By Njeri Gateru and Irũngũ Houghton,
The reinvigoration of Kenya’s refugee system offers new possibilities for all those fleeing persecution. A new report reminds the government, UNHCR and development partners it is vital humanitarian services must not leave any asylum seeker behind.
For over three decades, Kenya has been a sanctuary nation for millions of asylum seekers. Close to 550,000 men, women and children largely from Eastern Africa are protected by the international humanitarian system and Kenyan government.
Over 80 per cent of refugees (420,000) live in camps in Kakuma, Turkana County, and Dadaab in Garissa County with limited freedom of movement. The new Refugees Act of 2021 reframes the strict encampment policy. In a welcome departure from past administrations, the Kenya Kwanza regime has declared a “Marshall Plan” to transition from camps to integrated settlements.
The vision of integration similar rather than endless encampment has international community’s support. The new policy also responds to recent public polls demonstrating 90 per cent of Kenyans support protecting neighbours fleeing state violence and regional instability.
Discrimination, life-threatening hate crimes and the legal criminalisation of same-sex relationships across Eastern Africa also drive asylum seekers to Kenya. Kenya is probably still, the only viable country in the region for those persecuted and hunted for their sexual orientation or gender identity. A new study, “Justice Like Any Other person: Hate Crimes and Discrimination Against LGBTI Refugees” released this week by Amnesty International and the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission tells their experiences and how the humanitarian system could do better to protect this community. LGBTIQ persons who have declared their status are a tiny number, less than 0.2 per cent of refugees. Homophobic attitudes and practices by registration officers have made their registration challenging.
Delayed refugee status determination, harassment and identity-based violence and limited opportunities for third country resettlement are some of the challenges they face.
Two years ago, Chriton “Trinidad” Atuhwera was airlifted with a neighbour from Kakuma camp after a vicious fire-bomb unleashed fourth degree burns across most of his body. Visiting him at the Kenyatta National Hospital, I saw first-hand the horror and impact of a hate crime. One month later, Chriton died.
The firebomb had burnt through two layers of body skin, muscle, and bone. His neighbour survived, emotionally and physically scarred for life. Incidents like these have led to several calls for independent reviews of the UN Refugee Agency and government protection and safety measures for LGBTIQ refugees.
The new study offers 12 practical recommendations that could eliminate or reduce incidents of discrimination and hate crimes. Key among them are new measures that would guarantee the physical and psychological safety of LGBTIQ asylum seekers and refugees, fair and timely registration and refugee status determination, and provision of services without discrimination. Governments particularly those in the European Union and the US must increase resettlement to other countries, complementary pathways and community sponsorship specifically targeting LGBTIQ asylum seekers now.
Financial and other support to human rights defenders, organisations and programmes that protect the rights of LGBTIQ asylum seekers and refugees are also urgent.
As we approach the World Refugee Day next month, the government, UN agencies and development partners must give our humanitarian system the clarity and resources required to realise Kenya’s obligations.
It may not be popular to raise the issue of discrimination towards sexual minorities in some quarters. Some may even argue remaining quiet would be better. However, silence isn’t safety and invisibility doesn’t mean injustices don’t exist.
The true strength of any system is the dignity and safety it offers the most vulnerable. All human beings deserve the full protection of humanitarian and human rights law. If we achieve this, then maybe, just maybe, historians will remember this generation as one that was grounded in our national values of respect, dignity, and safety for all.
First published in The Standard on 20th May 2023. Kindly reproduced here with permission from The Standard.
Njeri Gatheru and Irũngũ Houghton are Executive Directors at National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International Kenya respectively.