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Trans refugees in Kenya: “Right now we are on our own”

ncreasing numbers of LGBTQ+ people have fled to seek refuge in Kenya, looking for a place they can be themselves without fearing for their lives or for their families’ lives. But things are getting harder.

by Chay Brown, Director of Operations, TransActual

Content note: This article is about the experiences of being a trans refugee in Kenya. It makes reference to transphobia, Police harassment and brutality, assault, rape, arson and murder.

Jordan Zeus left Uganda 5 years ago after being outed in the newspaper, arrested and sent to prison. His experience isn’t rare.

Uganda’s anti-LGBTQ+ laws have become increasingly strict and many LGBTQ+ people have had to go into hiding. When people from his local community went looking for him, life in hiding became increasingly difficult for Jordan. With everything becoming more and more dangerous, and fearing for his family’s safety, he made the difficult decision to leave and seek asylum in another country. Kenya seemed like the best place to go – it borders Uganda and, when Jordan left to go there, it was relatively safe for LGBTQ+ people.

Jordan’s not alone. Increasing numbers of LGBTQ+ people have fled to seek refuge in Kenya, looking for a place they can be themselves without fearing for their lives or for their families’ lives. But things are getting harder. Life as a refugee in Kenya has never been easy, especially if you’re trans, but Jordan tells me that things are getting worse. The Kenyan government is hostile towards LGBTQ+ people, and a proposed new law could make it illegal to be LGBTQ+.

When I spoke to Jordan he was living on the street near the UN building in Nairobi. He had smallpox but had no money for food, let alone a doctor. The health card he’d originally been given no longer works, and a trip to a health centre typically results in discrimination and harassment. Jordan sleeps rough with a group of other trans men. He’d previously lived in safe houses with other trans refugees, but living in larger groups of LGBTQ+ people can be risky. The police raid the safe houses, beating anyone they find there before arresting them and extorting money. Just a fortnight ago, the co-ordinator of a trans-led refugee organisation (and friend of TransActual) was arrested without reason. This sort of thing has been happening for years, but it’s becoming more frequent. Living in the safe house felt too stressful and dangerous for Jordan, so he decided to leave. Renting somewhere to live isn’t an option – he doesn’t have any money.

Jordan lived in Kakuma refugee camp for a while, but he tells me it was no safer. When a group of LGBTQ+ people were set on fire, I’m told that UN staff did very little to help them. Violence against LGBTQ+ people in the camp is common. Jordan told me that one of his friends, a trans man, was raped and had to have an abortion. We’re in contact with people still living in Kakuma and their reports echo what Jordan told me. People often report not having access to medical care, having been ignored or mocked in the camp’s healthcare clinic. They tell us that instead of helping them, UN staff ignore the transphobia and are often the perpetrators.

Jordan tells me that UN Refugee Agency are doing nothing for trans refugees in Kenya. He said “right now we are on our own”. The UN Refugee Agency should be helping with food, housing and healthcare, but “they no longer help because the government took over everything”. There used to be someone at the UN Refugee Agency who was willing to help LGBTQ+ people, but Jordan tells me they’ve now left.

When I asked Jordan what he wants people to know about his experience and the experiences of other trans refugees in Kenya, he said “I want people to know what refugees are going through. We’re going through a lot.” A few weeks ago Jordan was beaten, some of his friends have been killed, and others have died due to lack of access to medical care. Trans refugees in Kenya don’t usually have documents that match their name or identity and there’s no access to affirming clothing such as binders, let alone transition related care. To say Jordan and others in his situation are going through ‘a lot’ is an understatement.

Article 12 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that ‘no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks’. Jordan left Uganda because this right, amongst others, was violated. However in Kenya, Jordan’s basic human rights are still being breached.

I asked Jordan what needs to change. The answer was short and simple:

  • Food
  • Shelter
  • Medication
  • Help from the UN Refugee Council, ideally from a named person with responsibility for the needs of LGBTQ+ people.

It shouldn’t be a lot to ask. Indeed, article 25 of the Universal Declaration states that ‘Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control’, yet trans refugees in Kenya seem to have been abandoned by the very organisation(s) that should be helping them.

Donate to an initiative supporting trans men in Kenya

Note: TransActual recognise our position of privilege and our ethical responsibilities towards those that we work with. As with any contributor to TransActual’s articles, Jordan received a fee for his interview.