He’s one of nearly 500 migrants in Kenya, more than 3,000 across Africa and 10,000 worldwide — the vast majority of whom are refugees — whose approved resettlement to third countries has been put on indefinite hold by the coronavirus, according to the International Organization for Migration, or IOM.
Once a country approves a refugee’s resettlement, the IOM — part of the United Nations — controls their travel. It suspended those processes on March 17. For some refugees who were on the verge of travel, it’s a relatively minor blip after years of trauma — just a few more months appended to years of waiting. For others, such as gay and transgender Ugandan refugees in Kenya, the delay comes with immediate risks.
“Now it’s like, how do we even get to tomorrow?” said Wasswa, 26.
Sexual minorities are persecuted in Uganda, where lawmakers have made serious attempts to institute the death penalty for gay sex. In Kenya, those acts are also illegal and theoretically punishable by up to 14 years in jail.
More commonly, the law is used by the police as a pretext to extort and harass members of the LGBT community. In Kenya, as in Uganda, outspoken local Christian ministers and foreign missionaries have used their pulpits to denounce homosexuality.
Wasswa and almost 30 others lived in a safe house in a Nairobi suburb until the pandemic hit. Afraid that their numbers would draw police enforcing social distancing measures, they split into two houses of about 15 each, doubling the amount each had to pay for rent. Almost none had jobs. They said Kenyans won’t hire them either because they are refugees or because they are effeminate.
“So, yeah, it’s sugar daddies or nothing for many of us. But even that is much harder now,” Wasswa said. “How are you supposed to meet someone if bars are closed and there’s a curfew? And if you met them, what if you are putting yourself at risk to get the virus? I can’t bring someone home because that puts the whole house at risk.”
Hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese and Somali migrants have sought asylum in Kenya. Around half a million have been registered as refugees and live in two vast camps, Kakuma and Dadaab, from where UNHCR, the U.N.’s refugee agency, can help them apply for resettlement to third countries. Discrimination and assaults in the camps have driven almost all the LGBT refugees from Uganda to relocate to Nairobi.
Here, they face a quandary: If you are Ugandan and you are a refugee, police assume that you are gay, bisexual or transgender — a criminal under Kenyan law.
This month, police raided a different safe house where half a dozen Ugandan refugees at various stages in the resettlement process live.
“There is no war in Uganda,” Caitlyn Lubega recalled a policeman saying as he rifled through her bedroom’s drawers, where he found lubricant. “You are not a refugee.”
Lubega, 27, who is transgender, said she and a roommate were taken to a police station and told they could either “buy their freedom” or be charged for sex crimes, with the lubricant as evidence. She paid around $250, she said.
The head of the police station in the Nairobi suburb of Ongata Rongai, Godfrey Gichuhi, said he was not aware of the house raid and arrest, but acknowledged that “there are so many petty cases that I cannot be aware of them all.” He declined a reporter’s request to view the registry of arrests. In his office, another officer repeated the line about there being no war in Uganda and cast doubt on Lubega’s refugee status.
Dana Hughes, a UNHCR spokeswoman at the agency’s global headquarters in Nairobi, said that in general it “takes any allegations of mistreatment seriously and will raise any concern with government and law enforcement officials to ensure the rights of refugees under international and national law are upheld.”
Lubega and her roommates keep chickens and sell the eggs to get by. When Lubega returned home from the police station, she found one chicken hanging dead from a tree, like a warning. A few days later, she found another strangled. She thinks her neighbors are responsible for the dead chickens and for reporting her to the police. She’s looking for a new place to live.
“If we keep moving around, the problem will be the same everywhere we go,” she said. “I’m not hopeful.”
For refugees such as Lubega who are still at the interview stage in the resettlement process, the suspension of all resettlement activity has dampened dreams even more than for those who have already found accepting countries. UNHCR said it hopes receiving countries can revive resettlement procedures even if the coronavirus keeps borders closed and flights grounded.
“UNHCR is encouraging more resettlement countries to adopt dossier processing and conduct remote interviews, as well as accept critically at-risk refugees for emergency resettlement departures,” Hughes said.
The process is grueling, and often years can pass between interviews and other mileposts. Sulah Mawejje, another Ugandan refugee who lives with Wasswa, said that the U.S. Embassy was processing his application but that the suspension of the process meant he could be in Kenya for many more years than he’d hoped.
“It tortures you psychologically,” he said. “The others leaving was a sign of hope for us. Now everything is back to normal and that normal is not good.”
Mawejje fled Uganda at 21 after his parents died of AIDS and his extended family, repulsed by his rejection of traditional masculinity, disowned him. An uncle tracked him down in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, and shouted that Mawejje was gay in front of a large crowd, which then beat him severely. When he got to Kenya, he slept outside UNHCR headquarters for two weeks.
“Part of me feels like there’s no hope. The process is already so long and hard to understand. The U.S. Embassy tells us things like you only have a 1 percent chance anyway,” he said. “But here at least I have a family who accepts me for who I am.”
Rael Ombuor contributed to this report.