account of their sexual orientation. Smith was not home at the time of the incident, so by chance, his life was spared.

“I continued to receive messages warning that I would be next unless I changed my sexual orientation,” he said. “I felt suffocated with no freedom at all. The simple act of stepping outside my home became a dangerous affair as news of my sexuality spread.”

According to Susan Dicklitch-Nelson, a professor of government at Franklin & Marshall College, homophobia in Uganda was not always this prevalent, but anti-gay sentiment influenced by Christian evangelists from the US has helped fuel a cultural war on homosexuality for the past two and half decades. 

Hate speech against queer individuals became a frequently employed tactic by politicians and clergy to rally support, which resulted in an escalation of discrimination, arrests, and violence against the LGBTQ+ community. 

Eric Ndawula, queer activist and the executive director of local advocacy group Lifeline Empower, expressed deep concern about the upsurge of violence towards the LGBTQ+ community across several African countries. 

“Uganda, Nigeria, and Ghana are among the countries that have recently tightened their existing laws outlawing homosexuality. This move has broadly compromised the LGBTQ+ community, who are often targeted,” he told LGBTQ Nation. 

Uganda – where an overwhelming majority of the population opposes homosexuality – passed its harshest anti-gay legislation in 2023, punishing same-sex relationships between consenting adults with life imprisonment and calling in some situations for the death penalty.  In the same year, protests in Mombasa, Kenya led by religious leaders and civil society organizations pushed legislators to introduce the Family Protection bill, which seeks to outlawhomosexuality, same-sex unions, and LGBTQ+ activities and advocacy in the nation.

Inescapable Hate 

On May 14, 2021, Smith decided to flee. Through a friend, he learned of Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, one of the world’s largest camps, accommodating around 200,000 refugees and asylum seekers from across sub-Saharan Africa. Smith thought he would be safer there.

At Kakuma, he met other LGBTQ+ individuals also seeking asylum, and after two months of orientation, they were relocated to the main camp.

“Being at the camp gave me much relief and a sense of belonging,” he said. “We clustered ourselves as per our sexual orientation, and for a moment this felt like the home I have since longed to have.”

But this feeling would be short-lived.

While Smith and approximately 1,500 other LGBTQ+ individuals formed a tight-knit community within Kakuma, the camp’s general population did not bid them welcome. 

According to a 2023 report from Amnesty International, hate crimes are regularly committed in Kakuma against LGBTQ+ individuals, including brutal violence like rape, along with a slew of other serious human rights violations. The report said perpetrators of these crimes often act with complete impunity “enabled by inaction on the part of the authorities.”

Smith described how systemic marginalization within the camp results in homelessness and increasing vulnerability to sexual violence. Many survivors of violence, he stated, contract HIV and other STDs but lack access to life-saving treatment. Denied education and employment opportunities, most queer people are unable to afford basic necessities such as food and water, which plunges them deeper into poverty compared to the camp’s general population. 

Breeze, a transgender person who chose to remain anonymous, recounted instances of physical and emotional assault at Kakuma. He recounted being aggressively asked by camp residents to reconsider his identity more than once, and often when he refused, he was beaten.

“It traumatized me,” he told LGBTQ Nation. “I needed psychological support, which wasn’t readily available to people at the camp.” 

The Kakuma Queers

Driven by the horrors they face, members of the LGBTQ+ community within the camp have rallied together to form Kakuma Queers, a group comprising most of Kakuma’s queer community dedicated to advocating for LGBTQ+ rights and standing up against discrimination and violence.

With Smith serving as its spokesperson, the group utilizes social media to amplify their voices, frequently relaying scenes and stories of disparity to an audience largely unaware of their struggles.

Through Smith’s Instagram and X accounts and with the help of global allies, the group launched a crowdfunding campaign to appeal to the world’s LGBTQ+ community, soliciting donations for much-needed food, which many queer folks cannot afford within the confines of the camp. 

“All this is happening because of our sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression,” Harden Martial, the Chairperson of Kakuma Queers, told LGBTQ Nation. “Such hate crimes are a criminal manifestation of the discrimination LGBTQ+ refugees and asylum seekers face.” 

Martial recounts how their pleas for help to the local Kenyan authorities – which, he explains, control the camp along with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) – were hopeless, with the camp’s authority often asking them to “change” their sexual orientation for the sake of “peace” in Kakuma. 

“We have had meetings with the government of Kenya, UNHCR in Kenya and its associate agencies about the plight of our situation as the queer community, and instead of giving us solutions, they intimidate us,” he stated. 

LGBTQ Nation contacted officials from the Kenyan government and UNHCR Kenya but did not hear back. 

But the worsening humanitarian situation and the rising violence against Smith and others in his group are pushing members of the group to escape Kakuma altogether and flee to South Sudan. Social discrimination is also widespread against LGBTQ+ people there, but according to Smith, it is a “safer” destination, as the UNHCR, rather than the state, has full control over the refugee camps there and, therefore, could protect them. 

The recurring violations against Breeze encouraged him to escape the camp. When he arrived in South Sudan, he encouraged Smith and 19 members of their group to follow in his footsteps. Half the group managed to get to South Sudan, where they say the living conditions are better than in Kakuma. Smith is choosing not to leave until the rest of his group makes it out. 

But he is not at all giving up, declaring, “I will do anything possible, as long as it helps us escape this horrible place.” 

This article was published in collaboration with Egab.