The Road to Safety: Strengthening Protection for LGBTI Refugees in Uganda and Kenya

The Road to safety report image

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) refugees are often among the most vulnerable and isolated of refugees. This is especially true in places where they are at heightened risk due to violent attacks, discrimination, and laws that criminalize same-sex relations. In addition, in many countries around the world, LGBTI refugees are targets of bias-motivated attacks and sexual and gender-based violence. Around seventy-six countries criminalize consensual same-sex conduct.

After fleeing persecution in their own countries, LGBTI refugees often find themselves at risk again in the countries where they have sought protection. In Uganda and Kenya, for example, where research for this report was conducted, LGBTI refugees and those associated with them have been abducted, beaten, and raped. Some have been forced to relocate their homes frequently to avoid the scrutiny and potential hostility of landlords, neighbors, or other refugees who would harass, threaten or evict them if their sexual orientation or gender identity were discovered. Some examples of violence include:

n  In 2010, two refugee women in Uganda were abducted and raped because they had been assisting LGBTI refugees.

n  In November 2011, a gay male refugee in Uganda was locked in his home and a group of refugees tried to burn him alive.

n  Five cases of “corrective rape” of lesbian or transgender male refugees in Uganda were reported by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) between June and November 2011.

n  A gay Somali teenager in Kenya was doused in gasoline in 2010 and would have been set on fire by a crowd of Somali teenagers in Eastleigh, Nairobi, if not for the intervention of an older Somali woman.

Similar incidents no doubt go unreported. Moreover, host governments aggravate the risks for LGBTI refugees by making discrimination official government policy. Ugandan law provides for a sentence of life imprisonment for same-sex conduct, and the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill would impose the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.” Public rhetoric demonizing homosexuality has been particularly vicious since the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was first introduced in October 2009, and Human Rights First’s Fighting Discrimination Program has documented violence and harassment targeting LGBTI Ugandans since then. The Government of Uganda has recently committed, in connection with the U.N. Human Rights Council review of its human rights record through the Universal Periodic Review process, to investigate and prosecute attacks on LGBTI persons. Although public rhetoric in Kenya has been generally less violent, LGBTI persons do face discrimination, harassment, and sometimes violence. A conviction in Kenya for consensual sexual conduct between men carries a five-year jail sentence.

As detailed in this report, LGBTI refugees face particular difficulties in reporting threats or attacks to the police, a problem aggravated by government policies criminalizing same-sex conduct. In this connection, LGBTI refugees are vulnerable to abuse and extortion by police officers, some of whom use laws that criminalize same-sex relations to threaten arrest unless bribes are paid. These laws, as well as broader societal discrimination, also undermine access to asylum and make it very difficult for LGBTI refugees to find effective protection and lasting solutions to their displacement. The vulnerability of LGBTI refugees is compounded by their frequent isolation from family and refugee social support networks, and a range of particular barriers they face in securing assistance from services for which they are eligible. Notably, in some cases they have been denied access to, or suffered discrimination or harassment when attempting to access, assistance from NGOs, the local offices of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), or health-care institutions.

International human rights protections apply to all persons, including LGBTI persons. Given the specific risks facing LGBTI refugees in Uganda and Kenya, including continual risks of violence, effective strategies should be implemented to address the significant gaps in protection facing these refugees. While the number of LGBTI refugees identified by NGOs and UNHCR is low (due in part to the challenges documented in this report), these refugees are particularly vulnerable and doubly marginalized—not only are they refugees, with all the challenges and vulnerabilities of that status, but they are also marginalized from refugee communities and support systems available to other refugees. As illustrated in this report, LGBTI refugees sometimes face acute risks due to discrimination, violence, or laws that criminalize same-sex conduct.

Human Rights First has identified a number of key steps to be taken to improve the situation of LGBTI refugees. In many cases, existing programs and resources can be enhanced or connected more effectively to address gaps in protection. These improvements can largely be achieved using existing resources but through better coordination, information, and advocacy, all leading to improved protection in both the short and long term. Not taking the steps outlined in this report would mean leaving LGBTI refugees with little protection—at risk of violent attacks at the hands of host communities and other refugees, and without protection from the police. Tackling these challenges now will help ensure that protection is provided equally and without discrimination, and will dramatically increase the safety of LGBTI refugees.

Over the last few years, UNHCR, the United States, and other key actors have made initial commitments to take steps to address the gaps in protection that put LGBTI refugees at particular risk. UNHCR has revised a number of its key refugee protection guidance documents, and has committed to take additional steps to address the specific challenges encountered by LGBTI refugees in obtaining protection and assistance. In some countries, NGOs and UNHCR have begun to develop initiatives to address the often neglected protection needs of LGBTI refugees, although, as detailed in this report, in countries such as Uganda and Kenya additional steps are urgently needed. Following a June 2011 resolution of the U.N. Human Rights Council, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights published a report in December 2011 detailing the fact that human rights laws should protect LGBTI persons, and calling on states to repeal laws that criminalize same-sex relations, to investigate incidents of violence, and to provide access to asylum, with the goal of ensuring that those seeking international protection from persecution on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity are not returned to a situation of further persecution.

In December 2011, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a historic address at the Palais des Nations in Geneva calling on states to protect LGBT persons from violence, discrimination, and other human rights violations, and stressing U.S. commitment to protecting LGBT persons. U.S. President Barack Obama simultaneously issued a Presidential Memorandum directing the U.S. Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, and other U.S. government agencies to take steps to protect the human rights of LGBT persons—including by identifying LGBT refugees, ensuring equal access to assistance and protection, and expediting resettlement of highly vulnerable persons with urgent protection needs.

In this report, Human Rights First lays out a road map of practical steps that UNHCR, the U.S. government, and other key actors should take to ensure that LGBTI refugees have equal access to protection, assistance, and durable solutions, with the goal of more effectively implementing the positive commitments that have been made to improve protection for LGBTI refugees. While this report was informed by research and experience in East Africa, most of the recommended measures apply equally in other locations where LGBTI refugees face serious protection challenges.

Many of the basic principles and recommendations detailed in this report would moreover be relevant to any other set of highly vulnerable refugees, including victims of sexual and gender-based violence, those with compelling needs for assistance, and refugees facing dire risks who are in need of expedited resettlement. As to resettlement, increasing the global capacity for expedited resettlement would address a critical gap in protection that currently leaves many refugees in life-threatening situations. The United States, moreover, has the ability to create a formal expedited resettlement program or system. The measures outlined in this report would help improve the protection environment in host countries over the longer term, while also addressing the dire threats to the safety of individual refugees now.

The report’s primary recommendations are:

  • Protect LGBTI refugees from violence and assist victims of violence. UNHCR, along with NGOs that work with refugees, should help LGBTI refugees report violent incidents to the police; conduct outreach to refugee communities to tackle violence by other refugees; work with domestic LGBTI organizations to provide access to support, including emergency hotlines, legal services, and security training; and develop an effective referral system to assist LGBTI victims of bias-motivated and sexual and gender-based violence. Host countries should protect everyone, including LGBTI refugees, from bias-motivated violence and prosecute the perpetrators of such violence.
  • Ensure at-risk LGBTI refugees have access to safe shelter. UNHCR and NGOs, with the support of donor states, should make safe shelter options available for LGBTI refugees at risk, including those in need of emergency shelter. Human Rights First recommends a “scattered housing” approach, with accommodation options for LGBTI refugees cases separate from where other refugee populations live. This scattered housing program should be funded by donor states, NGOs, or UNHCR, and available to small numbers of LGBTI refugees at short notice. Other shelter options may supplement this approach.
  • Improve access to timely resettlement and expedited resettlement. UNHCR, the United States, and other resettlement states should strengthen mechanisms for identifying vulnerable LGBTI refugees, improve the pace of their resettlement where necessary, assess the potential use of Emergency Transit Facilities for LGBTI refugees, and significantly increase the number of expedited resettlement slots available globally. To address delays in resettlement processing, the United States should ensure the necessary coordination, staffing, and prioritization of security clearance processing and eliminate any unnecessary duplications, and extend validity periods for steps already completed.

The United States should also develop a formalized and transparent expedited resettlement program or system within the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. It should provide emergency resettlement for applicants in extreme danger in as close to 14 days as possible from referral to departure and urgent resettlement for  refugee applicants facing urgent risks within eight weeks, and in particular should:

  • Improve coordination of the multiple steps in the resettlement process for expedited applicants;
  • Consistently expedite security checks for emergency and urgent resettlement cases;
  • Develop expedited resettlement guidelines for each region; and
  • Provide more rapid interviews with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in locations where refugees at risk would otherwise need to wait for a “circuit ride” visit.
  • Improve general access to protection for LGBTI refugees. UNHCR and NGOs, with support from donor states, should improve access to other protection and assistance mechanisms, including:
  • Develop joint protection strategies, including components on protection against violence, access to support for survivors of violence, access to safe shelter, access to durable solutions, and measures to improve access to existing services;
  • Continue to revise and roll out key protection tools such as the Age, Gender and Diversity Mainstreaming (AGDM) strategy and the Heightened Risk Identification Tool;
  • Further develop and provide ongoing training to address negative UNHCR and NGO staff attitudes towards LGBTI refugees;
  • Reform registration procedures and develop targeted outreach strategies to ensure that LGBTI refugees are identified and their protection needs are addressed without delay; and
  • Train UNHCR staff, government officials, and adjudicators on sexual orientation and gender identity as grounds for asylum.

Published on May 16, 2012


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