Warning: This article contains content related to discrimination, hate crimes, assault, and sexual assault.
According to a recent report published by the Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration (ORAM), 100% of transgender asylum seekers surveyed in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya, were physically assaulted. The lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals surveyed revealed numbers not far behind for physical assaults. 83% of the LGBTQI+ individuals overall reported physical assaults. 26% reported sexual assault, and transgender individuals faced the highest rates of both. About two-thirds of transgender individuals reported sexual assault.
Kenya is known for being one of the few African countries that accepts refugees due to sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression of sex characteristics. However, it is also one where homosexuality is criminalized. The legacy of imperialism and the importing of homophobia to colonized countries is one that holds strong to this day. A 2018 report from The Conversation explains that of the 72 countries that at the time criminalized homosexuality at least 38 of them were once subject to British colonial rule. The result today is a staggering number of nations holding on to these homophobic and transphobic sentiments.
A 26-year-old transgender individual who was interviewed for the ORAM report recounted a terrifying story of physical and sexual assault. They describe how “Four men…armed with sticks” assaulted them and then forced them into sexual acts. “They left me traumatized,” the individual goes on to say. To escape further danger they fled the block they were living in to stay with a friend.
Attacks like these have pushed many LGBTQI+ refugees to band together in Kakuma’s Block 13. The area has been informally designated as a space for them. The ORAM study says that “Block 13 is an area where LGBTQI+ residents openly display their sexual orientation and gender identity, fly rainbow flags and host…meetings and parties.” The zone is not immune to violence, however, as it has experienced various security issues. The statement notes that the association of Block 13 with the LGBTQI+ community has made it an “easy target” for attacks. One respondent even alleged that some of the attacks were at the hands of relatives of the queer asylum seekers living there due to resentment of the association to the LGBTQI+ community.
Those living in Block 13 have reached out via social media to international donors and sought assistance. The response has been supportive from LGBTQI+ activists in different countries, but some observed that the advocacy has led to unintended negative consequences, “antagonizing” members of the LGBTQI+ population.
In a press release accompanying the aforementioned report, Steve Roth, the executive director of ORAM, called for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other countries to take action. “The refugees themselves have spoken and want to be heard,” he stated and asked these groups to “work together to ensure the immediate safety and well-being” of those in the community as well as working toward long-term durable solutions.
The report was co-published by Rainbow Railroad, an organization focused on helping LGBTQI+ people escape state-sponsored violence. The executive director, Kimahli Powell, also called for action: “We cannot allow refugee camps to become permanent solutions to crises of forced displacement.” He goes on to emphasize the importance of resettling LGBTQI+ refugees and demands the UNHCR and governments that accept refugees to “step up and ensure that LGBTQI+ asylum seekers in the camp are resettled in safer countries.”
The study itself offers some recommended solutions such as amending discriminative laws and resettling LGBTQI+ asylum seekers and refugees. The respondents of the study also listed protection services, livelihood support, and skills development programs for LGBTQI+ individuals in the camps as necessary. Most importantly, however, the respondents asked for swifter resettlement to minimize the time spent in the dangerous conditions of the camps. Kenya, the UNHCR, and international groups must take action now to ensure the safety and resettlement of vulnerable populations that have been displaced.
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