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LGBTQ+ refugees fleeing persecution beaten, raped & killed at notorious Kakuma camp

LGBTQ protestors outside the Milimani High Court after it refused to abolish the country's sodomy law in 2019
LGBTQ protestors outside the Milimani High Court after it refused to abolish the country's sodomy law in 2019 Photo: Shutterstock

In 2021 Erica Chandra, a transgender woman, was found murdered in the Westlands district of Nairobi. The same year, Joash Mosoti, a gay man, was found tortured and strangled to death in Mombasa.

In May 2022, Rose Mbesa, an intersex person, was raped and killed.

In January, the murder of LGBTQ+ activist Edwin Chiloba was international news.

Abuse of LGBTQ+ people in Kenya is widespread and well-documented, including physical violence, death threats, harassment by state officials, stigma, expulsion from educational institutions, blackmail, extortion, and murder.

Now, a new joint report from the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International documents those same horrors confronting refugees in Kenya fleeing persecution from neighboring countries like Uganda.

“Kenya is the only country in the East and Horn of Africa that offers asylum to individuals who seek protection because of their sexual orientation, gender identity and/or expression and sex characteristics,” the report says. “However, national legislation in Kenya criminalizes same-sex sexual relations and abuse of the rights of LGBTI people is widespread.”

Nowhere is that abuse more widespread than at the notorious Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya’s northwest, just miles from the border with Uganda.

The report documents hundreds of violent incidents at the sprawling camp between 2018 and 2023, described by refugees in interviews with researchers.

Several interviewees recounted a March 2021 arson attack, when attackers launched a petrol bomb at shelters in a block housing LGBTQ+ refugees.

Isabel, a transgender woman, told researchers she was woken that night by screams from other members of the LGBTQ+ community living on her block. When she went outside, she saw her friend Chriton running away in a ball of flames while screaming for help. Diana told researchers that she was sleeping outside and woke up screaming: she’d been wounded on her left leg. One survivor of the arson attack had burn scars over 50% of his body.

Sharon, a transgender woman, expressed her lack of confidence in the police when describing some of the several episodes of violence and intimidation she’s suffered at various times.

“One morning I was going from Kakuma camp to town with another transgender refugee who I met in the camp,” Sharon recalled. “Four people approached us and told us to kiss each other in front of them, threatening to beat us. Another day three people found me walking around the camp and started throwing jabs on my face and kicking me, saying that I am a curse to the rain in Kakuma. They beat me.”

More than 40 LGBTQ+ refugees reported being targeted in two homophobic attacks in Kakuma camp in December 2019 and January 2020. In April 2020, a lesbian refugee was beaten and raped by a gang of eight men who demanded to know “why” she was a lesbian.

A June 2020 video showed a crowd of people attacking LGBTQ+ refugees with stones and sticks.

“I came to Kenya because I had no freedom and security in my country,” Mercy, a lesbian woman, told researchers. “The culture and the law there did not allow me to stay. I was attacked many times and my life was at risk, so I left. My mum is the one who helped me escape. I thought I would be free here, but I have not found any solution. I just want to be safe.”

In April, Kenyan MP Peter Kaluma introduced a copycat “Kill the Gays” bill modeled on neighboring Uganda’s draconian anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. The act would penalize same-sex relations with life in prison and expel LGBTQ+ refugees from the country.

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