While gay rights activists are celebrating after a Kenyan court recently ruled that subjecting suspected gay men to forced anal testing was illegal, there is still a lot of work to be done in support of LGBT rights in Kenya. And LGBTI refugees in Kenya’s Kakuma Camp can attest to that fact as they have been plagued by continuous violent attacks, a reduced standard of living and an overwhelming lack of support.
The Rustin Times Editor; Emmanuel Sadi, spoke to Tobias Pellicciari (The executive director for International Support – Human Rights and for the LGBT refugees program) to discuss the devastating situation at the camp and the problems that have enabled it. In this comprehensive interview, he gives a detailed account of the incidents and a glimpse at the lives of LGBT refugee in Africa.
The Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya has recently suffered attacks. Please tell us how these attacks have occurred?
The attacks in Kakuma are quite frequent, the last one, among the most violent and virulent occurred few weeks ago and involved some transgender boys. A group of transgender people from the Ugandan LGBTI refugee community hosted in the camp suffered from the kind of brutal experience they thought they had left behind after fleeing their countries of origin. Unfortunately, seven of them have been severely wounded. One of them is in a coma. Another boy was transported to the hospital in Nairobi, but unfortunately he lost an eye. I believe this is a result of the limitations imposed by UNHCR and the host country, which should ensure that the campers have refuge and protection, but instead they have been victims of serious cases of discrimination.
According to the information provided by the campers, last year, a group of lesbian girls were brutally attacked on the camp grounds. These events are really unacceptable. In the last period we have been collecting all the reports to introduce the problem to other human rights associations in hopes that things will change for the better.
Was the medical care adequate and what was the situation in the camp after these attacks?
After the assaults, first aid has been immediate, because The Red Cross has reached the scene to take them to the hospital. Nobody among law enforcement officers intervened to stop the aggression and the victims had to climb over the UNHCR gate to save themselves. None of the staff came out to make sure they were okay or to help them out. The only thing that has been done was to call the ambulance even if the aggression had already happened.
In the hospital they did not pay much attention to what had happened, questions were not asked to the boys and they were not asked to file a report, they only got their wounds medicated. Later they were sent back to the camp. But they were confused, shocked and very frightened, they still fear new attacks. So they slept outside UNHCR offices. The refugees cannot leave violence and persecution behind by just crossing the border of the host country, where, according to international laws, UNHCR should provide them with security and protection. So the wait, afraid that more attacks are just around the corner.
What role did the police play in bringing the perpetrators of these acts to justice and in the general protection of the shelter?
We have found out that Kenyan police after the attack from the Turkana group has beaten some boys in the camp. This attitude is not positive, law enforcement officers should be in control of the situation, offer good example and prosecute criminals. Give everyone equal rights regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. This behavior on the part of law enforcement officers is also very worrying. It tends to throw the LGBT community in discouragement, making them feel even more abandoned. This is the reason why we have repeatedly asked UNHCR to tackle the problem. Police cannot use violence against people for no reason. Arbitrary violence is detrimental to human rights.
Are the local agencies, press agencies or companies working to help raising awareness / supporting refugees (if general support is low, what is causing this lack of support, in your opinion)?
Unfortunately, we have tried to get in touch with many of the associations in the community, who are in charge of the safety of LGBT people in Kakuma, but our appeals have been ignored so far. We have sent several e-mails to UNHCR offices in Kenya, but we got no answer. I personally turned to the World Food Program, but the answer I got after a few days was disappointing, they told me that they did not know how to help. The LGBT refugees had been promised by UNHCR staff that they would guarantee their safety building a protective fence to divide their housing from those of other guests. But we are still waiting for their intervention.
Our association International Support – Human Rights is in contact with a Japanese girl, Satomi Shimada, who raises funds for food to send to the LGBT community on her Facebook page “Help, LGBTI refugees in Kakuma“, which is facing a lot of economic difficulties. I know that the African Coalition for Human Rights has issued several appeals, but no one has listened to their requests for help. People have the right to be protected and we request that it gets done.
It’s not a marginal thing, protection is a thing that UNHCR must guarantee to all guests of the camp and in particular to vulnerable people. The request of the LGBT community of Kakuma is more than legitimate and we don’t want them to live in fear while waiting for the documents they need to be resettled. Actually, we do not understand why they are still ignoring the problem, whether they lack in will or in real resources, because we repeatedly tried to ask but without any response.
What was the role of economic discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity referring to labour regulations for refugees?
Let’s say that discrimination at work is another big problem for LGBT refugees living in Kakuma, because of their sexual orientation or gender identity they struggle to find employment and do not have access to their own economic resources. Money is used to buy food and basic necessities, but that is impossible if you cannot get a job. Some of them had found jobs, but as soon as their sexual orientation became known they were fired. Some groups of LGBT boys tried to start crafting activities, but society tends to marginalize them not buying their products and with very few earnings they could not go on.
Unfortunately, we do not know how to tackle the problem, the only secure source of food is that coming from donations, associations sending food supplies and little else. With the funds cut on many programs, access to supplies has become increasingly difficult today.
I was told about a gay boy who worked in a bar hiding his sexual orientation that was discovered by other Sudanese guests who followed him and realized he lived in the LGBT community. They ambushed him to hit him. Their intent was to kill. He defended himself, but unfortunately suffered injuries. He was initially taken to the hospital in Kakuma, but then was sent to Nairobi due to his serious conditions. He was really traumatized and scared. After this episode he will certainly lose his job.
This event has happened only a few weeks ago, we are shocked and deeply worried. Another gay boy stated that because of his activism he had ended up in a local newspaper, had lost his job after that and he had been forced to leave the country to be safe.
With repeated attacks and lack of support, how would you describe the general well-being and mental health of refugees?
Certainly, because of these conditions refugees are experiencing great moments of unease and frustration, being forced to live in fear doesn’t benefit their psychological state. Their lodgings are often in bad conditions, some days ago they were flooded by water due to heavy rains. There are snakes, scorpions and many mosquitoes, the risk of malaria is high. The area should be reclaimed. All these things heavily affect the already uneasy daily life of these people. The situation of transgender people is even more difficult. Without neglecting the problem of food, the boys said that often they cannot have two meals a day. Without eating, the body weakens and it is difficult to work or practice any activity. A really big burden added to the violence and discrimination they are forced to suffer. The risk of depression and suicide is very high.
What role did religion and the legal position on LGBTI people play referring to refugees’ welfare?
I do not believe that in this case religion plays a decisive role, I believe it is just homophobia. Homosexuals are not accepted, violence and retaliation are very frequent. Unfortunately, as we already know, the LGBT people living in Kakuma are Ugandan and in many cases are easily recognizable because they speak Swahili and live with other members of the LGBT community. Therefore, hiding one’s sexual orientation and avoiding violence is not easy.
Surely religion has contributed to spread homophobia in Africa, many religious leaders claim that homosexuality is bad. In Nigeria the “exorcism” of lesbian girls to free them from the demon of homosexuality are very frequent. This practice harms the psyche of these people who feel somehow guilty of their “wrong” sexual orientation.
In Uganda, religion has greatly influenced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, promoted by American evangelical movements and then supported by many religious figures in the country. We must take into account that prejudice is very rooted in many African countries and Kenya gets affected as well, although trying to cope with major changes.
What measures need to be taken to improve the quality of life of refugees and to improve the general security of the camp?
The best solution would be to secure the area where LGBT refugees live, constantly monitoring the situation of violence and adequately pursuing those who are responsible for it. If these episodes will be unpunished, it will encourage to repeat them. We must not be indifferent to these serious episodes of discrimination. UNHCR staff should be available to stick to the agreements made and complete them. We do not understand why this has not yet happened. They should speak to the police and if it is necessary to ask that the agents be told off in case of arbitrary violence against LGBT people.
We know it is not easy, but we believe it can be done with little effort. We ask not for immediate but for progressive changes. If this does not happen at least we would like to know why. We are available to understand how we can tackle the problem and to create solutions, even to collaborate. Just get in touch with us.
Finally, what message do you have for LGBTI people who are afraid to seek shelter due to recent attacks and the general lack of support?
Surely we must not give up hope, we are determined to help them out in the best possible way and we hope that other associations will join us to solve this situation.
We know there a lot to do, especially for the resettlement, perhaps it will still take long, but in the meantime we can start ensuring a more peaceful and serene environment where homosexuals can live while waiting for the expatriation to other countries. We invite everyone to do something for the LGBT community in Kakuma, anything, a small gesture, an appeal, a donation. It will certainly be important to make them feel that they are not alone.
I would like to thank all the guys in Kakuma who have collaborated providing the information to complete this interview. I will not mention names to protect them more. But I was happy with them making their contribution with their own ideas and their own “voice”. If anyone wants to get in touch with us, you can find all the information on our site and we hope that someone is willing to help us.