KAMPALA, Uganda — With one of the world’s most infamous anti-gay laws, Uganda seems like the last place on Earth an LGBTI person would go seeking safety. But almost 100 LGBTI refugees have sought help from an NGO in Uganda’s capital to seek asylum in the country, and there may be many more in the country illegally without seeking formal permission to stay.
Many of them have come during the five years Uganda have been debating its Anti-Homosexuality Act, which originally proposed a death sentence for homosexuality. If they’re crossing the border, you can be sure the situations in their home countries are “quite worse than Uganda,” said David, who works for an NGO in Kampala that assists LGBTI asylum-seekers. David asked that his real name not be used out of fear for his safety; one of his colleagues was beaten in a supermarket last year over his LGBTI work. He also asked that the organization he works for not be identified out of concern that it could be shut down by the Ugandan government, since the version of the law enacted in February essentially bans LGBTI advocacy as well as imposing up to a lifetime prison sentence for homosexuality.
“There is a common saying, ‘If you see a rat running from a bush into a hut that is burning, that means it could be hotter in the bush,’” David said. Some people in neighboring countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo or Burundi are fleeing situations that are so bad that they make Uganda seem safe.
One of these asylum-seekers is a trans man from Rwanda who asked to be identified as Green, because of his love of trees. “I like to be near trees,” he said during an interview in Kampala. “They don’t have hate, they don’t reject me, and if I tell them [secrets], they won’t tell everybody.”
Green arrived in Kampala four years ago, still recovering from a police beating at his home in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, that was so severe he walks with a crutch to this day. Green grew up largely on the streets after his father turned his back on him when he was a very small child, but he managed to continue his education all the way through university, determined to be an activist for children’s rights and the rights of the disabled.
According to Green’s account, police showed up at his house a few months after he graduated, accompanied by a neighborhood official, who accused him of recruiting girls into homosexuality even though Rwanda has no law against same-sex intercourse.
“You’re a lesbian,” Green said the police asserted. “You are teaching people [lesbianism] since your childhood.”
When Green denied the accusation, the police officers beat him until he lost consciousness. He ultimately escaped that day, but they hunted him down a few days later and brought him to jail. By twist of fate, one of his former schoolmates was a police officer at the jail, and she arranged for him to escape when he was let out of his cell to go to the bathroom. If he did not flee, the schoolmate warned, he would be sent to the main prison or, more likely, killed.
Green’s relatives helped him sneak across the Ugandan border without papers. He made it to the capital, Kampala, and found a place to live. But then, in 2012, his neighbor began threatening to rape and kill him, he said. Green said he managed to fight off the neighbor the first few times he tried to deliver on his threat, but late one November night the neighbor forced his way into the apartment and raped him. As the neighbor left, he described his plan to to kill Green: The next time he would cover himself with HIV-infected blood before raping Green again so that he would contract the virus.
Going to the police was out of the question. Green’s short-term asylum status had expired, and he had given up on seeking permanent refugee status because the process was too humiliating and risky — his masculine appearance was in conflict with his female legal name. He couldn’t flee to another country because he had no papers and little money. He thought about killing himself.
“I was here in Uganda, but I was in a prison. … I was not able to open my door at any time,” Green said.
After a period of homelessness, he eventually managed to find a new place to stay, far from the rapist neighbor. But now, it is becoming less safe by the day. When he walks down the street, Green says people call him “Obama” — Obama has become a derogatory word for people who support LGBTI rights.
“I think every [day] I can be arrested again or killed,” Green said. “There is no life” for him in Uganda, he said.
Surprisingly, LGBTI people could easily register as asylum-seekers with the Ugandan government before the law became law in February. David, the NGO employee, said he knew of at least four cases in the past year in which his clients had even declared they were seeking asylum because of sexual orientation-based persecution and had their petitions granted by the office of the prime minister’s office, which reviews asylum claims.
Most of David’s clients come from Congo, but also countries like Rwanda and Burundi. Many come from places where homosexuality isn’t technically criminalized, but where they still sometimes face assault and police abuse under the authority of “morality” or “decency” laws. Before the end of 2013, David’s organization handling 60 cases of LGBTI asylum-seekers and it added 30 more in the first months of 2014, mostly people who were already in the country but were now seeking legal help fearing the Anti-Homosexuality Act.
The new law has made the formal asylum process extremely risky for LGBTI people, even those who are applying for refugee status for other reasons. Under Ugandan law, asylum-seekers must begin the process of applying for permission to stay in the country by reporting to the Ugandan police. Walking into a police station “is like going into the lion’s den” for LGBTI people, said David, because the Anti-Homosexuality Act seems to have given police carte blanche to arrest people suspected of being gay or “promoting homosexuality.”
In March, police showed just how far they are prepared to take this authority. They raided an HIV center run by the United States Military HIV Program in partnership with Uganda’s Makerere Univeristy, after an undercover investigation lasting several weeks into allegations that the initiative was “carrying out recruitment and training of young males in unnatural sexual acts.” The undercover officers filed a report saying the center was collecting “sperms” from participants, and that men and boys between the ages of 15-25 were “a pornographic film as a teaching package for homosexual[s].” One staff member was arrested, and several patients in the clinic at the time of the raid reportedly were photographed by police.
Gay men and lesbians who feel they could conceal their sexual orientation might decide to chance it, David said, but it’s a risk that’s completely out of the question for transgender or intersex people whose status is harder to hide. “With the new law, it’s something you just can’t try,” David said.
Most of the asylum-seekers who seek help from David’s organization have gone underground since the law passed. A support group for the community has stopped meeting out of fear for participants’ safety. At least one client was killed by a mob, David said, and others have been beaten. Some have just disappeared — they’ve stopped coming to the organization’s office and their phones have stopped working. They now live with very little legal protection and almost no support network, leaving them especially vulnerable to anti-LGBTI harassment in daily life, which has increased for all LGBTI people in Uganda.
Not being able to safely petition for refugee status makes it very hard for LGBTI asylum-seekers to get somewhere safer. The United States, Australia, and some other Western countries will accept some refugees who can’t safely stay in the country where they first take refuge, but only after they have been granted refugee status there. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees can sometimes use its powers to grant refugee status to individuals even if the country where they seek asylum doesn’t accept their claims, but it ordinarily doesn’t do that until after an asylum-seeker has been formally rejected by the government.
This leaves people like Green, the Rwandan trans man, feeling trapped.
Green was with a friend who had fled the Democratic Republic of Congo in February when he learned that Museveni had signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act. He turned to his friend and said, “Now we are going to die.”