Out in the World: Report released on Kenyan refugee camp

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday October 27, 2021
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The Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. Photo: "The Challenges Facing LGBTQI+ Refugees in Kakuma Refugee Camp" via ORAM, Rainbow Railroad
The Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. Photo: "The Challenges Facing LGBTQI+ Refugees in Kakuma Refugee Camp" via ORAM, Rainbow Railroad

LGBTQ refugees expressed feelings of validation with the publication of a first-of-its-kind report uncovering life for LGBTQ asylum seekers and refugees at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, one of the largest in the world.

The 34-page report, "The Challenges Facing LGBTQI+ Refugees in Kakuma Refugee Camp," published October 21, is packed with information despite limitations gathering and verifying reported incidents due to COVID-19 and homophobia at the refugee camp, according to the report. The camp is located in the northwestern region of Kenya.

The report found multiple issues facing LGBTQ asylum seekers and refugees at Kakuma and the neighboring Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement, validating LGBTQ refugee activists. It also identified and prioritized 10 recommendations to improve the lives of LGBTQ people living at the camp and settlement.

"Most of their findings are what the activists on the ground have been saying," Gilbert Kagarura, a gay Ugandan refugee activist and Block 13's lead spokesman, wrote in a Facebook message to the Bay Area Reporter.

Kagarura wanted the report to go deeper and detail more incidents and the causes as well as show the effects on Kakuma's LGBTQ community. Kagarura stated the report is "not as informative" without those details.

"The reader will never know that some people have lost their minds and others have had their lives ruined beyond repair by these traumatic experiences," Kagarura wrote. "But it forms a good foundation for other surveys to delve deeper into the challenges affecting LGBT+ refugees in Kakuma."

Steve Roth, the executive director of U.S.-based Organization for Refuge Asylum and Migration, who commissioned the report with Canadian-based Rainbow Railroad, was moved to find out what was happening to Kakuma's LGBTQ community following a disturbing headline-making two years and actions by some of Block 13's vocal LGBTQ activists.

Roth did not disclose the budget to produce the report.

"It's important because it is really the first fully comprehensive study on the situation facing LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers in Kakuma," Roth said in an interview with the B.A.R. last week. "It really underscores the challenges, dangers, and complexities of life that queer refugees and asylum seekers face in Kakuma Refugee Camp."

ORAM, with a budget of about $500,000, is under the umbrella of Alight, a global refugee group. ORAM is focused on LGBTQ asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants, Roth said. ORAM has worked with other organizations to find sustainable ways to support the multiple needs of LGBTQ refugees who have fled their home countries.

"It also provides a holistic approach to LGBTQI asylum seekers and refugees in Kakuma," Roth said. "It is a very complicated, complex landscape and there are a lot of needs."

Rainbow Railroad, with a budget of more than $300,000 — according to its 2019 IRS 990 form, the most recent on file with GuideStar — and its Canadian civil society partners have been working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Canadian government to resettle refugees.

UNHCR oversees the Kenyan camp and settlement.

Kimahli Powell, executive director of Rainbow Railroad, highlighted the report, called for "fast-track resettlement of LGBTQI+ refugees" in a joint news release October 20.

"We cannot allow refugee camps to become permanent solutions to crises of forced displacement," Powell said. "Rainbow Railroad and civil society partners are ready to provide support to LGBTQI+ persons at risk and assist in further resettlement. Ultimately, we need the UNHCR, the government of Kenya, and governments of countries that are destinations for refugees to step up and ensure that LGBTQI+ asylum seekers in the camp are resettled in safer countries."

Kakuma's LGBTQ community

The two LGBTQ refugee organizations commissioned John Ndiritu, the report's independent researcher and author, to investigate LGBTQ asylum seekers and refugee experiences at Kakuma. Ndiritu spent a month embedded at Kakuma in May.

The researcher took COVID-19 safety precautions while he was working at Kakuma, according to the report.

Kakuma is the world's largest refugee camp with nearly 200,000 people. Established in 1992, Kakuma has grown into two separate areas, the official camp and the Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement. Kakuma is composed of four villages and Kalobeyei is comprised of three villages, according to UNHCR's website.

UNHCR was aware the researcher was working on a report, but the agency did not have any "influence in the process or its findings," according to the report. (It would not allow the B.A.R. to quote any person by name and insisted it be identified as the agency only.)

UNHCR confirmed it was not involved with the report, nor did it receive an advance copy of the report, the agency stated. The agency was still reviewing and processing the findings, it stated in an email interview with the B.A.R.

Two known queer asylum seekers helped identify participants for the research. LGBTQ participants were also referred by other community members during the process where queer refugees were surveyed and interviewed.

Ndiritu interviewed 58 self-identified LGBTQ asylum seekers and refugees over the age of 18 from nine different countries, along with 18 key informants, including LGBTQ refugees, religious leaders, and representatives of community and refugee organizations. A diverse array of LGBTQ refugees participated in the report: lesbian (38%), bisexual (28%), gay (24%), and transgender (10%) through surveys and interviews conducted in English or Kiswahili. Only one intersex minor participated with their guardian as a key informant in the study.

Kiswahili is the native name for the East African language Swahili. Swahili is one of two official languages — including English — in most East African countries — Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda.

The report found that most of the 350 LGBTQ refugees living at Kakuma are at Block 13 (32%). Other queer refugees live at Block 1 (12%) and Blocks 2 and 12 (11% each). Another estimated 280 to 419 queer refugees live at nearby Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement.

A majority of the respondents had some level of formal education.


The report found that 71% of LGBTQ refugees fled their countries due to persecution. Only 26% of queer refugees fled their homeland due to war. The largest group of LGBTQ people arriving at Kakuma are Ugandans (29%) followed by Burundians (22%), Congolese (19%), Sudanese (10%), South Sudanese (7%), and Rwandese (7%).

"Those are voices that aren't often getting heard — refugees from Sudan and Burundi, French-speaking countries," Roth said.

The report found that persecution didn't end by crossing the border. Kenya is only slightly less homophobic than the refugees' home countries. In 2019, Kenya's high court upheld its colonial-era anti-sodomy law, which is often used against LGBTQ people.

The report found more than 90% of LGBTQ refugees at Kakuma and Kalobeyei experienced "verbal insults directed at them" and more than 80% of the refugees "reported being physically assaulted." Furthermore, 83% reported being denied services in shops or markets.

LGBTQ refugees living at Kakuma are not the only ones affected by the assaults. Their family members, including children, have been attacked too, the report found.

One lesbian mother told the researcher that a neighbor threw hot water on her 2-year-old daughter so that the girl would stop playing with the neighbor's children. The incident is only one of many that alarmed child protective services in Kenya, according to the report.

Violence against Kakuma's LGBTQ community has only increased as the community has become more visible and vocal, especially Block 13.

The report noted some respondents' concerns about the effects of Block 13's activism on the 8% of queer refugees who do not live at or associate with the activists at the block.

Kagarura wrote that other LGBTQ refugees' disassociation with Block 13's queer activism has been a problem and that the report does not fully reflect the situation or potential consequences.

They believe that Block 13's activism "will affect the whole entire queer community in Kakuma," and their chances for resettlement, he wrote, echoing the report's findings.

Kagarura wrote that intimidation and fear among Kakuma's LGBTQ community "has been a huge problem."

It has caused "some refugees fearing to come out and speak out against the violence as this is considered an attack on UNHCR and refugee affairs secretariat (RAS)," Kagarura wrote.

Kagarura stated, "I am well aware of the intimidation of queer refugees in Kakuma."

"Those affected by this intimidation believe that they will not be resettled if they speak against the violence they are experiencing," he wrote.

The B.A.R. previously reported on some of the incidents that have affected LGBTQ refugees, such as the teargasing of demonstrators at Kakuma's UNHCR office in 2020 and the death of Gay Ugandan refugee activist Chriton "Trinidad" Atuhwera due to severe burn wounds he sustained when Block 13 was firebombed in the middle of the night.

Fellow gay Ugandan activist Jordan Ayesigye was also severely burned in that same incident. He is recovering at a private hospital in Nairobi, Kagarura wrote.

These are only two incidents out of more than an estimated 45 documented incidents at Block 13, previously reported by the B.A.R.

"We were surprised and not surprised by the results," Roth said. "We know the stigma and discrimination against them, but when you see the hard numbers, it still hits you."

Block 13's queer activists have called for immediate resettlement to LGBTQ-welcoming countries, removal to a safe house outside of Kakuma, and at the very least RAS and UNHCR to provide responsive security due to the ongoing attacks against them by other refugees.

The report found Block 13 activists' and other LGBTQ refugees' complaints to be mostly true. Respondents "painted a picture of unresponsive security services," the report stated, with more than 88% of LGBTQ refugees reporting "having been denied services by the police."

"There is really a need for better protection services," said Roth, stating it was the responsibility of RAS and UNHCR.

The report called for RAS and UNHCR to provide culturally sensitive and responsive security for LGBTQ refugees as its second-highest recommendation right after processing asylum cases.

It went on to recommend expanding cultural sensitivity training for all stakeholders, calling it a low-cost, high-impact way to improve life for LGBTQ refugees at Kakuma and Kalobeyei. It also recommended that LGBTQ organizations work with refugee-led organizations and collectives to "build self-protection services" and create space for an open dialogue among refugees.

UNHCR expressed for the past decade it made "substantial investments" by "addressing this deeply troubling situation" to protect LGBTQ refugees at Kakuma and around the world within the agency and among its partners and resettle queer refugees.

Immediate resettlement was not at the top of the report's recommendations as Block 13 activists have hoped. Resettlement landed closer to the middle of the report's recommendations, which told governments of resettlement countries that they "must resume and fast-track resettlement of LGBTQI+ refugees from Kenya."

Resuming resettlement of LGBTQ refugees isn't going to "happen overnight," Roth said, nor is it "a solution that is available to everyone."

The system moved slowly before the global pandemic. LGBTQ refugees waited two to five years pre-COVID-19, he said.

The report's first priority recommendation was to clear the "historic" backlog of determining LGBTQ asylum cases. People who arrive at Kakuma must apply for asylum in Kenya before accessing services and applying for refugee status at UNHCR.

The report found that LGBTQ refugees fleeing persecution had been "asylum seekers for an average of 2.7 years (range 0-9 years), compared to 12 years (range 2-21 years) for respondents who fled civil conflicts.

Improving LGBTQ lives

Because LGBTQ refugees will call Kakuma and Kalobeyei home for some time, the report focused heavily on livelihood programs.

At the end of 2019, ORAM worked with a local organization to establish an entrepreneurial training and micro-businesses program. ORAM's goal is to promote self-sufficiency through the creation of useful products to sell to fellow refugees and to foster positive community relationships in an effort to reduce homophobia at Kakuma.

Nearly two years later, the program is a success, training queer refugees entrepreneurial skills and providing seed funding for new ventures raising chickens and making soap. They've hired two new local trainers and taken on five new local groups, said Roth, expressing he would love to expand the program.

"Clearly, there is a need, there is a demand, and there are people it is not reaching still," he said. Some LGBTQ refugees don't access the program due to homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia, which the report also found. They try to "avoid the hostility from fellow refugees and the host community," he said.

Overall, Roth expressed that "It is a very complicated, complex landscape and there are a lot of needs."

He hopes that UNHCR, RAS, and other organizations working with LGBTQ refugees "take the recommendations to heart," he said, and be able to show progress toward those goals potentially with follow-up reports in the future.

Roth stated the report is about creating action and support for Kakuma's LGBTQ community, "it is not about just putting out reports to put out on a shelf somewhere."

The goal is "so that we can all help meet the needs for this community, which is a part of our broader LGBTQI family and it's just facing a lot of challenges in this setting."

"We agree that the situation in Kakuma is a complex one, which requires sustained attention," UNHCR stated, noting it has taken "several measures to address the situation in Kakuma" during the last 10 years. The agency expressed that it plans to continue working with partners and LGBTQ asylum seekers and refugees on multiple issues identified in the report.

The agency noted it has made "substantial investments" in "addressing this deeply troubling situation" protecting LGBTQ refugees within its workforce and partners. The agency noted policies, trainings, and programs it has implemented internally and with partners. UNHCR also noted its advocacy with other countries as well as jointly convening the second Global Roundtable on the Protection of Displaced LGBTQ People with Victor Madrigal-Borloz, U.N. independent expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on SOGIE, that was attended by 600 activists and organizations in June.

Madrigal-Borloz expressed he is "very concerned" about the LGBTQ refugee issue at Kakuma, stating it is "emblematic of several of the problems with host communities and host countries" around the world, he told the B.A.R. October 26.

Madrigal-Borloz added he has worked in "alliance" with UNHCR through a mandate from his office since expressing concern about violence and treatment of LGBTQ refugees at Kakuma in 2018.

He said there are an estimated 84 million displaced people, millions of LGBTQ people among them, that he is "constantly monitoring," he said.

However, Madrigal-Borloz acknowledged he had not reviewed ORAM and Rainbow Railroad's report yet due to preparing for an October 26 presentation of another report, "Practices of Exclusion," to the 76th Session of the U.N. General Assembly.

UNHCR also pointed out, "It is important to note that the government of Kenya is the only government in the region that recognizes the LGBTIQ+ profile as grounds for refugee status."

UNHCR's only initial criticism of the report focused on the implementation of the recommendations. The agency pointed out the implementation of the recommendations needed to consider "contextual factors at play."

"We recognize that far more needs to be done," said UNHCR, agreeing with several of the recommendations that called for a more coordinated effort between stakeholders. "We will continue to prioritize our work to improve the situation of displaced LGBTIQ+ people globally."

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

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