Hannington Mugisha knew he needed to leave Uganda when his father threatened to kill him for being gay, but hesitated. He wasn't sure where to go or how to get there. Then one day, while doing chores in the yard, his father walked up behind him with a rope and dragged him to the giant acacia tree that stood in front of their home. Mugisha hung from the tree struggling to breathe while his father went into the house without looking back. As he lost consciousness, his sister, who had been watching from afar, ran up and cut him down. She told him to run. He did.
Mugisha took money he had saved from his small business selling mobile-phone credit to pay to get to Ethiopia, where he had been told by a friend a refugee camp would be the safest place for him. By a combination of buses and bush taxis, it took him five weeks to arrive at the Sherkole refugee camp, one of seven run by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHRC) in the East African country. After being processed, he was given a blanket and some food and was assigned a bunkmate. He disclosed his sexual identity to UNHCR, but it remained confidential to his new community.
While his new neighbors—from the African Great Lakes region, places like Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and his own Uganda—shared similarly tragic stories of having to leave their home countries to save their own lives, fleeing civil war or claiming political asylum, they were safe from those things inside the camp.
But for Mugisha and every other African LGBTQ person who seeks sanctuary in a camp like Sherkole, there is one big distinction that sets them apart: what they flee is cultural ideology and laws that perpetuate it. Being gay is illegal in 33 of Africa's 54 countries, including Uganda, where it was outlawed in 1962. In others, it's punished socially, and mob justice can end a life with little to no consequence. While not legally punishable to be gay inside the camp, most of Mugisha fellow refugees were raised in cultures where it is.
UNHCR has a high ethical code toward marginalized populations and guidelines on how to deal with LGBTQ populations that they implement globally. Sixty-four percent of their participating offices have at least one LGBTQ-specific measure in place—having gender neutral options on registration forms or "safe space" waiting areas for LGBTQ people to be processed through, for instance. While they cannot comment on individual cases, its camps have "specific programs in place to address the needs of persons who are at specific risk," says UNHRC senior press information officer Jenifer Fenton. Also, as appropriate, the UNHCR can make referrals for resettlement.
Regardless, a year into his new life at the camp, Mugisha woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of a machete splintering the wooden door of his one room hut. Just days earlier, word had gotten out among his fellow refugees that he was gay. The harassment started as verbal shaming, escalated to having feces being smeared on the doorway and windows, and now this.
"Once they found out, it was like Uganda all over again," Mugisha says on a recent Skype call. "I couldn't move on the street; I couldn't leave my home without fearing my safety. It's so hard to understand that these are people who fled from war and violence, and yet they want us to suffer."
Mugisha reported the incident to the UNHCR office, saying he feared for his safety and wanted to be moved to another camp. He was told to return in six weeks, the time it would take for his case to be reviewed by the Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs, a group run by Ethiopian government. His claim was denied.
When he returned home that night, he heard music nearby where people were gathering for what looked like a makeshift party. He asked about the cause of the celebration. "The homosexual is leaving," someone told him. "They said, 'He has been deported.'"
The unfortunate truth is, despite the high standards organizations like UNHCR place on themselves, for those seeking sanctuary from cultural values often perpetuated by inhumane laws, the guidelines don't address the real issue. These camps exist to protect vulnerable populations but often cannot offer a safe space for Mugisha and others like him.
Homophobia in Africa is a complex problem with deep historical roots, and changing behaviors shaped by both law and society take time. While there may not be a short-term fix that would leave people like Mugisha free to be themselves in a refugee camp, change is happening.
The state of human rights in each country is different, and there is no uniform "African culture" around being queer. The reality is that most of the laws against homosexuality in sub-Saharan Africa were imposed or inspired historically by colonial powers, in particular Britain. In recent years, a new wave of homophobic rhetoric heavily funded by anti-LGBTQ conservatives in America has fortified hate, inspiring powerful documentaries revealing the impact, like God Loves Uganda. Melanie Nathan, executive director of the African Human Rights Coalition, tells me, "The only way to change this is to correct lies and myths that have been perpetuated by religious and political leaders. Finding ways to teach that homosexuals are not pedophiles, nor promoters of homosexuality."
Innovative efforts on the ground do exist, but it takes time for them to have enough influence to make a measurable impact. Nathan recently attended the United Methodist Western Regional "Rise Up" conference in Portland, Oregon, where religious leaders organized around various human rights issues, from mass incarceration to human rights abroad. Nathan noted that "various church groups are starting to reach out for consultation in their efforts to try and mitigate homophobia on the continent through approaching leadership and bishops to influence change—the idea being to focus on love and acceptance rather than the aspect of sin."
Proof of change is already evident in some areas. Namibia, known for being more progressive than many other African countries, had an inaugural gay pride parade last year. Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa and Bishop Christopher Senyonjo in Uganda have spoken out against the persecution of LGBTQ people, as has the former Botswana president Festus Mogae. "There is still a long way to go, most leaders are silent or overtly hostile to LGBT civil rights," says Peter Tatchell, an international LGBTQ campaigner for the last half century, over email. "Change will come eventually. No tyranny last forever."
But for now: In Mugisha's last days in the Sherkole refugee camp, he stayed indoors, only leaving to get food from the mess hall that was run by fellow refugees. They stopped feeding him. "They told me I don't deserve service. That I shouldn't come back." He stayed in his barracks for five days before acknowledging he could no longer survive in his current situation, ultimately traveling to UNHCR headquarters in Addis Ababa 400 miles away. He slept in front of the gates for two weeks, eventually being arrested for loitering before securing an appointment to get help. UNHCR placed him at Tonga camp in Ethiopia, but he was soon outed to campers by, he believes, a UN security officer. The harassment began again.
From there, he traveled to Kenya, where Mugisha says he has found a small, tight-knit gay community. His future is uncertain, but he knows one thing for sure. "You can start over in a camp but don't expect to be free there," he says. "I won't go back to a camp again."
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