May 23, 2019
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LGBT refugees in Kenya, trapped between homophobia, bureaucracy

By Patricia Martínez

Nairobi, May 17 (efe-epa).- The majority of the refugees and asylum seekers camped outside the office of the United Nations refugee agency in Nairobi are members of the LGBT community from Rwanda, Uganda, Somalia and the Congos, and all are united in one thing – their plea for greater protection from homophobic violence.

Just a few meters from Waiyaki Way, a principal thoroughfare into the Kenyan capital that is often clogged with traffic, there are Somali women wrapped in colorful shawls taking shade under a bare tree; Burundian mothers breastfeeding their children and gay refugees proudly raising the rainbow flag. Two exchange a kiss.

On the ground between thin mattresses and Massaii blankets covering sleeping children, the remains of ash and tear gas canisters act as a reminder of a controversial security operation on May 10, when police moved in to arrest 23 people they accused of assault and public scandal.

Police said the refugees were blocking the road. In reality, they were protesting peacefully.

"That is why we are here, to ask them (the United Nations High Commission for Refugees): where we are supposed to be?" Ugandan Julie Collins Red, 21, told Efe.

Red, like many of the refugees camped outside the UN office, came from the Kakuma refugee camp in northwest Kenya, which houses over 180,000 people.

As a transgender woman, she did not feel safe there.

"I was so scared until I reached here (Kenya) because of lots of blackmail, lots of killings in Uganda among the LGTBI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) community so we came here to seek protection," Red told Efe.

Despite the heat of the day, she was dressed in a red feathered coat, dark stockings and fake leopard heels.

"I arrived here last year, in August 2018, but until now they haven't worked on me. They always tell us their hands are tied and that they can't help us right now," she said.

Although Kenya, along with 32 other African countries, considers homosexuality illegal, it does recognize the right to asylum of those persecuted for their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Once in Kenya, however, LGBT refugees are ordered to stay in one of two designated areas in the country: either the Kakuma refugee camp or Dadaab, in the northeast.

"It's something we have been hearing since 2016, that the LGBTI refugees in Kakuma have been experiencing threats. There is a good number who have been forced to get out of the camp and request to be relocated in Nairobi or other places," Otsieno Namwaya, a Human Rights Watch researcher for Africa, told Efe.

"However, each time when the communities discover who they are, wherever they have been relocated, they also begin to feel threatened. So the work the refugees have been asking from UNHCR is not actually the resettlement but protection," he added.

Congolese Katila Paul Servent, 29, knows it well.

He left behind his native Goma in 2010 and, for the next eight years, lived in Kakuma, where he told Efe that instead of being made welcome he was threatened, attacked and imprisoned on numerous occasions.

As a bisexual, he even married a woman, with whom he has had two children aged 8 and 9, in order to get some protection and avoid drawing attention to himself.

In 2018, after more than ten interviews with the UNHCR and Kenyan authorities, he was finally granted refugee status, with which – like hundreds of others in the camps – he hopes to be resettled in a different country.

"Those who pay money, even if it's not so much, get to be relocated first," Servent lamented, adding his voice to the many that accuse the UN office in Nairobi of corruption.

Yet the dream of living in Europe, the United States or Australia is one afforded only to a small minority.

According to the latest UNHCR data, in 2018, only 55,692 refugees were resettled out of approximately 1.2 million people worldwide who require it – that is less than 5 percent.

Faced with such limited options, LGTBI refugees who cannot expect to leave Kenya in the near future continue to live discreetly in the heart of a conservative society.

Many avoid coming out of the closet in public.

"I was expecting something better when I arrived in Kenya. Kenyans are homophobic. They don't like us at all, I am sure," said Ugandan Aisha Nakakande, 23, who felt compelled to leave her native country when her family found out she was a lesbian.

"They caught me with my girlfriend so they beat us, they did everything. I don't know where she is because I just ran. When they are beating you, when they are harassing you, they want to kill you, you just run," she said.

Her parents are unaware of the fact she since has crossed the border into Kenya and that she now sleeps outside the UNCHR office in Nairobi.

A large portion of the roughly 200 LGBT refugees registered by the UNCHR in the Kakuma camp come from Uganda, where same-sex relations can be punishable with life in prison.

Many LGBT Ugandans see Kenya as a lifeline.

In Kenya, the current colonial laws establish a penalty of 14 years in prison for gay sex, though the laws are rarely enforced.

All that could change, should the Supreme Court make the historic decision in a ruling expected on May 24 to abolish laws criminalizing homosexuality.

Aside from the tricky bureaucracy, the social rejection and the centuries-old laws that brand homosexuality a crime against nature, these asylum seekers and LGBT refugees are united in a basic desire to be treated equally.

As they repeat ad nauseam, their sexuality or gender identity, what they feel, is just as natural as what those who identify as heterosexual.

"When I was growing up, all the people tell you that you are a boy, but I realized that I was not. The inner you is feminine," Red said. "You love who you are as a feminine not as a man."

For Namwaya, both the Kenyan government and the UNHCR have failed significantly.

"UNHCR has been quite insensitive to the concerns of the LGTBI community in the camps and even when they have tried to relocate them, the relocation has not been done in a manner that appreciates the threats that they face," he said.

They have been of little help for Nakakande.

"I told her, the girl who was interviewing me, instead of giving me 6,000 Kenyan Shillings ($60) (the amount the UNHCR normally allocates to refugees for rent) – to go get me somewhere where I am secure," she said.

"We are trying to have all rights, as refugees, we are also people. We have red blood in our veins, so at least take us as human beings," she concluded. EFE-EPA

pms/jt/sh

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