NAIROBI, KENYA — Stephen Maate has had to flee for his safety more than once. The first time came when he was 17. He’d been caught embracing a boy from school and his family turned him out.
Maate fled to Kampala, where neighbors grew suspicious of his male visitors.
“You try and keep a low profile, but you will always remain you,” Maate says.
The neighbors’ suspicions turned dangerous in 2013, when Ugandan lawmakers approved the Anti-Homosexuality Act, making homosexuality punishable by up to life in prison. In 2014, police, together with his neighbors, approached his home. Maate escaped, but one of his friends was caught.
“I do not know what happened to him,” Maate says.
Uganda’s High Court overturned the controversial Anti-Homosexuality Act in 2014, but in many places, the guidelines of the law are followed as though they’re still in force. Anti-gay violence is common nationwide.
Maate fled to Kenya after his near-arrest in Kampala.
Now, he’s part of a group of LGBT refugees from Uganda asking the U.N.’s refugee arm, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to resettle them elsewhere because of the persecution they say they’ve faced in Kenya. Homosexuality is criminalized here, too. The law is sparingly enforced, but people are often not keen to welcome LGBT people, the refugees say.
“Kenyans ask, ‘How come you are a refugee, yet in Uganda there is no war?’ The only thing they know is that Museveni said ‘No gays in Uganda,’” Maate says, referring to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, whose government campaigns against homosexuality.
Maate says neighbors and police chased him and other LGBT Ugandans away from their Nairobi neighborhood in 2015.
He was among a group of LGBT refugees that camped outside UNHCR’s Nairobi offices for two weeks until security staff forced them to leave in early February.
LGBT refugees make up a tiny minority of the half-million refugees and asylum seekers in Kenya. It’s not clear how many refugees identify specifically as LGBT, largely because they don’t have their own specific resettlement category. They are often categorized in other groups, such as torture survivors or groups that are considered to have no foreseeable alternative to resettlement, according to the UNHCR’s 2013 LGBT Resettlement Assessment Tool. That lack of a specific category for LGBT refugees means it’s difficult to track how many have been resettled to avoid persecution due to their sexual orientation.
Yvonne Ndege, UNHCR’s spokeswoman in Kenya, says her agency has responded to the refugees’ concerns by offering money so they can relocate within Kenya and by offering individual counseling.
UNHCR has prioritized the resettlement of LGBT refugees, she says, noting that resettlement countries can set their own criteria for whom to accept.
A 2014 report by the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration (ORAM) states that the majority of Ugandans fleeing their country because of their sexual orientation or gender identity escape to Kenya. Uganda and Kenya are both part of the East African Community, where people can easily cross between borders and stay temporarily without a visa.
UNHCR, in a 2016 report, noted that of the around 500 LGBT asylum seekers who entered Kenya in 2015, most were Ugandans.
Though Uganda’s controversial law was struck down, the existing laws are only marginally less punitive. Being gay can still land someone in jail.
“In the communities, it’s like the law was still in force,” says John, a gay Ugandan refugee who asked that only his first name be used to protect his privacy.
John fled to Kenya in 2015 after he was attacked by his family and community.
The refugees say they need more than money from UNHCR.
“We do not need money, all we need is protection,” says Musa, an LGBT refugee who asked that his full name not be used to protect his identity.
The refugees say they plan to protest at the UNHCR offices again until their issues are resolved. Being within sight of the building is a measure of protection, Maate says.
“It is better to stay here than to die out there,” he says.
This article was published through a partnership with Global Press Journal.