* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.LGBT+ Ugandans fleeing to Kenya face xenophobia and are seen as low- or zero-income foreigners
Shadia Naluzze is the current secretary on The Refugee Coalition of East Africa's board
With a worldwide refugee population in the tens of millions, the word “crisis” does not manage to encapsulate the enormity of the situation. While headlines tend to focus on Syria and other countries in the Middle East, the western apathy toward Africa means the fact that more than half reside in sub-Saharan regions is largely ignored.
As a subset of a subset of a largely disempowered, impoverished and yet massive population, LGBT+ refugees in Kenya are struggling to survive, having fled life-threatening violence in Uganda only to find the same, if lessened, in their new home. Trying to acquire resources, protections and even basic safety measures, particularly in East Africa, can be a nearly insurmountable task. Finding sustainable employment ranges from extremely difficult to entirely impossible.
The majority of the LGBT+ refugee population in Kenya fled from Uganda to seek the relative safety from the life-threatening violence of their homeland. Following the aptly referred to “Kill-the-Gays” bill in Uganda in 2014, LGBT+ Ugandans fell victim to an astounding spike in homophobic violence that forced many to flee.
The violence continues today (as does talk of re-introducing the bill), whereas Kenya is slowly, hopefully, moving toward decriminalisation, and has, as such, become the only option for survival.
As with many migrant populations, LGBT+ Ugandans fleeing to Kenya – alongside those from Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan and Tanzania – face xenophobia and are seen as low- or zero-income foreigners. The next level of discrimination comes with the status of “refugee” from a population already taxed by its unstable economy.
For the LGBT+ refugee, the trifecta of prejudice is completed by widespread homophobia and a cultural disdain for queerness in all its forms; the most hated being the transgender population. Finding a home and employment can be beyond reach and is accompanied by daily harassment, blackmail, physical and sexual assault – and even murder.
The approximately 650 known refugees identifying as LGBT+ in Kenya are unseen, unheard and unnoticed. The UNHCR is in constant crisis mode, and seemingly unable to provide specified assistance to a population of this size. Left to their own devices, frequently with sex work as the only viable option, how does an LGBT+ refugee survive?
Many have formed “chosen-families” to find housing and a sense of community. Within these families, the person who manages to find employment often has a dozen or more “dependants” for whom they must provide. LGBT+ community organisations have sprung up over the past few years, and in 2018 several came together to form The Refugee Coalition of East Africa (RefCEA).
Currently comprising five member organisations with widespread interest from many more, the group hopes to become a voice of representation for a struggling, jobless and abused population that currently has no form of advocacy.
Recently, RefCEA launched the SPARK Fund (Sustainable Programs for Autonomous Refugees in Kenya) to provide start-up money for small businesses created by LGBT+ refugees. The initiative strives to self-empower its members through a small amount of start-up capital to create sources of continuous and self-created income.
The ingenuity it takes to launch a business under circumstances of such extreme prejudice, unemployability and violence is astounding and deserves notice and accolades for the courage and fortitude of each entrepreneur.
The EU, the United States and other western nations must take notice of these survivors and offer support. The LGBT+ refugee population is fighting for its own basic existence, unaided and largely unnoticed by the world.
It is time we sift through the enormity of the situation and begin to see, hear and care for those most affected and least empowered by this worldwide crisis.
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