Following pride event, Kenya's gay refugees fear for their lives
Approximately 600 people showed up for the first pride event held at one of the world's largest refugee camps.
Participants hold rainbow flags during an LGBTQ pride event at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya on June 16, 2018.Refugee Flag Kakuma
By Brooke Sopelsa
The Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwestern Kenya held its first LGBTQ pride event on Saturday, but now the event’s organizers are in fear for their lives.
After the event, which organizers said drew approximately 600 people, threatening messages were “pinned all over the camp on notice boards,” according to Mbazira Moesa, a Ugandan refugee and one of the event’s organizers.
Moesa said he does not know who wrote and posted the threats — which warned LGBTQ refugees to “leave the camp” or “we are going to kill you one by one” — but he said they made him “anticipate danger that may happen to me and all the LGBTIQ refugee members in Kakuma Refugee Camp.”
Kakuma, one of the largest refugee camps in the world, was established in 1992 and is run by the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR). The camp, along with its 2015 expansion site, the Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement, have a cumulative population of about 185,000 people, according to refugee agency. The refugees and asylum-seekers living at the two sites come from 19 countries, though more than half are South Sudanese.
Moesa said he was inspired to organize Saturday’s pride event along with other members of Refugee Flag Kakuma to address “the ignorance” and “myths” about LGBTQ people among the camp’s residents. Moesa said the Kakuma camp is “mainly populated by Islamic settlers and refugees” from South Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia who are intolerant of homosexuality.
While he considered Saturday’s turnout “huge,” Moesa said homophobic violence at the event led to a lesbian and a transgender person sustaining “serious injuries.”
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Despite that, Moesa said he hopes Kakuma has a pride event next year and “every year” after that.
Moesa, 25, said he left Uganda — one of the world’s most notoriously anti-gay countries — in 2016 following multiple arrests and beatings by law enforcement due to his sexuality. He recalled an August 2016 incident in which police raided a gay social event at a bar in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, that finally made him flee his home country.
“They closed all the doors and beat people up very badly,” he said. “One guy jumped off the stairs, broke his legs and died. We were arrested, and the following morning we were loaded into a police van. The press came and took our pictures and publicized our story on the TV, radio and local newspapers.”
The publicity made staying in Uganda even more precarious, so he headed for Nairobi, Kenya, in September 2016. He said he was transferred to the Kakuma Refugee Camp in February 2017 after approaching the U.N. agency seeking refugee status. However, he said his situation has not improved much since fleeing Uganda.
“I feel myself to be under constant threat,” Moesa told NBC News, saying life in Kakuma is "a dire situation" for gay refugees because of "consistent persecutions" from other refugees and the "lack of proper protection" from police.
Yvonne Ndege, a spokesperson for UNHCR Kenya, told NBC News the UNHCR and its partners supported and participated in the pride event at Kakuma and "invited all stakeholders to promote an environment free from discrimination and homophobia." Ndege said UNHCR is aware that two people sustained injuries at the event and said the organization mobilized an ambulance to transport them to the hospital and encouraged the police to conduct an investigation into the incident.
Ndege said UNHCR is aware that the environment in Kakuma "can be discriminatory against LGBTI (lesbiay, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people) due to its diversity of culture." However, she said "UNHCR undertakes a wide range of activities to ensure all refugees rights including LGBTI are respected."
"The community can sometimes feel isolated," Ndege said of Kenya's LGBTQ refugees. "UNHCR and the Government of Kenya with other relevant stakeholders are striving to promote the rights of all asylum seekers and refugees and are ensuring partners are trained on how to work with LGBTI in a displacement context. Their rights as human beings shall be considered as such."
Maria Sjödin, deputy executive director for the LGBTQ human rights organization OutRight Action International, said Moesa’s experience is not uncommon.
“Many individuals who face persecution and violence at home because of their sexual orientation or gender identity end up in refugee centers surrounded by people from the very same homophobic and transphobic cultures and countries from which they fled,” Sjödin said.
“The systems set up are often not equipped to provide the necessary protection. The situation can be further exacerbated in a place like Kenya, which has anti-sodomy laws on the books. These refugees need immediate protection so they can live free from fear of violence," Sjodin added.
According to the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration (ORAM), LGBTQ people “are among the most persecuted individuals in the world today.” More than 70 countries around the world — including Uganda and Kenya — criminalize homosexual activity, and, according to the organization, in many more countries, sexual and gender minorities “regularly face harassment, arrest, interrogation, torture and beatings.”
“These human rights violations propel thousands to flee their countries. Yet without focused attention and assistance from the international humanitarian community, these refugees continue to be deprived of basic safety or protection,” according to ORAM.
There are currently 68.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, including 25.4 million refugees and 3.1 million asylum-seekers, according to the U.N.’s latest data. However, the number of LGBTQ refugees and asylum-seekers around the world is not readily available.