Queer Ugandans struggle with the complexities of seeking asylum from repression
In the eyes of some people, the situation for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex (LGBTI) people in Kampala has deteriorated.
The first sign of it was when leading local tabloids published the names of suspected gay Ugandans. This put their lives at risk, resulting in some leaving Uganda and seeking asylum elsewhere.
Soon after that scandal, the Anti-Homosexuality Act (2014) was passed, criminalising same-sex relations. The Act included life imprisonment and penalties for individuals, companies, media and other organisations supporting homosexuals.
Although it was later overturned by the courts, the Act created an environment of hate, raising sexual minorities’ fears and insecurities. Thanks to the high political temperatures raised both inside and outside Uganda, it is no coincidence that after the Act was passed in 2014 the number of Ugandans crossing into Kenya increased markedly.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says there are 13-million refugees worldwide, with more than 586 000 in Kenya as of May 2015, and that only 100 000 of them can be resettled annually, a mere 7% to 8%.
According to Eva Camps, a senior UNHCR protection officer based in Nairobi, someone must have misled the Ugandan refugees and asylum-seekers in the city, because they are now demanding immediate financial assistance and the fast-tracking of their resettlement, which they should know isn’t guaranteed.
She reiterates the UNHCR’s procedures, which she says the Ugandans have been made aware of time and again. Seeking asylum is a long and tedious journey. The UNHCR is bound by rules and procedures, despite exceptions being made for the earlier arrivals from Uganda.
George Onyore, a legal officer from Hias Kenya, a nonpartisan refugee protection organisation, has the same message. He says, aside from the Ugandans, there are hundreds of other vulnerable urban refugees and asylum seekers. They include unaccompanied minors, those who are terminally ill and older people. He says the resources of the Hias and UNHCR are limited and they have to be used sparingly.
The Hias continually assesses the needs of all refugees and asylum seekers, and the most needy are assisted. He reiterates there is no blanket assistance for the Ugandans.
Rachel Levitan, the associate vice-president of the Hias global programmes, strategy and planning, has worked on the issue of LGBTI refugees and asylum-seekers for nearly seven years and she also says assistance and relief are not simple processes. She adds that the unexpectedly high refugee flows of the past five years have exacerbated the situation.
Furthermore, in the case of Kenya, security concerns about al-Shabab has delayed the granting of asylum. Besides the urgent need for funds to cushion all at-risk refugees, including LGBTI asylum seekers, Levitan says there’s always a need to diffuse the inevitable tensions that arise between refugees and asylum-seekers and host communities.
Eric Gitari, the executive director of the Kenyan National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, says the Ugandans’ situation is dire but, unless they fully understand the predicament they are in, it won’t be easy to assist them out. Whatever the UNHCR’s shortcomings, he says, the Ugandans have to work closely with whoever is trying to help them.
He says the Kenyan LGBTI movement plays a double role as both a partner to the UNHCR and a support to the Ugandans. Sometimes they advocate for the Ugandans and press their case with the UNHCR, and sometimes they are on the side of UNHCR, supporting its position on the Ugandans.
Although it is tempting to see the asylum-seekers as being impatient and entitled, their predicament has real structural roots. A report by Yiftach Millo, titled Invisible in the City: Protection Gaps Facing Sexual Minority Refugees and Asylum-seekers in Urban Ecuador, Ghana, Israel and Kenya, says the needs of LGBTI asylum-seekers are often invisible because it is near impossible for them to quantify the urgency of their need.
The report says: “Although the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has made significant strides in its headquarters and in some country operations to protect sexual minority refugees, protection in the field remains extremely limited. Their protection is affected by a general misconception of lack of need and urgency resulting from the ‘invisibility’ of their plight.”
Adrian Jjuuko, the executive director of the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Foundation, the leading LGBTI litigation organisation in Uganda, says the majority of Ugandan LGBTI asylum-seekers and refugees find it hard to quantify and qualify what is considered persecution. This is because persecution is a deeply personal experience and sometimes what passes as persecution for an individual might not hold up when it is subjected to legal rigours.
This has led many escapees to forge documents, including warrants of arrest, which, when referred to his organisation for verification, are often found to be fake. This doesn’t mean they were not being persecuted, only that the true nature of their persecution might not be electrifying and so they seek alternative narratives.
Some Ugandan LGBTI refugees and asylum-seekers feel comfortable telling their secrets to “Mama” Stella Nyanzi of the Makerere University’s Makerere Institute of Social Research.
She says things are tough, especially for transgender women. For example, it is impossible for them to go to a market in Kenya to buy a skirt because there is nowhere for them to try it on. So they do it when they sneak back into Uganda because they know their way around.
Similarly, they will sneak back to Uganda to try to find work because making a living in Kenya is harder for them than in Kampala, or because the only food they can afford in Kenya is terrible. Sometimes, she says, having that skirt is necessary for dignity. These are the details that get overlooked and which bureaucracies cannot “see”.
Nevertheless, many Ugandans remain holed up in the slums of Nairobi, where they live illegally. But the Kenyan government recently ordered all urban refugees to move to refugee camps because it suspects Somali refugees are harbouring members of al-Shabab.
The UNHCR says this is creating a precarious situation. More than 52 000 refugees and asylum-seekers reside in Nairobi.
On the morning of April 19 2015, the world woke up to news of the death at sea of more than 700 Africans whose vessel had capsized off the Libyan coast. They were on their way to Europe. On Twitter, a user asked: “How do you face the Mediterranean and still decide to forge ahead?” #Africa was his hashtag of choice.
One might ask the same of the Ugandans. Why do they live in deplorable conditions in refugee camps, knowing resettlement isn’t guaranteed, or that it might take up to three years? Why do they squeeze into cubicles in Nairobi slums, hoping for survival money when it is not guaranteed?
In the case of Uganda, the answers are complex. Although many people will tolerate LGBTI people, they will not let them live as they would like to. It is obvious that those LGBTI people in Kampala I saw dancing and partying on my first night there were able to do so because they are rich and protected, or have mastered a way to manoeuvre their way within the homophobic society. On the other hand, the ones who flee have often been traumatised, or because, as Nyanzi says, they can’t hold up their heads.
Those who can afford to stay may not fully understand that, for some, leaving feels like a matter of life and death. At the same time, those who leave may not understand why their fellow community members choose to stay.
In the middle of all this, the UNHCR, nongovernmental organisations and the complex system designed to facilitate asylum are clearly struggling to understand that many things can be true at the same time — that you might be tolerated at home but, if it also forces you to negotiate your full humanity, then you would rather live in limbo, in a camp somewhere, holding out for what might be possible.
This is an edited extract from Isaac Otidi Amuke’s essay Facing the Mediterranean in As You Like It, Volume II of the Gerald Kraak Anthology, African Perspectives on Gender, Social Justice and Sexuality (Jacana). Amuke is a prizewinning journalist in Nairobi, Kenya