LGBTI refugees and Western saviors: Ugandans facing violence in Kenya, and how you can (and can’t) help

Housing in "community areas" of Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya, 2010: Photo by Matija Kovac

Housing in “community areas” of Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya, 2010: Photo by Matija Kovac

My friend Victor Mukasa, a distinguished Ugandan human rights activist, helped to found Sexual Minorities of Uganda (SMUG) many years ago. Now he’s leading a Kuchu Diaspora Alliance for Ugandan LGBTI people abroad; yesterday the group posted its first videos on YouTube. They describe violence beleaguering Ugandan queers who fled the country and now subsist in a refugee camp in Kenya. They’re based on Victor’s phone interviews with the victims.  I urge you to watch:

… the sequels are here, here, here, and here. This is my summary:

In Kakuma camp, there are 58 known LGBT Ugandan refugees. 23 who came earlier — before the Anti-Homosexual Bill was passed — have moved into the camp’s more permanent sections, which have small, dirt-floor huts. 35 more recent arrivals are in the camp’s “reception” area, where housing consists of tents.  

Other residents have steadily harassed the Ugandans. On Friday afternoon (June 27) a group ganged up on a Ugandan in the reception area and beat him badly, saying “This camp is for refugees, it is not for wild animals.” When he ran, they chased him and started beating other Ugandan LGBT people. Some of the victims went to the camp “security organ” to complain, and were reprimanded: “Why do you show that you are gay?”

All 35 Ugandans decided to march in protest to a UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) office near the camp.to demand protection against the ongoing violence. It took two hours. The head of security at the office opened the gates, let them enter, and gave them mats to sleep on in an area that also had toilets and working water taps — scarce commodities in the camp itself. The next morning, though, “UNHCR officials” told them to leave, and turned off the water. When they insisted on remaining for a peaceful sit-in, the officials called in Kenyan government representatives: someone “in charge of refugee affairs,” and the “regional police commander” for the area. These ordered them back to the camp, threatening to use force. One refugee watched the regional police commander make a call to someone, saying “come in and take control of this area.”  At 5 PM, some 70 “military” (it’s not clear to me whether these were police or soldiers) arrived.

After discussions, the refugees decided to go back,; UNHCR officials told them a “safe place” had been prepared. When six got in the truck, the soldiers started beating the rest, throwing them inside and insulting them: “This is Kenya, you shouldn’t have come here! We should apply Kenyan law on you.”

Back in Kakuma, they found their tents in the reception area had been reallocated to others, and the harassment continued. Eventually they were relocated to an area on the margins of the camp, with little water, in a “desert.” They’re still terrified, and they report that the ringleader of the Friday attack — who at first was taken into police custody — has been released. 

Already this year, there’s been huge publicity about LGBTI people fleeing “Africa” (it’s always treated as a single country) to the friendly West to escape persecution. “Will the next decade see Wall Street’s millions build an underground railroad from Lagos to New York, whisking Africa’s LGBT youth to safety and freedom?” a writer asked in a US gay magazine. No. As this story shows, it’s not so easy. I’ve accumulated some experience in asylum and refugee issues over the last 20 years, and in 2009 I worked with regional groups in a successful project to help LGBT Iraqis targeted by death squads leave the country.  Here are my reflections on this disturbing story: what’s the background, and what well-meaning Westerners can and can’t do to help.

L: Kakuma in northwest Kenya (map from UNHCR). R: Google Earth map of Kakuma camp; the "reception areas" are Sectors 12 and 13 (map from Malaria Journal)

L: Kakuma in northwest Kenya (map from UNHCR). R: Google Earth map of Kakuma camp; the “reception areas” are Sectors 12 and 13 (map from Malaria Journal)

1) What is Kakuma camp?

Kakuma (its name supposedly derives from a Swahili word for “nowhere”) is an enormous refugee camp in the remote northwest of Kenya. It’s hellish. An online zine on refugee life published within the camp says stoically, “The area has always been full of problems: dust storms, high temperatures, poisonous spiders, snakes, and scorpions, outbreaks of malaria, cholera, and other hardships. The average daytime temperature is 40 degrees Celsius, or 104 degrees Fahrenheit.” The region is semi-desert — earlier this year, “huge sandstorms … swept through the settlement, which was believed to be the root cause of fire outbreak of which more than ten incidents were reported.” But it can become a swamp: “The camp is near a dry river bed that is prone to flash flooding after heavy rains,” making it a malarial breeding ground.

The site was picked for its remoteness: Kenya wanted to shunt refugees as far from Nairobi as possible. Some 125,000 lived there at the beginning of this year, according to UNHCR. Now it also hosts almost 40,000 South Sudanese who have fled their disintegrating country and reach the dusty mud flat at the rate of nearly 500 a week; by June, the swollen population neared 170,000.

Flooding in the reception area of Kakuma camp, March 2014: Photo by Mats Wallerstedt/Lutheran World Foundation

Flooding in the reception area of Kakuma camp, March 2014: Photo by Mats Wallerstedt/Lutheran World Foundation

Kenya held some 540,000 refugees as of December 2013; with the torrent of South Sudanese, the figure is now closer to 600,000. Almost half a million come from Somalia. Its camps are gorged to overflow; Dadaab, a concentrationary complex in eastern Kenya, is, with over 400,000 inmates, the largest refugee camp in the world.

Till a few months ago, the camps weren’t the only option. Refugees who could support themselves, or who needed special medical care or other attention, could settle in Kenya’s cities. In March, though, Kenya’s government abruptly ordered all refugees to the camps — and began raiding homes and rounding them up. Authorities suspected Somalis in urban areas of aiding Al-Shabaab, the feared terrorist group, in retaliation for Kenya’s military incursions in Somalia. (In this sense, the refugees were victims of indirect blowback against US imperialism in Africa; Obama has prodded US allies into a proxy war against Somali Islamists.) A few refugees, including some LGBT Ugandans, hang on in Nairobi, evading constant police crackdowns in search of illegals. But most are now locked behind camp walls.

The  camps are bad news for women, LGBT people, and others vulnerable to violence. Hugely overcrowded (all the more so since the dual influx of onetime urban residents and South Sudanese), they offer little privacy; security forces patrol the fences, but are inadequate to control what’s inside. An extensive study of sexual and gender-based violence against refugees in Kenya found 530 cases in Kakuma in 2011 (469 against women, 61 against men). While the researchers interviewed LGBT refugees in urban areas, they apparently couldn’t find similar communities in camp environments. Thus nobody has tabulated incidents of homophobic violence so far, but the absence of evidence is mainly evidence of people in hiding. Those who are gender-nonconforming or suspected of being LGBT are targets for punishment. The study did conclude that many available care options for survivors of sexual violence in the camps were easy potential targets themselves, and “were not able to handle serious security issues.”

In the dry season: Tents in the reception area at Kakuma. Photo by James Macharia/Lutheran World Federation

In the dry season: Tents in the reception area at Kakuma. Photo by James Macharia/Lutheran World Federation

2) What does it mean to be a refugee in Kenya?

Both for Western readers and for Ugandans who read this, it may be helpful to explain how the refugee process works.

A refugee is different from an asylum-seeker. To oversimplify, an asylum-seeker goes directly from danger to a safe country, and appeals to its government to stay there. A refugee usually flees to a country that isn’t safe, or will not accept her, because it’s the only accessible place to go; then she appeals to be resettled in another country. Until she is moved from the “second country” to the safer “third country,” she’s trapped in limbo.

Much of the distinction between “second” and “third” countries has to do with wealth. Built into the system is the assumption that poorer countries cannot be burdened with permanently absorbing large refugee populations — it’s an obligation the rich developed world should shoulder. The poorer countries agree to be waiting rooms. Unfortunately, because rich countries admit vastly fewer refugees than our violent world produces, the waiting rooms turn slowly into makeshift homes.

You get refugee status, mostly, through the UN. It’s all about waiting. A Ugandan fleeing to Nairobi would go the UNHCR office to register as a refugee applicant. She would be given a date for a face-to-face interview, the main basis for deciding whether her claim is valid. So she waits for the interview. After the interview, she waits for the UNHCR’s decision — Refugee Status Determination (RSD).  If the answer’s yes, she is eligible for resettlement, but she has to wait while UNHCR shops her file around from embassy to embassy, looking for a country that’s willing to take her. Times vary from one UNHCR office to another, but each stage of the process can take months, even years.

Cartoon on RSD from Kakuma refugee camp, at kanere.org. Woman: "I am so disappointed with UNHCR. Their logo shows protection sign but since I came in camp the year 2004 I still have not gotten mandate [papers]." Man: "I can't return to my home country because there is still war going on. If it's to die I will die here."

Cartoon on RSD from Kakuma refugee camp, at kanere.org. Woman: “I am so disappointed with UNHCR. Their logo shows protection sign but since I came in camp the year 2004 I still have not gotten mandate [papers].” Man: “I can’t return to my home country because there is still war going on. If it’s to die I will die here.”

Egypt, where I am now, has massive numbers of refugees (from Sudan, South Sudan, elsewhere in Africa, and Syria). With so many people to process, it has one of the slowest UNHCR offices anywhere. I know of Syrian migrants newly arrived in Cairo whom the UN assigned an interview date three years away. Some Sudanese have been in Egypt waiting for resettlement since the last century.

Kenya is not that slow. In 2010, though, the wait between arrival and RSD averaged over two years; it’s probably longer now. That doesn’t include the wait to get resettled after you get a positive RSD. After the claimant is recognized as a refugee, she gets official papers that are supposed to give her legal status in Kenya and protect her against being deported. (There’s still bureaucratic confusion about whether these papers should come from UNHCR or the Kenyan government, however.) She’s also eligible for limited material support from UNHCR. Migrants who haven’t been given refugee status yet are largely unprotected, get very little financial assistance, and mostly depend on the charity of NGOs working in the country.

UNHCR is a sluggish bureaucracy which I’m loth to defend, but it has a serious responsibility to protect migrants and refugees. In recent years, it’s become more sensitive to the needs of LGBT migrants, and has dedicated staff in Geneva to address the issue. But its powers are limited. It can’t override the laws and sovereignty of the host country. Kenya’s decision to “warehouse” refugees, confining them to camps, violates human rights law — freedom of movement is protected in Article 26 of the Refugee Convention and other international treaties —  but UNHCR can’t change it. Mainly, they can complain to the host country’s authorities, and I wish they’d complain more loudly; but it’s up to those authorities whether they pay attention. In Turkey, I found that the government regularly put LGBT Iranians (along with other Iranian refugees) in small towns in the conservative eastern part of the country, where they were harassed constantly. Some of them begged us to advocate for camps, because at least they would be isolated from the local Turkish public. UNHCR was sympathetic, but powerless to change the Turkish government’s policy.

Drawing showing policemen beating a refugee in Kakuma camp: From Kanere.org

Drawing showing policemen beating a refugee in Kakuma camp: From kanere.org

From Victor’s account, though, there are some serious problems with how UNHCR dealt with this situation in Kakuma. Calling the Kenyan police to evict refugees staging a peaceful sit-in is dangerous and excessive. You may not be able to change how Kenya’s authorities treat LGBT people, but you don’t need to give them opportunities for abuse, either. (UNHCR should have learned its lesson. In 2005, Sudanese migrants staged a sit-in outside the UNHCR’s Cairo office to protest slow resettlement and the constant violence they confronted. UNHCR eventually summoned the police to break up the demonstration — and they killed at least 27 protesters.)

Aside from not calling in the cops, there are at least two things UNHCR needs to do to protect LGBT refugees in Kakuma.

a) While UNHCR’s powers are limited, they still formally administer the camp. Security is difficult, but with a small, cohesive (and conspicuous) LGBT population, solutions should be available: more available (unfortunately) than for the much larger population of women vulnerable to sexual assault. Segregating LGBT claimants in a protected area may be one answer, though since I don’t know the topography or specific conditions of the camp I can’t say this for certain.

b) In 2009-2010, we persuaded UNHCR to offer accelerated resettlement for LGBT Iraqis stranded in Lebanon and Syria, because the “second country” environment was also homophobic and unsafe. This meant prioritizing RSD decisions for those applicants. It only worked, however, because some “safe” countries were also willing to speed up their own approval procedures and accept them — mainly Norway, Sweden, and the US. The LGBT Ugandans in Kenya are a small enough population that UNHCR could attempt this. But it will require commitments from other states too.

Kakuma as Guantanamo: Cartoon of a UNHCR interview, from kanere.org

Kakuma as Guantanamo: Cartoon of a UNHCR interview, by Elias Lemma, from kanere.org

3) What can you do? Start with this: Don’t give to amateur Kickstarter fundraising efforts for African refugees. So far, these are just part of the problem.

I know of at least three crowdfunding projects on the Internet to raise money for LGBT Ugandans to leave their country. All radiate good intentions and a sincere desire to help. Best-known by far is the “Rescue Fund to Help LGBT People Escape Africa” started by Melanie Nathan, a San Francisco blogger; it got her named a Grand Marshal of the city’s Pride parade last weekend, giving the effort further publicity. Several people in the Kakuma camp, and some in Nairobi, seem to have got there through Nathan’s assistance. Melanie dislikes me (I have an e-mail folder full of long messages expressing this fact), so any criticism I make will undoubtedly stand accused of partiality. I’m not the only critic, though. South African activist Melanie Judge wrote:

Dislocated from Africa-based struggles for social justice these feel-good interventions offer no long-term solution to the systemic issues that drive homophobia. At best they are palliative and patronising, at worst they reinforce the victimhood of Africans and the saviour status of westerners.

There’s a lot of saviorism in these projects; the biggest donors to Nathan’s fund were offered a token “Ultimate Savior” title (though she later changed this to “Total Escape”). A political critique of the initiatives would note how they depict all “LGBT Africans” as desperate not for change but for visas, and that they idealize the US and Europe as Edens of acceptance. I’m more interested in the simple fact that when she launched this project, Nathan seems to have known nothing about the refugee process, and did nothing to prepare her beneficiaries for it.

Masked men: Screenshot from Nathan's first Indiegogo appeal

Masked men: Screenshot from Nathan’s first Indiegogo appeal

The breakdown of expenses in Nathan’s first Indiegogo appeal from March says:

100% of the funds raised will be used for fees for passports, visas, transport out of the countries, and safe shelter and food, pending, in some instances, escape:
$100 pays for passport
$200 pays for a visa
$350 provides food and shelter for a month in Africa pending escape
$800 – $1,600 buys an air ticket 

kakuma sign

Road to nowhere

Nathan seems to have thought that Nairobi would be a quick waystation for LGBT Ugandans in a refugee process that would be short, sweet, and easy: a month “pending escape,” then a ticket out of there. (In fact, UNHCR pays air tickets for refugees it resettles.)  I can’t imagine where she got this idea. Internet research could have told her that the waiting time for RSD alone in Kenya was at least two years. From what I understand — and I’m still reaching out to Ugandans now in Kenya — some people got to Nairobi and found the funds were in no way sufficient for the long wait ahead. With the money cut off, they were stranded. I have reports, not verified, that some resorted to sex work, and were arrested. Some are still hanging on in Nairobi; others were sent to Kakuma.

Two weeks ago, Nathan did an about-face and announced on her blog that Ugandans in Kenya were not spending “a month in Africa pending escape,” but were trapped in Kakuma camp for the long run. She still didn’t realize that driving refugees into camps was now Kenyan government policy –and that she should have told people about this if they sought her aid after March. Instead she wrote, “Some have been forced into the camps, due to their particular circumstances and inability to survive outside the camps.” Nathan added, with obvious surprise: “It seems that the resettlement process can take up to 2 years.” She should have known this, and warned applicants, from the start.

Nathan’s well-meaning fund is drawing people to places like Nairobi, then leaving them in the lurch. There are three deep problems with all these projects:

a) You can’t undertake something like this if you don’t know something about refugee law and the refugee process. Nathan is not even taking counsel from experienced organizations who have done this work. Without that, you can’t give informed advice, evaluate situations and people’s prospects, or make informed decisions about who to support and how. Failing to explain to migrants what they will face in a place like Kenya is unethical and irresponsible.

b) The project is ad-hoc and almost guaranteed to fail to meet migrants’ long-term needs. Nathan promises support without having resources on hand; then goes out and tries to raise money for a first tranche of immediate needs; then, when new needs arise and the money’s exhausted, is left trying to play catch-up with a new funding appeal. For instance, a first round of support goes to get person X from Kampala to Nairobi; but then X is left helpless in Nairobi once the funds run out, and has to wait for a new Kickstarter to kick in. Such skin-of-the-teeth strategies only compound the desperate uncertainties that destroy refugees’ lives. Anyone experienced in refugee work  will tell you that you don’t make promises to refugees unless you know you can follow through; unless you can give them a clear idea of what the future holds depending on their choices; and unless you have ways to assess needs and urgency objectively. These projects have none of that.

c) Nathan et. al. do all this from a distance. You can’t work with refugees without a physical presence in the place where they’re going. The Internet is no substitute for on-the-ground wisdom.

I dwell on these projects, so magnanimous and good, because they reflect an unsettling (literally) side of international activism today: call it the Konyfication of everything. Like the Kony 2012 campaign, humanitarian entrepreneurs drum up viral urgency with emotional appeals, discount cooperation or coalition or local agency or specialized skill, and insist that because something needs to be done, anyone can do it. The world of refugees, by contrast, is intricate and dangerous as the minefields some must cross to reach imperfect haven. You can’t work if you don’t know what you’re doing. The notion that Tom Sawyeresque idealists can step in, rescue, rinse, repeat may satisfy populist American fantasies about knacks and know-how. But it’s wrong.

"Come on boy, it's now time for your rescue." Cartoon (against "warehousing refugees" from Osire refugee camp, from kanare.org.

“Come on boy, it’s now time for your rescue.” Cartoon (against “warehousing” refugees)  from Osire refugee camp in Namibia, from kanare.org.

The harshness of Uganda’s homophobic crackdowns has driven hundreds of people into exile. The numbers are not as overwhelming as the rhetoric of “underground railroads” would suggest. 58 refugees in a camp of 170,000 are the signs of a crisis but not a flood. The US publication The Advocate interviewed activists in Nairobi who counted 102 Ugandan LGBTI refugees there; that number’s certainly an underestimation (among other things, many Ugandans are likely in hiding, or have not registered with UNHCR to avoid the camps) but it still doesn’t unveil a whole population in flight. The fact that relatively few have fled Uganda despite the draconian law (and the promises of money from Western saviors) confirms what I’ve always said: exile is such a devastating experience for most people, such a loss of meaning and value and belonging, that few would undertake it except in the last extremity of need. These refugees deserve to be treated with dignity, not the abuse they face at Kakuma. Their numbers, limited so far, mean that if UNHCR and refugee organizations take their needs seriously, solutions should not be impossible to find.

If you want to help, here are some suggestions:

a) Support established refugee assistance organizations with records of working both in East Africa and on LGBTI issues. The American Jewish World Service and HIAS have both, and you can start by reaching out to them to make sure they understand the urgency of what’s happening in Kakuma, and to find out what they can do.

b) Press the UNHCR to come up with effective answers for LGBTI refugee protection in Kenya, including accelerated resettlement. You can do this by talking to your own government about how they can strengthen UNHCR’s work. Or you can contact UNHCR directly here.

c) If you come from North America or Europe, pressure your government to offer accelerated acceptance for LGBT refugees in East Africa — as well as for other vulnerable groups, such as women who face sexual violence.

 

"Even if you stop me to speak and write, I will still speak and write": Cartoon from Kakuma refugee camp, by Falay Atibu, at kanere.org

“Even if you stop me to speak and write, I will still speak and write”: Cartoon from Kakuma refugee camp, by Falay Atibu, at kanere.org

12 thoughts on “LGBTI refugees and Western saviors: Ugandans facing violence in Kenya, and how you can (and can’t) help

  1. I have once said, and was harassed by the very same Nathan, and then later she wants to speak to me in an event. Nxm.

  2. Hi Scott! Great article as usual. One point of clarification – an asylum-seeker is anyone who is seeking asylum but whose claim has not been adjudicated/heard, whereas a refugee has been recognized as such, by UNHCR or the country of asylum. In simpler terms: “The terms asylum-seeker and refugee are often confused: an asylum-seeker is someone who says he or she is a refugee, but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated.”

    In relation to your comments, this means that someone seeking asylum in Kenya, and in the United States, would both be considered asylum-seekers until their claims were heard – the wealth of a nation where the person is seeking safety from harm is not relevant to their status. The distinction between asylum-seeker and refugee is small but important: an asylum-seeker may or may not be entitled to international protection as a refugee, whereas someone recognized as a refugee is entitled, and cannot, under customary international law, be legally returned to their country of origin (i.e. deported or refouled).

    This is not to say that UNHCR or a country of asylum grant a person refugee status, the status is declaratory in nature. Specifically, “Any person is a refugee within the framework of a given instrument if he meets the criteria of the refugee definition in that instrument, whether he is formally recognized as a refugee or not.”

    I would also note that resettlement is not guaranteed for those recognized as a refugee, and only a small percentage of refugees will be resettled to a third country. UNHCR has determined approximately 1 percent of recognized refugees are submitted by the agency for resettlement. This means there are refugees in Kenya who will not be resettled, even if recognized by UNHCR.

    All of the quotes referenced above were taken from UNHCR’s website. This comment, and the information described above are my personal opinion, and not an official statement of UNHCR.

    • Yes, you’re right, of course, and I’m trying to negotiate somewhat between the legal meanings of the terms and their use in common parlance, which is confused enough but isn’t going to conform to the legal meanings anytime soon, perhaps unfortunately. Basically in this common understanding an asylum-seeker is someone who pursues relief within the legal system of a particular state, and a refugee claimant is someone who pursues relief under international law. But even pursuing that distinction gets terribly messy.

      As far as resettlement goes, also a terrible mess. I would be surprised if the effective rate even reaches 1% in Egypt for populations like the Sudanese and South Sudanese. On the other hand their lives in Egypt remain legally unstable and economically worse than precarious. There is plenty of blame for this to go around.

  3. Honestly, African people are fucking themselfes up. Why are you running to Kenia to get ressetlement? There are closer countries to Uganda that don´t criminalise homosexual acts.
    But no, instead of that you are running because you are planing to brake into Europe or US. You are trying to take advantage of the situation to get a better life. (The American dream)
    So when the thinks don´t happen the way you expected you blame that one that promissed you help, even with no resources. It sounds like you peole from Uganda don´t have your own brains to understand and analise the situation, and see if it works for you or not. But instead, you relly on someone to support you. It´s good getting money without working your a..s hard. I wonder if the publiser of this article lives in Uganda himself. Sincerely , you guys are very brave. And if you think that the NGO´s will help you some way….guess what? Many will not. I am an African and i work with LGBTI organisation. And they don´t help. Ugly truth!

  4. I’m the President of the Board of Directors of San Francisco Pride, Gary Virginia. You are incorrect in stating that lesbian Attorney Melanie Nathan was selected as a Community Grand Marshal by the Board of Directors because of a rescue fund: “… it got her named a Grand Marshal of the city’s Pride parade last weekend, giving the effort further publicity.” Melanie Nathan was chosen for the lifetime of work she has done on behalf of LGBT people. I work with Gays Without Borders & many non-profit organizations advocating for many causes, including LGBT Asylum/Refugee issues, natural disaster humanitarian relief, HIV/AIDS, Breast Cancer, women’s rights, sex workers health, and many more. I led the effort that raised $10,000 for HELEM to support Iraqi LGBT refugees a few years back. I’m no angel or expert, but I take exception to this article which I feel is partially a “hit piece” on Melanie Nathan. I’m on numerous email lists for organizations that support the type of work addressed in the article, and I have yet to see an appeal for funds or a strategy to support LGBT Russians, Africans, Middle Easterners. Nathan’s is one of the few I have seen. She is from South Africa, makes trips there to gather information and network, raises funds that get distributed within days, and assists in much more work than you are probably aware of, helping people in hiding. That is the nature of this type of work. I’m also in touch with specific LGBT people in Uganda and I don’t hear them referencing getting any support, including any work that you suggest in your article, except for support from Nathan. Publishing some errors makes me question the accuracy of the rest of your information. I just posted info from this site last week on Facebook. I will be more scrutinizing to check the accuracy of what comes off as “fact” in your reporting. In respect, Gary Virginia.

    • Dear Gary,

      Thanks for your response. I am also in touch with people in and from Uganda, as indeed I have been for many years — since the late 1990s, in fact. I have heard directly and indirectly from people in Kenya who say that they and others were promised a level of support from Nathan’s rescue fund that was not forthcoming, and that they were left cut off. My point is exactly that this is likely to be the fate of people who are made dependent on individual funding campaigns — which is why I hope there aren’t similar campaigns “for,” or anyway on behalf of, Russians, other Africans, or Middle Easterners. Work on refugee issues should be done by people who understand refugee issues, know the legal, ethical, and political concerns at stake, and can be trusted to provide consistent support. I’m very grateful you raised funds for HELEM in 2009. But the work on Iraqi refugees then was being done not by an individual but by three organizations — HELEM, HRW, and the Heartland Alliance — each of whom had a substantial record working on refugee issues in Lebanon and in the region. Those organizations were transparent about their finances and (within the limits of the safety of the refugees) about what they were doing. They also were able to follow-through consistently; to evaluate refugees’ situations on the ground in Iraq as well as in second countries; and to advocate with UNHCR and embassies in Beirut for timely resettlement. If it had been done by three individuals, the project wouldn’t have been able to work.

      By contrast, Nathan’s program has zero transparency about what it’s done or even what it’s for (you can’t get any figures for who’s been helped or where they’re from, it’s impossible to figure out how much of the support went to stationary aid and how much to moving people, and whether even one person has so far “escaped” Africa is completely unclear). Basic facts about refugee and asylum law seem not to have been taken into consideration, and there’s evidently been no consultation of people with experience in refugee work, in-country or internationally. The criteria for selecting beneficiaries are entirely up to one person without oversight or advice, which is how no aid program I’ve ever seen is run. This may be the nature of this type of work, but if so it’s a type of work with which I have to say I’m fairly grateful to be unfamiliar. And my strong belief is that people on the ground are being hurt.

      I realize that Melanie is originally from South Africa. South Africa is 3000 KM from Uganda, and has almost nothing in common with it culturally or politically. Rome is approximately the same distance from Kampala, and if somebody were to tell me that an Italian activist working in the US understood Ugandan refugees’ needs by virtue of their place of origin and their travels back to home, I would find it odd.

      There are funds, professionally managed and administered, that have been set up to assist Russian LGBT movements. There are similar cross-border programs in the Middle East, run by people in the region: AFE and Manteqitna, most notably. In East Africa, funders have been supporting LGBT movements pretty extensively since the mid-2000s. There’s actually an African-run fund specifically for sexual-rights organizing in East Africa, called UHAI. Civil society could always use more support and more person-power, but it’s there and it’s strong. Someone who wanted to support refugees in the region in a sustained way could and should work through existing organizations — LGBT groups if they have the capacity, local refugee groups like the Refugee Law Project in Uganda, bilateral groups like the Norwegian or Danish Refugee Councils through their regional offices, or international groups with long histories there like HIAS or AJWS. That may sound bureaucratic but one point of the structure of these organizations is to make sure that assistance is targeted, affects migrants through the whole process of flight and resettlement, and isn’t just ad-hoc help that gratifies the donor more than the recipient. These groups know the context and are in a position to offer the sustained assistance that refugees and migrants need, not just single servings with an icing of promises.

      Thanks again for replying. This is an important discussion, but one where I’ll stand by what I said until somebody demonstrates to me that the refugees in Kenya are all right.

      • What is needed with the present group in Kenya is to strike a balance between helping to meet the individual needs of asylum seekers and the ‘common good’ of all .

        Scott might appear to emphasize the side of the ‘common good’ and Melanie the side of ‘individual needs’. But both are required.

        I believe that I too have emphasized now one side now the other since I got out of Kampala for anti-lgbti reasons in early February this year,and started doing what I could with the group in Nairobi and Kakuma.

        A satisfactory balance has not yet been found probably because we are not really out of the crisis stage yet

        Initially I gave some small individual assistance to new arrivals from Uganda some of whom I knew personally. As the numbers grew, this became an impossible task.

        We decided to form a self-help group, K.I.D.s Kuchus in Diaspora which met twice a week to make sure that no one was left out, especially those most in need, and to ensure that everyone knew how to go through the UN process.

        That common effort had to be suspended because of security risks in Nairobi, especially after several of our group were arrested and shipped to the camp. Also the numbers of asylum seekers (about 130) became unmanageable.

        I took to haranguing the UNHCR for quicker interviews and asked them to prod their implementing partner HIAS to assist asylum seekers with food and shelter promptly, since asylum seekers were complaining about how they were being treated, especially with regard to receiving assistance.

        A couple of serious protection mishaps, which I wont go into were a direct result of ill considered or delayed provision of assistance to LGBTI asylum seekers in Nairobi by official ‘reputed’ agencies.

        All the while one heard that ’emergency grants’ had been provided to them for LGBTIs, yet asylum seekers were only very minimally assisted at first. Only much later and after much complaining did we see some increment. Whether this was down to bureacracy or inefficiency, no-one will ever know.

        So on the one hand, established agencies such as those mentioned by Scott would be the best to assist asylum seeker, yet the reality is that they are over-challenged, since they have several thousand other refugees to assist; or they are just unhelpful for other reasons.

        Another difficulty is that those agencies provide nothing at all to those in the camp whose living conditions are appalling,very much worse than for those in Nairobi. They too must be assisted.

        Although those official agencies now seem to be pulling up their socks, thanks be to God, many more not less ways of assisting asylum seekers in Kenya must be found, due to the many psycho-social-legal-pastoral needs of LGBTI asylum seekers, not only from Uganda but from other African countries.

        Admittedly, not all issues can be solved, but many can be. Co-ordination is key in order to offset further problems caused by ignorance of the situation on the ground, as rightly said by Scott.

        LGBTIs are a special group with special needs,which is not to say they are more deserving than thousands of other refugees. Official agencies however can only go so far. Sympathetic, transparent, informed LGBTI support is vital in the short and long term, since it is possible that there will be more forced LGBTI migrants in Africa in the future.

        One of the challenges seems to be getting LGBTI asylum seekers together to agree what help would be best for ALL. When they have done this they come up with very good simple ideas. The idea of a mattress fund I think came about in this way (They sleep on the floor in Kakuma). Mattresses would not just be for LGBTI asylum seekers but all newcomers to the camp.

        UNHCR itself has requested LGBTI groups or individuals to assist wherever possible. They have initiated a monthly meeting with LGBTI partners in Kenya to this end which I have attended.

        Fr Anthony Musaala

        The reason I left was because there were ‘signs and portents’ that I was in someone’s sights for a very dark scheme…After the the Bill was signed, it became clear that returning to my home in Kampala would pose a risk not only for me but for those of my household, including relatives

  5. Unfortunately, while looking for information on how I could help someone in Uganda I came to find this blog, among others, which seem to lay out a personal argument between people who should instead be coming together to provide real and tangible help. This article leaves me feeling as though even the most reputable organizations are near powerless to safeguard LGBT people fleeing Uganda, and anyone who tries to do at least something outside of these groups will be preached against and reprimanded. It’s not very encouraging, to say the least, and I have to agree with the commentor above from Virgina that it seems more like a hit piece on someone else rather than a repectable avenue of valuable information. I’m dissapointed, but there are many other issues with immeadiate and lifesaving needs. Perhaps my time and limited funds will be of more use with one of them.

  6. Gotta agree with Jeremy – I hate to see division when there are so few resources and avenues available to those in need. Not having children, my partner and I talked about potentially sponsoring a LGBT individual and after reading about what’s happening in Uganda, thought that we might be led to go that route. But no, it sounds like there are no policies in place for that sort of sponsorship, which is shameful. Just throwing money at the problem isn’t enough…..

  7. Pingback: Bon voyage! More than 120 gay Uganda refugees leave Kenya for a better, safer life - Denis Nzioka

  8. It is a good article with some human mistakes. When such a piece of information becomes objective, there is a lot of mixed feelings directed towards the readers. I agree with the majority that this brings out the bitterness between the author and Melanie who both seem to have LGBTI interests at heart. Both approaches are significant in curbing the LGBTI assylum seekers’ and refugees’ challenge.

    For those who are thinking of funding Ugandan refugees, we really need your support, you may do that through the very grassroot organisations in Uganda like Freedom and Roam Uganda, Sexual Minorities Uganda, or Diaspora organisations like KID. I am a refugee in Europe, I am still advocating to change the immigration system because it dehumineses us in the most impossible way. I believe experience is the best teacher and you can always consult people who have lived the experience and ignore the confusion created between two allies.
    I think both the author and Melanie are doing a great job.

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