TOPICS > Health

The Gray Area of Gay Refugees

BY Jonathan Kalan and GlobalPost  December 4, 2011 at 5:51 PM EDT

Refugees line up in one of northern Kenya's refugee camps. Photo by Tony Karumba/GlobalPost.

NAIROBI, Kenya — The two tender, soft-spoken Ugandans shared a circle of good friends back in their hometown of Kampala. They were close with their families and they started a restaurant together. Life was good.

That was before everything went wrong. They were disowned by their families. Their restaurant was burned down. Their car was stoned and set ablaze.

And so they fled Uganda and came here, thousands of kilometers east with little more than the clothes on their backs. They came as brothers to live in a scorching refugee camp in northern Kenya. Surrounded by thousands of others who have fled wars and drought in neighboring countries, they came here to save their own lives.

These two men are not rebel soldiers. They are not fleeing war or drought, and they aren’t really brothers. They are lovers, and they came here to escape what they feared would be certain death after being outed last year in a country where homosexuality is widely considered a mortal sin, as “unnatural” as it is “un-African.”

Alex and his partner Michael — whose real names cannot be used because of a continued threat of violence against them — were the target of a series of violent attacks inspired, they say, by an American evangelical campaign that began in 2009, and inspired legislation that, if passed, would have made gay acts punishable by the death penalty.

“I’m not a fighter,” said Alex, a former youth and community leader back in Uganda.

He is timid, unwilling to throw his elbows against hardened Somalis and Sudanese in the food line at the camp. As a result, he now shows signs of malnourishment.

Today the men have been pushed to their limits, living as refugees far from their friends, family and allies. Although they had hoped for a better life in a new land, the camp has proven to be yet another dangerous place for the two polite young Ugandans.

“LGBT people are perhaps the most persecuted group in the world,” said Neil Grungras, founder of the Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration (ORAM). “They are persecuted in countries of origin, but neighboring countries share similar cultural values. If you go across the border, you’re not any less likely to be persecuted.”

After all, homosexuality is illegal in Kenya too.

Flight over Fight

David Kato, a leading young gay rights activist in Uganda, was bludgeoned to death with a hammer in his own apartment in January. Months earlier a local tabloid newspaper had published the names, photographs and addresses of Ugandans believed to be gay, including Kato. A banner on the front page read: “Hang Them.”

Alex and Michael were good friends of Kato’s, but they continued to live their lives as homosexuals in private — not as activists, just as normal albeit closeted gay citizens. But even that proved untenable.

They were followed, called out on the streets, and after their restaurant went up in flames in April, one of Alex’s relatives finally gave him a grave warning.

“If you have any money, leave the country,” she advised. “You know, they are planning on killing you. You are putting shame on the family, and even the whole clan. They are planning for your death.”

A month later, the couple entered a supermarket, and came out to find their car engulfed in flames. In one of the hardest decisions of their lives, they packed their life belongings into two suitcases, and boarded a bus to Nairobi. Only one bag actually made it, and they arrived in Nairobi desperate for help.

Life as Refugees

After six months in the refugee camp, Alex and Michael have become accustomed to the whispered taunting of the other refugees. “Here comes Miss Uganda … ” is a familiar refrain.

Life in the camp hasn’t been much of an improvement for either of them, and this month they marked their six-year anniversary as a couple without any kind of celebration.

The Kenyan government does not grant asylum to LGBT refugees because of its law barring homosexual acts, leaving people like Alex and Michael in legal limbo.

Although the couple has been in touch with a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) counselor, they feel they are not receiving enough protection. They have been told there is little that can be done, and that their only real option is resettlement in a Western country.

“Honestly, the fear is now increasing,” said Alex.

Refugees from vehemently anti-homosexual societies like Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia surround them, and beliefs and attitudes don’t change by simply crossing a border.

According to Alex, when they revealed to their UNHCR counselor that instances of being called “gay” in the camp were increasing, the counselor’s response was, “Well, aren’t you?”

Improper handling of situations like this is widespread, says ORAM founder Grungas.

“It’s not enough to treat them like every other refugee,” said Grungas, referring to the unique danger of violence for LGBTs if other refugees discover their true identities. “There are no mechanisms to protect them in the camps.”

ORAM is one of several organizations that have begun to take a systematic focus towards assisting LGBT refugees and asylum seekers, such as HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), and Refugee Law Project in Uganda. Still, Grungas says, “it’s a real hodgepodge of who’s ready and able to assist in these matters.”

The refugee camp has had draining physical and mental effects on both men. Alex says that Michael often cries throughout the night, and has become both extremely depressed and afraid of people. He is still slowly trying to recover, but finds it difficult with little to occupy his time in the camp aside from his own thoughts.

Looking through photographs of the couple from less than a year ago, one of the few valuables they were able to bring with them, it is clear that Alex’s body has shrunken drastically.

“You know this refugee life — we’ve got many problems here. The food they give you is the same for a 1-year-old. Three kilos of wheat flower, 1/2 kilo of beans, and a 1/2 liter of oil for two weeks. It’s not enough.”

At one point, things got so bad that they almost considered going back to Uganda.

“We ran because we feared death. But what sort of life do we have here? If we die in our country, at least it can bring to attention what’s happening. If we die here, no one will know anything,” Alex said.

“We have been surviving. But it feels like we’re going to be in the camp all our life, because even here in Kenya they won’t allow us, they can’t accept us.”

Roots of Hate

This month, UK Prime Minister David Cameron threatened to place aid restrictions on nations that do not respect gay rights, part of a larger campaign in Commonwealth countries.

Both Uganda and Nigeria, which is also considering new anti-gay legislation, are large recipients of UK aid, and were no doubt targets of Cameron’s rhetoric. Those receiving aid should “adhere to proper human rights” regarding religion and sexuality, Cameron said.

In response, the BBC reported, Ugandan presidential advisor John Nagenda said Cameron was demonstrating a “bullying mentality.” He added, “If they must take their money, so be it.” Nigeria and Zambia have had similar responses.

Restricting aid would probably have little affect on the situation, however. In both Kenya and Uganda, it’s not simply the government, “it’s the people, the community, that is causing the problems,” said Alex.

Anti-homosexual sentiments run deep across the African continent, and in most African societies, homosexuality is considered immoral, “un-African,” “un-Christian” and a threat to the traditional fabric of society. Others claim it to be an import of the West.

Out of 54 African nations, 38 have laws criminalizing homosexual acts to various extents — yet Uganda has been particularly aggressive in recent years. With over 500,000 gays reported to be living in Uganda, the risks of living openly are rising.

The recent tidal wave of anti-gay attitudes in the country began in 2009, when a new anti-homosexuality bill — dubbed the “Kill the Gays Bill” because it would introduce the death sentence for some gay acts and a minimum of life imprisonment for all gays and lesbians — was introduced to the Ugandan Parliament.

Several newspapers reported that the bill stemmed from a workshop held by three evangelical preachers from the United States earlier that year, including Caleb Lee Brundidge, a former gay man who conducts “homosexual healing” sessions, and Scott Lively, a well known anti-gay activist and president of Defend the Family International. The workshop reportedly preached about the “gay agenda,” and the societal evils caused by homosexuality, comparing it to things like bestiality and rape.

MP David Bahati, who introduced the bill, claimed it was to protect “the legal, religious, and traditional family values of the people of Uganda against the attempts of sexual rights activists seeking to impose their values of sexual promiscuity on the people of Uganda.”

Instead, it rapidly stoked the flames of a new anti-gay movement.

The Anti-Homosexuality Bill was eventually tabled for later discussion, and observers say it will likely never pass because of both internal and external pressures. However it was supported openly by President Yoweri Museveni, and recently leaked WikiLeaks cables from U.S. Ambassador to Uganda Jerry Lanier claimed that First Lady Janet Museveni herself was behind the legislation.

Dangerous Neighbors

GlobalPost was specifically asked by an agency of the Kenyan government not to cover this story. The reason, speculated an official at the UNHCR, was that not only would it potentially “put at risk” Alex and Michael in the camp, but that causing a stir around their situation could give the couple unfair advantage to gain resettlement.

While this has some truth to it, another reason may be more complex. Kenya has its own anti-gay sentiments — similar to those in Uganda, though they less often result in severe violence. Providing refuge to gay foreigners while ignoring the issue on the homefront could present a contradictory policy to the public.

In 2007 the Pew Global Attitudes Project discovered that 96 percent of Kenyans said that homosexuality should be “rejected by society.” David Kuria, a prominent gay rights activist in Kenya and executive director of Gay Kenya Trust, an advocacy and support organization, agrees that Kenya is an extremely homophobic society, but says it differs from Uganda in that it lacks political endorsement for violence.

In Uganda, high-ranking politicians often make extremely homophobic statements. James Nsaba Buturo, the former minister of state for ethics and integrity, said, when it comes to homosexuals, “We are talking about anal sex. Not even animals do that,” and “we believe there are limits to human rights.”

This type of speech, and in many cases worse, validates and justifies the violence, Kuria claims. “The government creates a sense of impunity for the people to act.”

Ironically, anti-sodomy laws introduced under British colonial rule are the reason why homosexual acts are still illegal in Kenya and Uganda.

Road to Resettlement

After months of torment in Uganda and now Kenya, Alex and Michael’s journey toward a place where they can live freely under their real identities has just begun.

The couple now faces a long and murky legal battle towards resettlement, entering a gray area of migration that has been hard to define — or prove. While tribal, ethnic and even religious distinctions are often traced through ancestries, regions and sometimes even physical features, sexual preference is a much more ambiguous form of oppression. Simply put, it’s hard to confirm “gay.”

Alex and Michael are currently waiting out the bureaucratic process for resettlement through the UNHCR, yet for others who have landed in a country where they can attempt to claim asylum, the process can be even more painstaking.

In most countries, to seek asylum gay applicants must provide proof of imminent risk and/or previous incidents, such as medical reports of abuse, affidavits from partners or police, and more. In countries where homosexuality is illegal these things are not easy to obtain.

And even if refugees can prove they are gay, governments often ask questions about whether LGBTs can live their lives in secret in their countries of origin — or have been outed to such a level where they would face immediate persecution or death upon return.

International outrage fell upon the Czech Republic last year when it attempted to verify gay asylum seekers by attaching genital cuffs and monitoring their arousal when watching gay porn. Although the Fundamental Rights Agency criticized the measure, it illustrated the government’s intense concern about fraud.

In 2009, Stephen and Helen Mahoney, naturalized U.S. citizens from Russia living in Kent, Washington, pleaded guilty to charges of “conspiracy to commit immigration fraud” after coaching straight asylum seekers on how to pass themselves as gay — for fees upwards of $4,000.

The odds are stacked against all refugees, gay or straight. Of the more than 10 million refugees worldwide, only an estimated 100,000 are resettled each year.

Given community-led violence against gays and high-level political reinforcement of homophobia in his homeland, Alex fears he and Michael will never again be able to return to Uganda.

With few options before him, and currently no help from outside agencies, Alex has relied on his faith to keep him positive and driven.

Alex describes himself as a devout Christian. He says he finds great incongruity between the intense religiosity of his country and the idea of bashing gay “sinners.” He says he didn’t choose to be gay.

“God did,” he said.

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