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Exile offers little respite for LGBTQ+ Ugandans who fled abuse

One year since Uganda passed a harsh anti-LGBTQ+ law, prominent activists have fled for an uncertain new life

A year after Uganda enacted one of the world’s harshest anti-gay laws, many LGBTQ+ exiles are struggling to start over, facing a host of new hurdles alongside some of the same old threats that forced them out.

From Canada to Kenya to Germany, their new homelands have not proved the sanctuary that many LGBTQ+ Ugandans hoped for.

Finding work, a home, safety and acceptance have proved elusive for many who felt forced out by Kampala’s tough anti-homosexuality laws.

Yet even this new half-life is better than the old one.

“Every queer person would love to leave Uganda,” said Henry Mukiibi, a bisexual man who swapped Uganda for neighbouring Kenya in late 2023 under fear of arrest for his activism.

The Anti-Homosexuality Act was signed into law in May 2023, prompting international sanctions and widespread condemnation.

While Uganda had long criminalised gay sex, the new law was tougher yet, imposing the death penalty for “serial offenders” and a 20-year prison sentence for “promotion of homosexuality.”

Life is better now but Nairobi is just a temporary base for Mukiibi and his boyfriend, who hope to move on to North America.

“We’re not safe here,” Mukiibi said by phone.

His Kampala-based charity, Children of the Sun Foundation, has helped 19 LGBTQ+ Ugandans escape this past year under his remote guidance. But Mukiibi said he struggles to raise funds to resettle them – or even pay for his own meals and rent.

North American Dream?

Exile is easier for Steven Kabuye, who recalls the relief he felt on landing in Canada last March after fleeing a near-death knife attack that he attributed to homophobia.

But that early joy is tinged with concern.

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“I thought of my colleagues that I have left behind, the ones that don’t have the freedom that I now have,” said Kabuye, one of Uganda’s most prominent LGBTQ+ rights campaigners, now living in a Canadian city that he preferred not to disclose.

His stabbing was part of a surge in anti-LGBTQ abuse – including cases of torture, rape and evictions – as ordinary citizens grew emboldened by the government’s stance.

The United Nations said “close to 600 people” had faced rights violations and abuses in the past year due to their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Kabuye, 26, fled with the help of Rainbow Railroad, a charity that helps LGBTQ+ people escape risky countries.

Kabuye now hopes to study human rights law in Canada.

“This is a country where I can go out and protest knowing that no police officer will come beat me to death, and no one will throw stones at me because I am queer,” he said.

Last year, Rainbow Railroad had nearly 1,400 requests for help from LGBTQ+ Ugandans, up a thousand from 2022, before the controversial bill became law.

First stop – Kenya

Most LGBTQ+ people escaping Uganda first cross the border into Kenya, according to Rainbow Railroad.

In 2021, the United Nations estimated there were 1,000 LGBTQ+ refugees in Kenya, considered a relative haven for LGBTQ+ people in largely hostile East Africa. 

But fleeing to Kenya is unaffordable for many – bus tickets can cost 300,000 UGX ($79) and flights 950,000 UGX ($249), Kabuye said.

Plus money is just the first obstacle.

“Access to documentation is a real challenge,” said Rainbow Railroad CEO Kimahli Powell.

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Without papers, crossing borders or seeking asylum becomes untenable.

“It’s hard for trans people to have documentation that matches their gender,” Powell said. “For lesbians and other women, often this documentation is not even in their possession; it’s in possession of a spouse that they’ve been forced to marry, or a family member.”

Even if Ugandan exiles do make it to Kenya, life is hard.

Most are consigned to refugee camps such as Kakuma and Dadaab, hosting more than 260,000 people apiece, where human rights organisations have documented discrimination, violence and rape against LGBTQ+ residents.

“The situation has gotten much worse…in Kenya,” said Anja Limon of ORAM, a U.S. charity for LGBTQ+ refugees. “We haven’t heard of anyone getting refugee status because of their sexual orientation or gender identity for a long time.”

The Kenyan interior ministry did not reply to several requests for comment.

Seeking to equip refugees for a new life, ORAM put some 300 LGBTQ+ refugees in Kenya – many of them Ugandan – through job training last year, covering trades from beauty to poultry.

But winning work is only half the battle, according to Limon, who said many exiles then go on to encounter police corruption, discrimination and homophobic attacks.

Ugandan non-binary photographer DeLovie Kwagala, alias Papa De, in Berlin, Germany, on February 27, 2024. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Enrique Anarte

Ugandan non-binary photographer DeLovie Kwagala, alias Papa De, in Berlin, Germany, on February 27, 2024. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Enrique Anarte

A view from Europe

Photographer DeLovie Kwagala identifies as non-binary, neither male nor female and uses a new base in Berlin to pursue an old fight for LGBTQ+ rights in Uganda.

Kwagala, alias Papa De, first left Kampala in 2021 for South Africa when politicians began discussing tougher anti-gay laws and after already switching homes several times for safety.

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“I left Uganda because I wanted to breathe,” said Kwagala, who moved to Germany last year on an artist’s residency.

@openlynews Since Uganda passed one of the world’s harshest anti-LGBTQ+ laws last year, DeLovie Kwagala (aka Papa De) no longer feels safe to go home. The openly non-binary photographer, who uses they/them pronouns, remains uncertain about their future in Germany, where they’ve been able to relocate with their child thanks to a one-year residency programme. Papa De explores LGBTQ+ activism in Uganda in their new documentary “That Ugandan Flaming Homosexual”. We met them in Berlin, where the activist and filmmaker has found a temporary home. 🎙️ Reporter: Enrique Anarte in Berlin. #lgbtnews #lgbtqrights #uganda #lgbtuganda #berlin ♬ Stories 2 – Danilo Stankovic

While Kwagala and their 10-year-old child now feel safe, starting life from scratch was not their choice.

“No one leaves home if home feels safe,” said Kwagala, who must find a new bolt hole once the residency ends in August.

“I want to be able to hug my mum… I want my child to have a relationship with their grandparents,” said Kwagala. “But we had to leave everything behind because we simply wanted to experience what freedom felt like.”