Kenya LGBT refugee protest ends with tear gas and batons

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday May 6, 2020
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Kenyan police officers sprayed LGBT protesters with tear gas as they ran away at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in Kakuma, where the world's largest refugee camp is located. Photo: Courtesy Facebook/Sebuuma Stephen
Kenyan police officers sprayed LGBT protesters with tear gas as they ran away at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in Kakuma, where the world's largest refugee camp is located. Photo: Courtesy Facebook/Sebuuma Stephen

Police attempted to disband a protest of about 60 LGBT refugees outside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee's office in Kakuma, Kenya at the end of last week.

Some of the demonstrators, who wore rainbow face masks, brought their children. They orchestrated a peaceful sit-in outside the office that started April 27. A few days later, police moved in, using tear gas and batons.

The protesters were demanding quick relocation to LGBT-friendly countries and increased security inside Kakuma Refugee Camp, where a majority of the queer asylum seekers and refugees reside.

Authorities were reportedly called out to the LGBT group's compound at Kakuma Block 13 after the group was attacked again, according to a May 4 video posted on Facebook by transgender rights advocate and refugee Doreen Andrewz.

The demonstrators also complained on Facebook of not having adequate housing. More than 200 queer refugees have to sleep outside.

Outside the UNHCR office, activists said that authorities used force after the protesters refused to disband to comply with Kenya's lockdown orders due to the coronavirus pandemic.

During the protest, UNHCR officials negotiated with the demonstrators, agreeing to enhance security including a one-hour police response and a 24/7 security helpline. The agency also agreed to individual counseling for group members, Eujin Byun, spokeswoman and communications officer at the UNHCR office in Kenya, wrote to the Bay Area Reporter in an email interview.

She refuted some LGBT refugees' accusations that the UNHCR forced the police onto the demonstrators, stating that the protesters were given an hour warning before the police resorted to force.

She also warned against the spread of false information on social media, stating that the agency was "deeply concerned and alarmed about the spread of misinformation and disinformation on social media regarding the prevailing situation in Kakuma."

The demonstrators posted photos and videos of injured queer protesters and the attack on Facebook, claiming the UNHCR couldn't refute the video.

Officials at the refugee agency told 76 Crimes that the demonstration put the "health of protesters and others at risk" by not adhering to physical distancing orders to stem the novel coronavirus outbreak.

The refugees had been informed about the Kenyan government's response to the pandemic by the UN agency, Byun wrote to the B.A.R.

On March 15, Kenya closed its borders, schools, pubs, and restaurants and set curfews under President Uhuru Kenyatta's orders and asked residents to maintain physical distancing. The country issued a 21-day lockdown April 6.

In the same statement to the media the UNHCR reiterated "all resettlement has been suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic."

"Police officers were observed using sticks. No excessive use of force was witnessed by UNHCR staff presented," wrote Byun. "Nobody was seriously injured."

Byun confirmed that 11 people who sustained minor injuries were taken to a hospital, treated, and released back to the camp.

In a Facebook post, LGBT refugees refuted the agency's statements that the protestors received treatment.

"Some members after a long time of tear gas blacked out and fainted, others were beaten, and are bad off with no medical help," wrote Sebuuma Stephen in the post sent to LGBT activists and reporters May 1.

Six of the protesters were a part of Upper Rift Minorities, an organization working with queer refugees to launch soap-making and other microbusinesses at the camp, according to Billy, the organization's director, who used a pseudonym and only one name for safety reasons.

United States-based Organization for Refuge, Asylum, and Migration, whose parent organization is Alight, was helping the organization launch the venture.

The B.A.R. reported on the soap-making business in November 2019.

Byun stated that many refugees were working on mask and soap production.

On May 1, Billy wrote to the B.A.R. in a WhatsApp message that some of the organization's members were still in the hospital in stable condition while others dispersed and were unable to be found.

"The majority of the group were transported by the police back to their shelters in the refugee camp," Byun wrote about the status of the demonstrators following the police action.

According to the UNHCR website, at the end of March there were 195,050 registered refugees and asylum seekers residing at Kakuma Refugee Camp. The camp long ago surpassed capacity by more than 58,000 with a surge of refugees in 2014.

There are an estimated 200-plus queer refugees currently living at the camp.

Unwanted, unsafe

The demonstrators complained that the UNHCR returned them to a place where they've received ongoing harassment and death threats.

In a Facebook message to the B.A.R., Stephen wrote that their Sudanese neighbors were retaliating against the queer refugees following their arrest for allegedly harassing the LGBT group.

"The police arrested not one, but three, Sudanese that were suspected of leading the attack on us," Stephen wrote, explaining that one of the suspects died either in police custody or at the hospital. The circumstances of the alleged harasser's death weren't clear, he wrote.

"He and his fellow Sudanese community are not tolerant of us being their neighbors, the major reason why they attacked. They don't want us in Kakuma," he wrote, adding that the same group was successful in violently attacking and kicking out other LGBT groups over the years.

LGBT refugees at the camp have endured ongoing homophobia and violence as they spend years waiting for relocation to western countries where being gay is more accepted.

The anti-gay attacks appeared to subside somewhat last fall.

At the beginning of the year, that changed when reports of anti-gay attacks at the camp resumed.

It got so bad that on April 14, Aneste Mweru, a gay refugee from the camp, died by suicide outside the UNHCR's Nairobi office.

Byun was clear that violence in the camp isn't tolerated by the UNHCR.

"Any incident of violence or other criminal act against a refugee or asylum seeker which is brought to our attention is immediately followed up by our staff, who take appropriate action," she wrote. "UNHCR advocates for the respect of refugees regardless of their culture, nationality, sexuality, gender, or religion and does not tolerate discrimination."

Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya. In 2019, the country's high court retained the colonial-era anti-sodomy law that criminalizes sex between men. Those charged could face up to 14 years in prison if convicted.

In contrast to some other African nations that also criminalize homosexuality, the law is rarely enforced in Kenya. However, social stigma against gays remains high.

Responding to complaints about lack of shelter in the camp, Byun wrote that the agency continues to "ensure that their basic needs such as shelter and access to clean water are met and their protection concerns are addressed."

However, the demonstrators posted images of the group sleeping outside and another attack reportedly happened sometime Monday night.

Hard hit and locked down

Following the UNHCR protest, the Kenyan government, which owns the refugee camp located in northwestern Kenya that is operated by the UNHCR, put the camp on lockdown May 1.

"Hence, no going in or coming out," Billy wrote.

The coronavirus pandemic and the global shutdown are only compounding an already dire situation for LGBT refugees living in the camp.

Billy pointed out, "Those suffering most are the asylum seekers and refugees who are living with HIV."

They haven't been able to get their medication at the Kakuma hospital outside of the camp since April 6, when Kenya officially went on full lockdown. Delivery of medications from hospitals or pharmacies isn't an option. Despite the fact that representatives of agencies were still able to enter and exit the camp, none of them had delivered HIV medications, according to Billy.

Transgender refugees aren't able to get hormone treatments even during normal times due to the prohibitive costs, he wrote in response to a question from the B.A.R.

Rising up

This isn't the first time LGBT refugees in Kenya have demonstrated against poor conditions at the camp and the Kenyan government and the UN agency's lack of attention to their situation. They also fault the lumbering asylum and refugee process.

In 2018, following the camp's first Pride event, attacks against the queer refugees increased. Soon afterward, about 80 refugees escaped the camp to live illegally in Nairobi.

Refugees are legally required to remain at the camp, Billy wrote.

The UN finally set up a safe house in Nairobi for the LGBT refugees in December 2018. Six months later, the agency returned the group to Kakuma. The move came after some refugees protested, demanding the agency provide financial assistance and work permits in Kenya while they waited for resettlement.

Refugees aren't allowed to legally work in Kenya until the government grants them asylum. Once asylum is granted the refugees can apply for refugee status with the UNHCR and legally work. The problem is the process is sluggish and challenging, leaving refugees in limbo.

Some gay refugees have pleaded for assistance online.

"I call upon all the LGBTIQ family around the globe to help us because life for us is not good. Homophobes are attacking us every day and night," wrote Wavamuno Benon on Facebook May 4.

Got international LGBT news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp: 415-517-7239, or Skype: heather.cassell, or [email protected]

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