A Hard Look at Kakuma Refugee Camp

Content Warning: This article contains graphic content and information that may be upsetting to some people.

Kakuma Refugee Camp is one of the world’s largest refugee camps. Located in Turkana County in Northwest Kenya, the camp is home to approximately 200 LGBTQI+ refugees, 135 of whom reside in Block 13, Zone 2 of Kakuma. These Queer folk fled their home countries because their nations have laws/deeply-ingrained societal beliefs which criminalize homosexuality and gender queerness. Many of them hail from countries like Uganda, Somalia, and Sudan, countries which are notorious for their treatment of Queer people. Kakuma Camp, like many refugee camps around the world, is managed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR): an international nonprofit organization (NPO) whose primary purpose is to “safeguard the rights and well being of those forced to flee.”

After persecution in their home countries, these refugees sought asylum from UNHCR and were all placed in Kakuma Camp while they await permanent global resettlement (organized by UNHCR Kenya). However, for the past decade, LGBT refugees have described Kakuma as “hell.” They continue to be the victims of community-orchestrated, police-approved hate crimes. Reports of unrelenting attacks from other (i.e. cishet) refugees, Kenyan citizens, and the Kenyan Police (including private security companies such as G4S Security Services) have been recorded since 2010.

What is Happening in Kakuma Refugee Camp?

June 19th, 2020: the LGBT refugees of Block 13 suffered two large-scale, armed attacks. The attacks were coordinated by  mostly) Sudanese gangs in Kakuma and they made use of pangas (machetes) to cause serious harm.

Furthermore, four lesbian women were attacked, cut, and gang-raped on their way home from town. One of the women needed to charge their phone in town and the other three accompanied her. On their way back,  they encountered a group of men armed with knives who attempted to rob them. Upon discovering their identities, the men attacked them, stripped the women of their clothes (in public), and raped them. One of the women who was assaulted by these men was attacked again a few days after this incident. Thankfully, the women were saved and given immediate medical attention by nurses who volunteered to assist them.

Queer refugees are often refused treatment from local hospitals and clinics, with the exception of Kakuma Mission Hospital which did and continues to treat their injuries and illnesses. This is still an incredible burden for any hospital that is also dealing with a pandemic and thus, there is still a need for greater accessibility to quality healthcare.

Numerous cases of Community-Acquired Pneumonia (CAP) in the group have been reported, and only a handful of the LGBT refugees are being screened for COVID-19. This is because many of the homes that were assigned to LGBT refugees by the UNHCR have been looted and burned to nothing.

Local gangs are the primary cause for all of this, but they are not the only attackers. LGBTQ refugees report experiencing discrimination, humiliation, and sexual violence from the Kenyan Police. A number of them recount being arrested on false charges only to be held in jail where they are tortured by other prisoners (upon instruction of the police) and are forced to have public sexual intercourse with one another in front of the police for their amusement. Local gangs may not be the only attackers but the UK Country Policy and Information Note on Kenya (sexual orientation and gender expression v3.0, 2.4.6) notes that the Kenyan Police have been accused of working with the local gangs. We are unable to confirm how true this is, but it is true that the Kenyan Police are homophobic. In Kenya “homosexual activity” is punishable by 5 - 14 years in prison, thus the Police (who put people in prison) have to be homophobic. This would explain why the police have often refused to assist LGBTQ refugees while they were being attacked, only arriving after the attacks have occurred.

April 12th, 2020: Aneste Mweru, a 28- year-old gay, Ugandan man traveled to UNHCR Kenya’s Head Office in Nairobi to ask for food. Instead of receiving food, eyewitnesses report that he was mercilessly beaten by homophobic police officers and chased away. Aneste took his own life shortly afterward, hanging himself with a scarf at UNHCR Kenya’s Head Offices. The very offices made to protect refugees like Aneste.

Regina is a mother and a member of Kakuma’s LGBT community. In a video interview (available on YouTube, cred Kamran Behrouz, and Alina Baraz) Regina shares how she and her child traveled to the UNHCR offices in Nairobi to request food. Food shortages are a common occurrence for this marginalized group ever since UNHCR Kenya stopped providing them with stipends for food early during the coronavirus pandemic. Many of the refugees have woken up and slept while hungry. Instead of receiving food, they were chased away by the police who used teargas against them

What is The UNHCR Saying?

In early June 2014, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said that the LGBTQ refugees were staging the incidents happening in the Kakuma camp - they burnt their own shelters and they are cutting themselves with dangerous objects. Despite the social media uproar and frequent complaints by LGBTQ+ folk, it was reported that no UNHCR official has gone to the Kakuma refugee camp to investigate and remedy the situation. “They mostly ignore our calls and emails, and one of us was even threatened by an official when he wanted to share his experience,” Tala said.

On 29th April, 2020, the UNHCR issued a statement saying that they were alarmed about the spreading of false information on social media regarding the prevailing situation in Kakuma. In centering Queer Voices, we make a plea that the UNHCR takes on the stories of Queer people actively to better assist them in line with their commitment to equitably catering to refugees in Kakuma.



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