Ugandan LGBTQ+ Exiles Find Safety Elusive, Even at a Refugee Camp

On February 3, Claire Brianz walked toward Center 4 of Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya to collect her food ration.

Brianz is a trans woman, and one of more than 200,000 refugees and asylum seekers that mostly came from South Sudan, Somali, Congo, Ethiopia. They seek sanctuary within this semi-arid site, where temperatures top 100 degrees. Brianz is originally from Uganda, whose Parliament recently passed a bill criminalizing simply identifying as LGBTQIA+. After she was disowned by her family in 2019, she was arrested and detained by the police for three days. They threatened to kill her in front of her parents, Brianz said. The trauma forced her to flee.

Brianz has been living in Kakuma for nearly four years now. She has experienced homophobic violence from other camp residents, so she and her queer siblings, her found family, feel safer moving around as a group. In early February, Brianz said that around a hundred of them arrived at the ration center early to claim two kilograms of maize grains, two kilograms of split peas, and a liter of cooking oil each. These supplies are supposed to stretch for a month. They asked the security team if they could be served first so they could leave right away. The longer they stood in line, the more prone they were to being beaten and stoned by homophobic residents, Brianz explained. But instead of sympathy, they were met with hostility.

Brianz said a police officer assaulted one of her gay male companions, setting off chaos. They were attacked with police-issued tear gas on one hand, and stones on the other. As a result, the food distribution had to be suspended, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said in a statement. The agency had a different way of framing what had happened: “demonstrating” and “demanded to be served” were some of the words used. The African Human Rights Coalition endorsed this statement and alleged that the group refused to accept food from their organization as this would weaken the narrative they are promoting in order to be evacuated from Kakuma.

The Feb. 3 incident in Kakuma was not an isolated case. A similar skirmish between queer refugees and camp authorities happened in November 2022, because the former carried out an “unauthorized demonstration,” according to the UNHCR. And the assaults can get personal: On April 12, 2021, an LGBTIQ+ refugee died from an alleged arson attack—a glimpse into the discrimination and dangers faced by foreign, queer refugees in Kenya. A 2020 report by the Pew Research Center shows only 14% of Kenyans say homosexuality should be accepted by society. In April 2022, a nonbinary lesbian named Sheila Adhiambo Lumumba was “sexually assaulted, hit on the head with a blunt object, and stabbed in the chest, face, neck, and eyes,” according to Human Rights Watch.

Brianz said murders of Kenyan LGBTQIA+ members underscore how precarious their situation is. “If you see that nationals are being killed and the way they are killed,” Brianz said, “What of we who are refugees?”

Until now, Brianz has not yet been granted refugee status and still possesses an asylum movement pass. According to the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya, the refugee status determination (RSD) is long and discriminatory, with LGBTQIA+ determinations ultimately not being granted.

This means Brianz and fellow Ugandan Augustine Kayemba, a gay asylum seeker who has been living in Kakuma since 2020, are unable to seek employment and remain dependent on humanitarian assistance. Even if they want to work, they do not have the authorization to be able to do so, nor do they have the funds necessary to open their own small businesses. Kayemba also stressed that their enterprise would not stand a chance of success in the face of discrimination.

Kayemba said he fled Uganda after men fired shots at him and his boyfriend as they walked from a bar to their house. Two bullets missed his face and another two nearly hit the side of his body. His partner was killed on the spot. Kayemba thought he would be safe at Kakuma, but he discovered that even there, it’s extremely difficult to get by . “The food rations provided at the camp barely survive two weeks,” said Ivy Werimba, the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya’s Communications and Advocacy Officer. “The shelter arrangement exposes LGBTQ+ persons to security risks.” Kayemba claimed they bury five to six people every year.

A lawyer for the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, who requested anonymity for safety reasons, said state-sponsored homophobia, post-colonial laws, and existing religious doctrines against LGBTQ+ people play a big role in making the lives of queer people in Kenya difficult. “If my President or a member of Parliament is calling for the violence against LGBTQ+ people, I will feel that I have a cocoon to actually go and perpetuate violence,” she said.

Brianz and Kayemba said they do not see any future for themselves in the camp, unless the UNHCR comes up with a solution to improve the situation or to move them to safety. They implore the international community to advocate for their rights by writing emails to the UNHCR in Geneva, to state leaders, as well as the European Union. “I would wish that our voice would go very far so that they can really know that there are people that are perishing within the camp,” Kayemba said. “And this is not only for queer refugees, but all refugees.”

About the author(s)

Irish Christianne Dizon is a M.S. student at Columbia Journalism School.