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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

Protect the most vulnerable from hate crimes

Updated: May 23, 2023

The reinvigoration of Kenya’s refugee system offers new possibilities for all those fleeing persecution. A new report reminds the Kenyan Government, UNHCR and development partners it is vital humanitarian services must not leave any asylum seeker behind, this joint opinion with Njeri Gateru argues.

For over three decades, Kenya has been a sanctuary nation for millions of asylum seekers. Close to 550,000 men, women, and children largely from Eastern Africa are currently being protected by the international humanitarian system and Kenyan Government. 80 per cent of refugees (420,000) live in camps in Kakuma, Turkana County, and Dadaab, Garissa County with limited freedom of movement.

The new Refugees Act of 2021 reframes the strict encampment policy. In a welcome departure from past administrations, the Kenya Kwanza administration have declared a “Marshall Plan” to transition from camps to integrated settlements in line with the new law. The vision of integration similar rather than endless encampment has international community support. The new policy also responds to recent public polls demonstrating 90 per cent of Kenyans support protecting neighbours fleeing state violence and regional instability.

Discrimination, life-threatening hate crimes and the legal criminalisation of same-sex relationships across Eastern Africa also drive asylum seekers to Kenya. Kenya is probably still, the only viable country in the region for those persecuted and hunted for their sexual orientation or gender identity. A new study “Justice Like Any Other person: Hate Crimes and Discrimination Against LGBTI Refugees” released this week by Amnesty International and the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission tells their experiences and the how humanitarian system could better protect this community.

LGBTIQ persons who have declared their status are a tiny number, less than 0.2 per cent of refugees. Homophobic attitudes and practices by registration officers have made their registration challenging. Delayed refugee status determination, harassment and identity-based violence and limited opportunities for third country resettlement or local integration are some of the challenges they face.

Two years ago, Chriton "Trinidad" Atuhwera was airlifted with a neighbour from Kakuma Camp after a vicious fire-bomb unleashed fourth degree burns across most of his body. Visiting him in Kenyatta National Hospital, I saw first-hand the horror and impact of a hate crime. One month later, Chriton died. The firebomb had burnt through two layers of skin, muscle, and bone. His neighbour survived, emotionally and physically scarred for life.

Incidents like these have led to several calls for independent reviews of the UN Refugee Agency and the Government of Kenya’s protection and safety measures for LGBTIQ refugees. The new study offers twelve practical recommendations that could eliminate or reduce incidents of discrimination and hate crimes. Key among them are new measures that would guarantee the physical and psychological safety of LGBTIQ asylum seekers and refugees, fair and timely registration and refugee status determination, and provision of services without discrimination.

Governments particularly those in the European Union and the United States of America must increase resettlement to other countries, complementary pathways and community sponsorship specifically targeting LGBTIQ asylum seekers now. Financial and other support to human rights defenders, organisations and programs that protect the rights of LGBTIQ asylum seekers and refugees are also urgent.

As the world approaches World Refugee Day next month, the Government of Kenya, UN agencies and development partners must give our humanitarian system the clarity and resources required to realise Kenya’s obligations. It may not be convenient nor popular to raise the issue of discrimination towards sexual minorities in some quarters. Some may even argue remaining quiet would be better. However, silence isn’t safety and invisibility doesn’t mean injustices don’t exist.

The true strength of any system is the dignity and safety it offers the most vulnerable. All human beings deserve the full protection of humanitarian and human rights law. If we achieve this, then maybe, just maybe, historians will remember this generation as one that was grounded in our national values of respect, dignity, and safety for all.

This opinion was co-authored with NGLHRC Executive Director Njeri Gateru and was also published in the Saturday Standard and by Amnesty International Kenya on 20 May 2023 #StandardSettingKE

The “Justice Like Any Other person: Hate Crimes and Discrimination Against LGBTI Refugees report can be read here


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