Fled from Uganda: In the camp of hopelessness for lesbians and gays

fled Uganda
In the camp of hopelessness for lesbians and gays

By Simone Schlindwein, Kampala

Uganda criminalizes homosexuality, so many LGBTIQ people flee to Kenya. Their situation is hardly any better there. In Kenya they receive neither refugee status nor international aid.

Sobbing, Juliet Wabule sits in front of her laptop in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp. The 45-year-old reports on video about her situation, which she calls “hopeless”. The stress of the past few years in the camp is clearly visible to the lesbian woman who had to flee her native Uganda. “We are beaten and arrested,” she complains. The homophobia among the fellow refugees is worse than in their homeland.

Like almost all homosexuals, Juliet Wabule had to leave her homeland. Last year, Uganda’s parliament passed a law providing for five years’ imprisonment for homosexuals. President Yoweri Museveni only has to sign it for it to come into force.

As early as 2013, Uganda’s parliament passed a law that initially provided for the death penalty and later life imprisonment for gays and lesbians. After strong international criticism, however, the constitutional court declared the law void in 2014. In the 2021 election year, it was presented to Parliament again, in a watered-down form. It now provides five years in prison for same-sex sexual relations.

“We’ve been sitting idle in the desert for years”

It hangs in the air like the sword of Damocles, according to Frank Mugisha, head of Uganda’s NGO SMUG. “It’s another law used by law enforcement agencies to harass, blackmail and arrest LGBTIQ people,” he says. The British colonial rulers had already banned same-sex relationships in Uganda’s penal code. Mugisha therefore sees “no need” for further tightening.

Even if the new law is not yet in force, almost everyone who fears persecution as LGBTIQ has fled. Some have sought asylum in Europe. But the journey to get there is long and expensive. Most seek refuge in neighboring Kenya. They then end up like Juliet Wabule in the Kakuma refugee camp in the hot northwest of the country. “We’ve been stuck here in the desert doing nothing for years,” reports the mother of three. “Other refugees are given refugee status and then receive help from international organizations,” says Wabule. This is not the case with queer refugees: “The Kenyan authorities refuse to process our cases.”

This probably has political reasons. Kenya’s President William Ruto is privately close friends with Uganda’s presidential family. First Lady Janet Museveni is an avid advocate of anti-LGBTIQ laws. As Minister of Education and a deeply religious woman, she has fueled homophobia in conservative society, accusing gays and lesbians of “recruiting” children into schools to be homosexual. She therefore banned all sex education classes in order to avoid the topic of same-sex sexuality altogether. To this day, this leads to an enormously high number of unwanted pregnancies among minors.

Rejected by father, married by aunt

The homophobia extends into families, says Juliet Wabule: “My husband’s family took my daughter away from me so I wouldn’t teach her to be a lesbian,” she says, crying: Her father, a village priest, rejected her when she was he found out that Wabule was having an affair with her best friend from school. Because of this, she was expelled from school at the age of 17 and lived on the streets for years. At some point, her late mother’s sister decided to marry her off to a Muslim. “I have three children from him,” she says, sobbing. But then her husband died unexpectedly of lung failure. “While I was still mourning, my deceased husband’s father caught me in bed with my girlfriend,” she reports. He was an army officer and an influential man. “I knew I would never be safe anywhere in Uganda,” says Wabule.

Now she’s stranded in Kakuma. Refugees without asylum status are not allowed to leave the camps. They also have no right to aid deliveries or educational offers like the UN refugee agency UNHCR. The worst, according to Juliet Wabule, is the attacks from the other refugees. Almost 200,000 people are housed in Kakuma, refugees from South Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia. Violence breaks out in the camp. Most recently, it has been directed primarily against the Ugandan LGBTIQ community, which has more than 300 members and is accommodated in the so-called “Block 13”.

In the middle of the night, in April 2021, the hangar in Block 13 was set on fire while everyone was sleeping inside, many were injured. A 22-year-old later died in hospital from severe burns. “Many of our people have fled since then,” reports Wabule. “They walk towards Sudan and then on to the Mediterranean Sea.”

The UNHCR responded with a press release

Those who stay are now demonstrating regularly. Last week they started a protest march to the nearby UNHCR office. “We demand that they move us to another camp or protect us,” explains Wabule. But on the way they were stopped by the Kenyan police: “They beat us and sprayed us with tear gas,” reports Wabule. “We ran away.”

Not all managed to escape. Fifteen men and five women were arrested and taken to the local police station. Wabule visited her comrades-in-arms in the cell the next day. The UNHCR issued a press release: “The demonstrators were asked to leave by the police as their protest was not officially authorised,” it explains. The UN refugee agency assures that it is committed to ensuring that all refugees and asylum seekers in Kenya, including the LGBTIQ community, are treated “with the best possible protection and assistance on a fair and equal basis”. Kenya’s national refugee agency and the police remain silent about the incident.

Juliet Wabule rolls her eyes at the UNHCR statement. The same promises were made after the past LGBTIQ protests in Kakuma. “But we have no more hope,” she says resignedly.

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