Fear and Violence Stalk LGBTQ Refugees In One of the World’s Biggest Migrant Camps

A deadly arson attack was just the latest act of violence against LGBTQ refugees in Kakuma, Kenya.
May 5, 2021, 4:57pm
LGBTQ refugees on the way to a protest to demand their protection at the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Nairobi, Kenya, on May 17, 2019​.
LGBTQ refugees on the way to a protest to demand their protection at the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Nairobi, Kenya, on May 17, 2019. Photo: YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images

In Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp – one of the largest refugee camps in the world – LGBTQ refugees are constantly on high alert for attackers.

An onslaught of anti-LGBTQ violence has broken out in the camp: leaving members of Kakuma’s LGBTQ community living in fear for their lives.

“We are living in non-stop fear,” Sunny – a member of Kakuma’s LGBTQ community who requested to speak under a pseudonym – tells VICE World News. “By now we [have] become used to facing all manner of attacks and insults for being LGBTQ in East Africa, but the last few months have been very difficult for us here in Kakuma.”

It was around 2AM on the 15th of March when a suspected arson attack left Kakuma’s “Block 13” engulfed in flames. “It was a petrol bomb,” Sunny tearfully recounts. “They threw a petrol bomb into the open outside area in which people were sleeping. The fire was spreading everywhere. Many people woke up and luckily manage[d] to escape it, but my friend... Trinidad... the fire caught onto his bedding and he couldn’t escape it. They set him on fire. The doctors tried their best to save him… but with the burns... He didn’t make it.”

Falling victim to the second arson attack that has targeted Kakuma’s LGBTQ community this year, Chriton “Trinidad'' Atuhwera succumbed to his injuries on the 13th of April after weeks of emergency treatment in Nairobi. He was 32. 

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“It is with deep sadness and anger that we have had to say goodbye to our fellow queer refugee,” the Refugee Coalition of East Africa said in a statement. “We are furious that yet another of our community has perished only for nothing to be done, nothing to change, and with no justice.”

The statement continued: “Trinidad did not deserve to die. He was only living his life, having escaped victimisation in his own country [Uganda] only to be murdered here in Kenya. He was a good person who only wanted to love, to live, to be free, and to let his true identity shine. For that, he was attacked, burned and killed.” 

Home to over 1,000 LGBTQ refugees, Kenya is the only nation in East Africa that grants asylum to individuals in the region fleeing persecution based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which established Kakuma Refugee Camp in 1992 in partnership with the government of Kenya, estimates that there are about 300 refugees with an LGBTQ profile living among Kakuma’s population of 160,000

Block 13, a complex in the shadow of Kakuma’s sprawling makeshift shelters, is home to the camp’s highest concentration of LGBTQ refugees. But despite being designed to be a “safe haven” for sexual minorities fleeing harm, “pervasive homophobia” has permeated through Kakuma’s silver wire mesh fencing: leaving its LGBTQ community subject to the very acts of homophobic discrimination and violence that they sought refuge in Kakuma to escape.

Scrambling to sort medical forms for a second victim injured in the deadly 15th of March attack, Gilbert Kagarura, spokesperson for Block 13, told VICE World News that anti-LGBTQ violence in Kakuma has devastatingly manifested through “deeply embedded cultural and religious beliefs.”

“Most of the atrocities and attacks are perpetrated by fellow refugees who are mainly from South Sudan, a country that has been bred and born out of violence,” Kagarura said. “There is a very hostile environment in the camp because their culture is strongly against us. They believe that we are evil and we should not be in their midst. The superstitions of the Turkanas (natives of North-West Kenya) in itself have also created a source of danger. They believe our presence has chased away the rain, and say we are destroying their land.”

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From the start of this year, Kakuma has recorded several incidents of anti-LGBTQ violence, including stoning attacks, beatings, slashings and rape. 

“They don't want us in their midst, and they have made their feelings very clear to the UNHCR.”

Responding to inquiries on the well-being of LGBTQ refugees in its camp, the UNHCR issued a statement describing the situation in Kakuma as “complex and tense”, and stressed that it “strongly condemn[s]” the acts of “senseless violence” that have been ongoing since June 2020. The UNHCR also announced that it beefed up security for refugees in the camp, but Kagarura tells VICE World News that culprits have perfected the game of playing cat-and-mouse with the police. 

“It has been like this in the past, they attack, there is a statement, and then they lay off a bit because they know the police are doing rounds,” Kagarura said. “And then when the police think things are stabilising and take their foot off the pedal, they attack again.

“Most recently the police have been doing patrols, quite a number of patrols in the night. They were doing a lot of arrests, but they were simply arresting the people violating the COVID-19 curfew. They are yet to arrest any culprits.”

With culprits at large, and justice deferred for their victims, LGBTQ refugees are struggling to see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

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“For years UNHCR has been promising increased security,” Kagarura continued. “In fact back in April 2020 a group of about 200 LGBTQ refugees congregated outside their office here in Kakuma asking for a safe place, just a safe place, inside or outside Kakuma, where we can live safely during the lockdown. They tear gassed us. Then they issued a statement saying they are increasing police vigilance, psycho-social services and a whole range of other things - the same things they are talking about now. In actual sense there has been a lack of will to implement these things on the ground.

“It's not like they don’t understand what is going on or the serious violations that have been going on under their watch,” continues Kagarura. “It's just that they have chosen to look the other way and address this as a PR problem.”

In its statement, the UNHCR expressed concern that some members of Kakuma’s LGBTQ community have “declined to engage in dialogues” to defuse tensions. When posed the question of why some of the LGBTQ community have opted out of  talks with the UN agency, Kagarura had a short answer: “Dialogue cannot solve violence caused by peoples beliefs.”

Feeling that they have no place left to turn, some of Kakuma’s LGBTQ refugees have taken to social media as a last resort: launching an online petition to garner attention to their plight, and apply further pressure on the UNHCR to relocate residents out of the targeted Block 13.

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“Despite years of urging by organisations to act and protect LGBTQ refugees at the Kakuma camp, the UNHCR has shown little political will and commitment to intervene. This is in direct violation of UNHCR’s mandate to “aid and protect refugees, forcibly displaced communities, and stateless people, and to assist in their voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement to a third country,” reads the petition, which was started by the Coalition of African Lesbians. 

But despite being forewarned by the high-likelihood of a new outbreak of anti-LGBTQ violence by the fate of Block 13’s predecessors and overt homophobia witnessed in the camp, the UNHCR says that relocation is not as easy as it may seem as the COVID-19 pandemic has stalled resettlement departures – causing resettlement requests to far exceed the number of spaces available in host settlements.

As the UNHCR worked to resettle members of Kakuma’s LGBTQ community, the government of Kenya officially announced the closure of Kakuma and its sister camp, Dadaab, following talks with UN Refugee Agency chief, Filippo Grandi.

The announcement followed a stark ultimatum given by Kenya’s Interior Minister Fred Matiang’i in March, who gave the UNHCR 14 days to present a roadmap for its definitive closure, saying that there was “no room for further negotiations”.

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In a joint statement, the government of Kenya and the UNHCR articulated that security concerns, Kenya’s “overstretched” capacity to continue sheltering refugees, and “international obligations” are key factors that initiated closure of the camps. The official closure date has been set for the 30th of June, 2022.

“I believe that the government and people of Kenya will continue to show their generous hospitality towards refugees as they have done for nearly three decades, while we carry on discussions on a strategy to find the most durable, appropriate and rights-based solutions for refugees and asylum-seekers residing in the refugee camps,” said Grandi.

These “rights-based solutions” include voluntary return in “safety and dignity” for refugees and asylum seekers, arrangements for departures to “third countries,” and safe “stay options in Kenya.”  

Meanwhile, Amnesty International Kenya has called for an independent review on the current protection and safety measures afforded to Kakuma’s LGBTQ community, saying that it is “horrified” by the recent attacks. 

“Until the Killers of Chiriton Atuhwera have been placed in a court of law and camp security measures improve,” says Amnesty, “both the Government of Kenya and UNHCR must continue to be held accountable for the safety lapse that claimed his life.”