69 countries in the world currently criminalize same sex relationships and at least five nations have made them punishable by death. This is why refugees who identify as LGBTQ+ decide to leave their countries looking for asylum, for protection. When it comes to receiving LGBTQ+ refugees in the East African region, Kenya is the only country to receive refugees from Uganda, Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia. However, does Kenyan government and NGOs ensure that LGBTQ+ refugees do not suffer the same persecution in the host country as in the country they are fleeing? Although steps are being taken to protect LGBTQ+ refugees, there is a great lack of protection surrounding stigmatization of their sexuality, legal discrimination and persecution in both Kenya and its refugee camps. From our point of view, the answer to this question is simple: it is not enough.
“In Kenya, I can’t even get a job and in Uganda, they will kill me if I return. These are my options. Sometimes I just want to kill myself”, said Joe, a LGBTQ+ Ugandan refugee living in Nairobi. This is not a unique testimony but many LGBTQ+ refugees in Kenya identify with this. Many LGBTQ+ persons fled to Kenya expecting a safer and friendlier environment but they were quickly disillusioned. In this article, we will try to break down Kenya’s LGBTQ+ landscape for asylum seekers, a country that should be a flagship for LGBTQ+ refugee protection in the horn of Africa but is still learning how to become one.
Kenyan law and LGBTQ+ rights
In May 2019, Kenya’s High Court was reviewing a colonial-era law that criminalized gay sex. Unfortunately, these anti-gay laws, which were imposed by British colonialists and adopted by Kenyan laws since their independence in 1963, have not been abolished. The three-judge bench rejected the petitioners’ case on grounds that the provisions of the penal code were not discriminatory because they did not single out LGBTQ+ people and that the petitioners had not proved that their rights had been violated (Human Rights Watch, 2019). The felony of having “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature” is a sentence in Kenya that ranges from 5 to 21 years in prison.
Within this legal framework, the anti-gay law is rarely enforced in reality and Kenya is seen as more tolerant than neighbouring Uganda and Tanzania, although discrimination is widespread. That being said, the LGBTQ+ community in Kenya continues to face systematic harassment from the police and other public authorities, being targets of verbal and physical injury, sexual violence, and social marginalization (Finerty, 2013: 432). Examples of discrimination include the denial of medical treatment, exclusion from school, a lack of investigation regarding violence against LGBTQ+ persons, and disproportionate levels of arbitrary detention, police abuse, violence and extrajudicial killings by both host communities and state actors. Additionally, there has been abuse in medical settings, including forced sterilisations and so-called ‘conversion therapies’, and their right to freedom of expression, assembly and association is often also unduly restricted.
On top of that, accessing livelihoods for LGBTQ+ refugees living outside camps is not easy. The current encampment policy does not allow refugees to live outside designated refugee areas, even though they could sustain themselves. The LGBTQ+ refugees who face threats at the camp are usually transferred to Nairobi where they live in safe houses. In urban centres, they also suffer anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes, besides being denied their rights to engage in any form of work due to their refugee status. As a result, most of them end up engaging in sex work to provide for their livelihoods.
LGBTQ+ stigmatization at the camps
Humanitarian actors have become aware of these problems at refugee camps, but the protection afforded to the community has not been sufficient. Historically, UNHCR has framed its protective activities in terms of human rights. The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants includes a section affirming that signatories will fully protect the human rights of all refugees, regardless of status.
There are waves of violence against LGBTQ+ refugees in several Kenyan refugee camps. Indeed, violence against LGBTQ+ community at Kakuma camp, a refugee camp located in the north west of Kenya near the Uganda border, has grown in recent years.210 out of the +210.000 refugees in this camp identify as LGBTQ+. Most of them are moved into ‘protection areas’ which offer more safety but also increase their visibility. Once they enter the camp, they are labeled as an “LGBTQ+ Person '', which makes them a target ofhomophobic attacks by the host communities and fellow refugees. Due to these extreme acts of homophobia, the protected area is enclosed by a wire-mesh fence covered in thorny branches that shield residents from view. Two security guards work at the gate and a nearby police station enhances security. The LGBTQ+ refugees were living in Block 1, but they were moved to Block 13 due to the extreme number of violent attacks.
Despite this, the LGBTQ+ community celebrated the first Gay Pride at Kakuma camp in summer 2018, making history as the first parade in a refugee camp worldwide under the premise “say no to homophobia, say no to all forms of discrimination”. The Gay Pride celebration ended with a violent attack on one of the transgender refugees, who was hospitalised for two days. A threatening letter was then pinned up around the Kakuma camp targeting the entire LGBTQ+ community (see below).
Photo: note that appeared after the Gay Pride in Kakuma camp
Since then, attacks on the community have not stopped. In the last months a 32 year old Ugandan was killed in a bomb attack and died from burns sustained at Kakuma camp that targeted LGBTQ+ members. The UNHCR is the ruling entity at the camp and the measures taken are limited by their principle to respect the local laws of the countries they work in. The statement given by the UNHCR was rather dismissive, stating the cause of death as “previous health issues''. The framing of protection by UNHCR, and practical restrictions on the implementation of protection in Kenya, leave LGBTQ+ refugees unsafe. Despite establishing guidelines, UNHCR operates in Kenya under a government that is not only openly repressive of LGBTQ+ individuals, but which also deploys a hostile stance towards all refugees. Living in the camp means having the constant fear of being attacked, lack of media coverage, and inadequate protection from UNHCR camp authorities.
Activism, a silver lining
In an effort to improve protection for LGBTQ+ people among those forcibly displaced, the UNHCR has organized the 2021 Global Roundtable on Protection and Solutions for LGBTQ+ People in Forced Displacement. These meetings will take place until the 29th June and 600 participants will explore the forces driving displacement, the challenges facing those seeking asylum, the push for inclusion in national services and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on LGBTQ+ people. The community in Kenya will be represented by a refugee from Kakuma camp, representing the RefCEA, an umbrella organization uniting LGBTQ+ refugees across East Africa.
During our research project looking at participatory approaches towards LGBTQ+ rights advocacy in Kenya, we came across a number of grassroots organizations that are working at the core of ending discrimination against LGBTQ+ community in the country. This project was carried out in 2019 and since then, organizations have multiplied to protect the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. Though they still face barriers to accessing formal registration by the government, they have found support and acceptance in Kenyan society.
The first steps towards an organized LGBTQ+ movement were made in 1999 with the formationof Ishtar MSM, one of the first community-based organizations to advance the sexual health rights of men who have sex with men (MSM). Prior to the formation of Ishtar MSM, Kenya had joined the other Sub-Saharan countries in the fight against HIV/AIDS in the mid-1990s. In collaboration with the UN, the Kenyan state declared war on AIDS with the goal to end the AIDS epidemic in the country by 2030 (Africa Renewal, n.d.). The importance of including the LGBTQ+ community was taken into account and brave activists are now speaking out against oppression and persecution in Kenya.
It should be noted that there has been progress in advocacy and activism towards the protection of LGBTQ+ persons with the creation of many grassroots organisations. Below are some of the ones working to protect the rights of LGBTQ+ members in Kenya:
- National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission: https://www.nglhrc.com/
- Relief funding campaign for Block 13 in Kakuma Camp: https://www.gofundme.com/f/support-LGBTQ+-refugees-on-block-13-in-kakuma-camp
- The Victor Mukasa Show is featuring in a daily basis the situation of the LGBTQ+ community at the camp on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/thevictormukasashow
- Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya
- Ishtar MSM https://www.ishtarmsm.org/
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Manuela Ramos Cacciatore
Manuela Ramos is a Youth Development Advocate with expertise in human rights and migration issues. She has a MSc background in International Development and Communication studies at Roskilde University and a bachelor’s degree in Journalism at the University of Zaragoza. Recently, she completed a qualitative fieldwork and policy analysis on access to livelihoods for refugees in Kenya as part of her master’s Thesis. She has also conducted research in the areas of citizenship, urban development, participatory communications, and LGBTQ+ rights in Kenya. Her main interest is to implement participatory and community-based approaches in marginalized groups through qualitative and ethnographic research.
Nancy Njoka is a migration and development researcher with experience and education in migration, forced displacement, International Development and Communication. Professionally, she has been working with Humanitarian and Human rights organisations both in Kenya and Denmark addressing migration discourses. In her master’s program at Roskilde University, she completed and excelled in two qualitative research projects that focused on livelihoods and LGBTQ+ rights in Kenya. Nancy holds a bachelor’s degree in Law and a Master of Science in International Development and Communication Studies. Her main interests within research include participatory research, urban displacement and livelihoods of migrants and refugees through qualitative and ethnographic research
 The UNHCR released guidance to work with LGBTQ++ persons in forced displacement in May 2021. Read more here: https://www.refworld.org/docid/4e6073972.html  https://www.reuters.com/article/us-kenya-lgbt-refugees-idUSKCN1N5205  See Freccero J (2015) ‘Sheltering displaced persons from sexual and gender-based violence’, Forced Migration Review issue 50 www.fmreview.org/dayton20/freccero  https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2021/04/16/kenya-kakuma-refugee-camp-bomb-attack-chriton-atuhwera-trinidad-jerry/  https://www.unhcr.org/ke/19859-unhcr-statement-on-the-situation-of-LGBTQ+-refugees-in-kakuma-camp.html  https://www.infomigrants.net/en/post/32858/queer-refugees-unhcr-wants-more-protections