UNHCR Statement on the situation of LGBTIQ+ refugees in Kakuma camp
25 Mar 2021
Yesterday news came down of an ultimatum given to UNHCR by the Kenyan Government, declaring the imminent closures of Dadaab and Kakuma Camps, Kenya. The Statement can be read HERE. This statement has occurred in the context of life for LGBTQI refugees and asylum seekers seeking protection and resettlement from Kenya. The Kenyan Government has maintained a protection space for LGBTQI people out of surrounding East African countries. This situation has been complex, given the fact that Kenya also criminalizes LGBTQI individuals. However it must be noted that this is a protection space that has been nurtured by UNHCR as imperative for LGBTQI refugees and asylum seekers. Kenya has had an encampment policy, requiring all refugees to be in either Dadaab or Kakuma. This quest for closure creates enormous uncertainty and there is only two weeks to try and grasp what is occurring. The situation is fluid and hopefully governments will step in and try and help secure the space. LGBTQI protection is complex. African Human Rights Coalition (AHRC) has been working actively in this space on a number of levels and with regard to several issues from humanitarian support to advocacy related issues.
Below is a statement from UNHCR speaking to recent issues in the camp impacting LGBTQI individuals.
"This statement is in response to a number of inquiries we have received on the overall situation of LGBTIQ+ refugees in Kakuma refugee camp and a security incident that took place on 15 March 2021.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, remains deeply committed to the protection of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer (LGBTIQ+) refugees and asylum-seekers across the world, including in Kenya.
In recent years, UNHCR has invested heavily in building capacity and ensuring more attention is paid to the specific and profound challenges that LGBTIQ+ people face. We have also closely followed up the situation in Kakuma refugee camp, which hosts about 300 refugees and asylum-seekers with an LGBTIQ+ profile and stepped up our services on the ground.
Despite the challenges of life in a refugee camp, the overwhelming majority report to us that they have been able to live peacefully within the Kakuma community. This comes in stark contrast with reports of security incidents, including on social media, by a small group of refugees with an LGBTIQ+ profile residing in Kakuma 3, who are requesting urgent resettlement out of Kenya.
We are concerned by these incidents as well as by the increasing tensions between this group and other refugees, including some with an LGBTIQ+ profile. Several have reported being threatened or attacked by members of this particular group for refusing to join protests or lend their voice to the call for urgent resettlement on security grounds.
UNHCR’s sole objective is to ensure the protection of all refugees. We have undertaken, together with Kenya’s Refugee Affairs Secretariat (RAS) and partner organizations, a number of initiatives in an attempt to address this complex and tense situation.
In addition to increased police patrols in Kakuma 3, medical, legal and psycho-social assistance has been strengthened in the camp. RAS, UNHCR and partners have also held meetings with community leaders in Kakuma 3 to identify solutions and reduce tensions, although the smaller group of LGBTIQ+ persons has declined to engage in these dialogues. We hope that they will change views and agree to engage.
Furthermore, over the past several months over 30 individuals with an LGBTIQ+ profile have been relocated from Kakuma 3 to other parts of the camp based on the protection concerns raised by them and following careful assessment by our teams on the ground.
UNHCR does not tolerate discrimination or any form of violence against refugees, including violence committed by other refugees, and works with law enforcement and other branches of government in Kenya to ensure that refugees are protected and safe.
Despite these efforts, on 15 March 2021, two refugees suffered burn injuries in a fire following an alleged arson attack in Kakuma 3 where they resided. UNHCR organized their transfer to a regional hospital in Lodwar and, following expert advice from burn specialists, to a Nairobi hospital. Both are receiving specialized treatment for their burns and progress in their recovery is being closely monitored by the local medical team and a UNHCR doctor.
We strongly condemn this senseless violence. We have been advised that the ongoing investigation by Kenyan police is progressing and we hope that it will bring full clarity in respect of this incident and that those responsible will be held to account in accordance with Kenyan law.
Resettlement departures, which slowed down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, are progressively picking up. Despite the generosity of some states, resettlement needs globally remain far greater than the actual number of spaces available. This means that priority will continue to be given to those who need it most, including survivors of torture or sexual and gender-based violence, and unaccompanied minors. Many refugees with an LGBTIQ+ profile have, based on their individual circumstances, been resettled from Kenya over the years. Since 2019, some 235 refugees with this profile have been submitted for resettlement, of whom 48 per cent have departed.
UNHCR will continue to work closely with all partners to ensure that those who need it most are put forward for resettlement, while also advocating for more resources and resettlement places for vulnerable refugees. In addition, we welcome and encourage private sponsorship programmes and related initiatives from civil society groups based outside of Kenya.
Kenya currently hosts more than 512,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, including an estimated 1,000 LGBTIQ+ refugees. It remains the only country in the region to provide asylum to those fleeing persecution based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression."
African Human Right Coalition (AHRC) stands by UNHCR in this statement and endorses the fact that UNHCR has demonstrated a deep commitment to the protection of LGBTQI individuals, especially given the overwhelmingly difficult environment and complexities:
At AHRC we have been witness to the fact that despite challenges and much discomfort, especially given the homophobia in the region, most of the LGBTQI population in Kakuma have reported that they have remained relatively safe.
We attribute this to the fact that most in the camps LGBTQI community have followed basic tenants of protection by adhering to self protective measures. When issues have arisen those who currently are safer have followed protocols for protection and security related measures. UNHCR and partners on the ground have intervened and provided requisite services and protection when called upon.
We are aware that there is a small group of refugees at BLOCK 13 who have reported suffering ongoing physical attacks and who have not followed protocols including the absolute requirement of self protection. AHRC has observed self-outing and provocation which the group itself has evidenced though its own social media reporting, all off which does not serve protection required by this difficult environment.
When suggestions are made and guidelines are provided, AHRC is rebuked by those who have chosen to ignore the calls for dialogue and peaceful solutions, instead demanding the unrealistic immediate evacuation from the camp, which under present conditions and Kenyan law is impossible.
This group has received offers of relocation into smaller groups in the camp, like the 30 who UNHCR just relocated, successfully. While we understand the desperate needs of all refugees, and especially LGBTQI refugees to be resettled soonest, we do not think self-outing, public displays of affection, holding Pride in central Kakuma, flying rainbow flags etc. is helpful and serves only to provoke potentially homophobic neighbors and the Kenyan Government.
Adding this all to social media, intended to capture worldwide attention, is actually proving to be harmful to the protection space. This is because the group has purposely sought attention by failing to self-protect. While we understand one ought to have a right to be "out", this is a very difficult navigation when taking into account the complexities of criminalization and the milieu in anti-Gay Africa - and the current safety of the majority in the camp. At AHRC we believe a very basic principle ought to be - that what you will not do in central Kampala as a citizen you should not do in central Kakuma as a refugee. That all should focus on safety pending the hope of resettlement.
AHRC encourages all those claiming hardship at BLOCK 13 to engage constructively in discussion with UNHCR and partners that involves your individual security. We encourage first and foremost your self protection by engaging with UNHCR to be immediately relocated within the camp into small groups and to employ the same measures of discreet behavior as being employed by those who are for the most part living safely.
UPDATED (3/30/2021) NOTE ADDRESSED TO REFUGEES- :
Recently a refugee wrote this in an email upon which I am copied: "Now that I have got a chance that am under unhcr, and am entitled to be protected, regardless of who I am, why can't I come out more, why can't I put on my dress? Why can't I flag my pride LGBT flag? It's my right and I have to do it. Support me in this, don't let me stay in closet even for an hour please."
These are valid concerns and thought provoking questions. AHRC supports everyone's right to come out. We also support decriminalization of homosexuality. We have a long history of fighting for this. We never intend to deter or inhibit one's right to come out. We hope that when you do come out, you consider your safety and the safety of others who you are impacting while in hostile host environments, such as in the camp and in all of Kenya, to include Kenyan LGBTQI. In fact in order to claim asylum/refugee status as a member of the LGBTQI social group, one is in fact "coming out." That is clearly supported by UNHCR as they continue to maintain the protection space by supporting, advocating for and providing status on this basis, as well as harnessing criminalizing governments to provide resettlement and asylum platforms - while trying to navigate the complexities involved.
We also support the plea by famed Ugandan activist Kasha Jaqueline who has gone on the record in a conference that was broadcast on Facebook over a year ago, at which Kakuma refugees were present, and fully participated. Kasha implored upon the refugees to maintain self-security and in her words to refrain from "being provocative" - to "keep a low profile." We are suggesting nothing less than just that.
So again I reiterate, if you think you can hide behind UNHCR protection to make you safer coming out in Kenya in a manner that you would not do in Uganda, you are being unrealistic. Because UNHCR is not an enforcing body in a foreign country. They simply do not have that power. And YOU are in a foreign country that is hosting you and criminalizing you under THEIR laws at the same time. NOBODY says that is right. Again we reiterate - participate in your own self-protection because you are not safe if you do not do so. It is common sense NOT to do in Kakuma what you would not do in Kampala! Focus on your hopes to advance to chances of resettlement safely.
We at AHRC remain committed to your best interests and are deeply proud of the work we have done and the successes we have accomplished for refugees and asylum seekers.
PRESS CONTACT: Melanie Nathan nathan@AfricanHRC.org