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US Activists, Officials Seek to Protect Africa's Gay Refugees

  • Nico Colombant

A man participates in Durban Pride parade where several hundred people marched through the Durban city center in support of gay rights. (File 2011)

A man participates in Durban Pride parade where several hundred people marched through the Durban city center in support of gay rights. (File 2011)

As the world marked the International Day Against Homophobia Thursday, in Washington, U.S. activists and officials outlined efforts to protect an extremely vulnerable group - gay refugees in east Africa.

Kenya is host to more than 600,000 refugees, while there are an estimated 135,000 refugees in Uganda.

Both countries criminalize homosexuality. In Uganda, what are called "unnatural offenses" carry a risk of life in prison, with some lawmakers even advocating the death penalty. In Kenya, sex between men can lead to prison sentences of up to 14 years.

This makes it extremely difficult to protect gay refugees in both countries, according to Duncan Breen, with the U.S.-based group Human Rights First.

"Even the existence of these laws do contribute to higher rates of biased motivated violence because the legal framework then seems to instill amongst citizens the sense that actually they can commit biased motivated violence with impunity and so certainly it is important for these countries to reconsider these stances," said Breen.

Breen was the lead author of a Human Rights First report called "The Road to Safety, Strengthening Protection for LGBTI Refugees in Uganda and Kenya."

LGBTI stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (between male and female).

The report details numerous recent attacks on LGBTI refugees in the two countries. It also says many of these refugees shy away from aid services due to fears of persecution from other refugees as well as aid workers.

One of the recommendations is for countries like the United States to establish temporary safe zones and help expedite resettlement procedures to a third country so targeted refugees can finally feel safe.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration Anne Richard said the U.S. government is continually trying to improve procedures to help. "We have but one option. We must stand squarely on the side of the most vulnerable," she stated. "We must do what we can to provide them an environment where their safety and security is ensured and their rights and dignity upheld. That must be our priority."

She said efforts were being undertaken to better engage with governments, non-governmental organizations and United Nations agencies to ensure gay refugees in east Africa are helped and not further victimized.

Larry Yungk, a resettlement officer with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said his agency was also evolving in how it deals with the complex issue of LGBTI refugees, with, for example, new guidebooks for its employees.

He said LGBTI refugees who survived camps in Kenya and Uganda, before making it to safety in other countries, should be encouraged to contribute ideas. "I think too often we speak on behalf of refugees without letting them come forward and tell us what might work. We have a lot of very talented refugees being resettled, people with good ideas, and I think trying to make sure that they are at the table as we work on these issues is vitally important," noted Yungk.

Activists and officials say local authorities have been a part of the problem, making it that much more difficult to resolve. In Uganda and Kenya, there have been many reports of police harassing gay refugees inside aid camps.

Research conducted by Human Rights First last year in Uganda indicates a Burundian transgender female refugee was continually arrested by police due to her sexual orientation and gender identity. In prison, the research indicates, she was then repeatedly raped.

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