#UNHCR Failure in Kenya

Commemorating World Day of Social Justice (20 February).

How Filippo Grandi and staff at UNHCR Kenya are failing to uphold this year’s theme: Overcoming Barriers and Unleashing Opportunities for Social Justice

A Press Release written by people who were there – edited by me only for the purposes of clarity and grammar.

The LGBTQ community in Kakuma refugee camp would like to inform the world about what happened on 3rd February 2023 to our people in this camp during food distribution.

“We refute allegations that we were demonstrating on the grounds of not being given food on time (although if we had been, this would seem in itself to be reasonable). Instead, as usual, we appeared at Ration Centre #4 in a group of 100+ to collect food (the reason why we go to ration centres in such a big number at once is to ensure our safety from any kind of homophobic violence on our way to and from the centre and also during food collection. We feel safer when we are in a group).

“We peacefully asked to be served food in a timely fashion because the longer were standing in the long queue, the more we were being stoned and beaten by other refugees. We tried to explain and ask for protection from violence, but the security team at the ration centre ignored the matter. We kept on pleading that we needed to get food at the earliest opportunity and leave, because no one likes to be beaten or stoned simply because they are picking up 2 kgs of maize grains for a month’s ration. Our request was not in any way connected to any of us feeling special compared to other refugees, but it was a request that perhaps if followed, could save us from the violence we were facing back in the long queue. Unfortunately, the security team wasn’t even willing to consider or respond to our request for help.

“We were instead made to wait, being told to come back on our own special day or make other arrangements with the UNHCR. This was something we felt was stigmatising us and wasn’t right. We are not special among other refugees, and we should not need to be given our own day or arrangement of collecting food. However much we may be vulnerable, it doesn’t make us special to the extent of having food in a special arrangement. Just like any other vulnerable group of people in the camp (like expecting mothers, children, or people with disabilities) who pick up food without being assigned their own specific allocated day, we LGBTQ refugees shouldn’t be treated in any way differently from the others. We have to associate with the rest of the refugee community.

“If the UNHCR believes we can live in harmony with the camp community, as they keep alleging, why would they need to allocate a day for us to pick up food, a day when no one else will be at the ration centre? UNHCR is doing community sensitisations where they are teaching people to stop being homophobic. We don’t want to think that this is already failing (after all we already complained about it that it’s only exposing us, increasing our risks of violence and its never a durable solution). Why would they need to give us a day of coming back to pick up food if the community loves us and if perhaps the sensitisations are working?

“We therefore believe that the fact that they were suggesting a day for us to pick food would stigmatise us. That’s why we didn’t accept it. We kept on standing in the line, waiting for them to give us food like everyone else.

“Unfortunately, one police officer beat a gay man. This ruined everything and we immediately asked the police to take him to the hospital and we condemned police brutality. In response, the police teargassed us, and the community continued throwing stones at us. This caused other LGBTIQ+ refugees to sustain injuries. However, according to UNHCR, “no one sustained serious injuries”. Is this a statement that is in any way related to their mandate? Are they mandated to say, “no one suffered serious injuries?” Are they mandated to tell the truth?

“An injury is an injury. Mental, physical, minor or serious injuries are all injuries, and no one is meant to have any of them simply because they belong to a certain marginalised group within an unwelcoming society, for as long as humanity exists.

“Additionally, the UNHCR claims that social media postings from the injured are misinformation. This is wrong and inhuman. They are victims explaining their experiences, which should never be termed as misinformation. No one among the victims is mentally ill enough to claim that they were injured when it’s not true. Why would they need to misinform? They were injured, they got treatment, they reported to police and more so, they were victimised. The UNHCR should stop alleging that victims’ homophobic experiences are “misinformation”. Homophobia causes injuries. Be it mental, physical, minor, serious, or otherwise, they’re all injuries. We ask that a durable solution be found, not misrepresenting victims’ experiences as misinformation.

“We also ask that UNHCR consider the fact that 1,000 refugees went home without picking up their food simply because they saw it as being more important to pick up stones and throw them at us than picking up their own food. None of us asked them to stop collecting their food. Literally, 100 refugees can’t prevent 1000 other refugees from collecting their food and going back to their homes. Such an allegation from a humanitarian agency like the UNHCR only exposes a clear bias against LGBTQ+ refugees. We cannot be blamed for stopping 1000 other refugees from picking up their food. Instead of ignoring what the 1000 refugees (and police) violently did to us, we would like to ask the UNHCR to improve their mechanisms of gathering evidence about such incidents, otherwise it’s unfair and misleading of them to come up with such claims. This reveals bias against LGBTQ+ refugees from the UNHCR’s partner organisations instead of ensuring the impartial and accurate collecting of evidence, data and information before coming up with their official conclusions.

“Lastly, what happened on 3rd February 2023 was a clear indication that Kakuma refugee camp is homophobic and will never accept LGBTIQ refugees. The problem isn’t about a group of LGBTIQ individuals in the camp. No, the problem is the fact that we are living in a place that is homophobic and there is no any number of police patrol cars, or community sensitisation that will ever solve that. Actually, the UNHCR is just escalating the entire crisis, leaving us targeted, exposed and risked. Others in the camp are biased against LGBTQ refugees: doctors in the hospitals, humanitarian workers, police, members of the host community, and fellow refugees.”

This Press Release indicates that there are many failures with the UNHCR in Kenya. This includes failing to ensure that members of Kenya Police protect refugees instead of assaulting them or ignoring their assault by others; failing to ensure that all refugees are granted guaranteed safety and prompt, equal service; and failing to overcome barriers such as prejudice, homophobia or hatred. Such failures have already compelled some LGBTIQ refugees to leave Kakuma and walk to South Sudan, where their situation remains terrible.

As one refugee advocate pointed out to me, an unfortunate reminder given to us by the teargassing of refugees at Kakuma is the use of policing as an excuse for abusing defenseless people. This appears to be a worldwide phenomenon. By contrast, the grace and fortitude of the LGBTIQ refugees is admirable. If Dr. Grandi took this matter seriously, he could surely institute hiring and supervision practices that would stop the treatment of these displaced people as being somehow less than human. #BlackLivesMatter? Apparently not, if they are African, refugee, and LGBTIQ.

©2023 Geoff Allshorn

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