Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Responding to LGBT Forced Migration in East Africa

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Responding to LGBT Forced Migration in East Africa

Article excerpt

Over the past decade, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Ugandans have sought safety and asylum in various countries but never in such numbers or with such a high degree of visibility as following the passage of Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Act in December 2013. Data provided by UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) and other service providers in Kenya indicate that at least 400 LGBT Ugandans sought safety and asylum in Kenya between January 2014 and February 2015. The overwhelming majority of those identified were in their late teens or early twenties and identified as gay men. In addition to asylum seekers, there were also reports of LGBT Ugandans relocating temporarily to Kenya, both legally - by passing through an official border checkpoint - and illegally.

International donors, local organisations and refugee service providers including UNHCR struggled to respond. Meanwhile, the Kenyan government had initiated a series of severe measures affecting refugees in Kenya.1 Given the complexities of the push and pull factors involved, as well as the challenging context in Kenya, stakeholders must consider a variety of strategies both to address the causes of the outflow from Uganda and to respond to the current needs of LGBT forced migrants in Kenya.2

Push and pull factors

While the Anti-Homosexuality Act was the most obvious motivating factor, the unprecedented exodus of LGBT Ugandans cannot be attributed solely to its passage. There were many pre-existing push factors in Uganda but these were exacerbated by the perceived green light for discrimination and abuse given by the law's passage. Ugandan organisations working with the LGBT community documented an overall increase in 2014 in reported threats and incidents of violence, blackmail, media 'outings', loss of employment, and expulsion from school.3 A widely held belief that the Anti-Homosexuality Act required citizens to turn in suspected LGBT individuals led to pre-emptive family rejections, evictions and reports to the police even before the bill was signed into law. At the same time, under threat of the law's clause outlawing 'promotion' of homosexuality, many organisations providing services to the LGBT community initially suspended or scaled back their programmes. Demands to support the relocation and welfare of LGBT individuals experiencing threats were beyond the capacity of such organisations.

The annulment of the Anti-Homosexuality Act by Uganda's High Court in August 2014 did little to change the hostile environment. Some Ugandan activists suggested that, since the law was struck down on a technicality and not because of its substance, its nullification emboldened the public to take matters into their own hands. This was reinforced by Ugandan members of parliament petitioning for the bill's re-introduction and by reports in November 2014 of politicians considering a new law targeting the LGBT community, the Prohibition of Promotion of Unnatural Offences Bill. While specific incidents of arrest or violence played a large role in driving individuals' migration, in the general climate of fear created by the bill others simply did not want to wait for something to happen.

In Kenya, UNHCR and its partners initially prioritised the unexpected new caseload and expedited the resettlement of LGBT Ugandans. In a country where refugees wait years hoping for resettlement, at least one Ugandan case sped through in a record eight months between entry into Kenya and resettlement to the United States. For those who chose not to go to Kakuma refugee camp, a UNHCR partner provided a monthly stipend, at first made available to all LGBT Ugandan asylum seekers in Nairobi. Several Kenyan LGBT-led organisations made their pre-existing services available to the new arrivals or created new programmes to address their specific needs. The services and support available in Kenya and the rapid processing by UNHCR acted as increasingly powerful pull factors as news of these resources made its way back to Uganda. …

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