Around two billion people around the world are impacted by fragility, conflict, or violence – from the war in Ukraine and Russia, the violent struggles between Palestine and Israel, to the political upheavals in West Africa. And it is the most vulnerable among us, be it women, children, or other minorities, who suffer the most.
For LGBTQI+ persons, vulnerability is not confined to times of war and strife; it persists even in moments of relative calm.
Across Africa, an anti-rights movement directed at LGBTQI+ people is spreading. Legislation restricting rights is taking effect in countries including Uganda and Ghana, and there are reports of backlash and blackmail targeting LGBTQI+ individuals in Tanzania.
So, what do you do when living in your own country becomes unbearable, and your existence is outlawed? You flee.
The plight of asylum seekers and refugees is often associated with escaping war-torn countries. But many people around the world seek refuge for many other reasons, including persecution for their sexuality, and gender identity and expression.
Kenya is considered a relatively safe destination for LGBTQI+ refugees compared with its neighboring nations. The country’s constitution upholds human rights and freedoms and seeks to preserve the dignity of individuals and communities.
UNHCR estimates there are around 250-300 self-declared LGBTQI+ asylum seekers and refugees in Kakuma and Kalobeyei refugee camps in north-western Kenya, around 50 individuals in the north-east Dadaab camp, and 900-1,000 living in or around cities.
Yet despite perceptions of Kenya as a safe haven, Amnesty International and the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission have documented hate crimes, discrimination, and other human rights violations suffered by LGBTQI+ asylum seekers and refugees.
Personal accounts show how transgender refugees experience extreme discrimination and violence.
The experiences of transgender refugees are complex and their specific challenges often get lost when data, information, and experiences are gathered about the wider LGBTQI+ community.
IIED, Amka Africa Justice Initiative and SDI-Kenya are researching how LGBTQI+ refugees are grappling with adversity. There are stories of hope. For example, a gay man established a chain of hair and beauty salons, and through these provided employment to fellow refugees.
But there are also stories of discrimination, of people being displaced from their homes or being attacked in refugee camps.
For me, the experience and resilience of transgender refugees stand out.
One transgender man recounted how he couldn’t wear a binder due to the camp’s hostile environment. While fortunate to have a binder to alleviate chest dysphoria, other refugees misgendered him and labeled those close to him as homosexual. Transgender women endure mockery, verbal abuse, and physical attacks. Reporting these incidences rarely leads to action – and in some instances leads to further abuse from the very authorities who are meant to protect them.
Some escape the persecution in camps and move to cities, but few have the required documentation. For any refugee, this often leads to confrontation with authorities and police.
Transgender refugees, whose paperwork does not match their gender expression face further hurdles. They are forced to pay bribes and endure invasive searches, groping and offensive questioning.
Work options are limited, and economic hardship pushes transgender refugees into extreme vulnerability. One transgender man described being homeless and living in constant fear of rape. Some are forced to resort to sex work for survival: a transgender woman who had turned to sex work told us she risked her life just by meeting clients.
Trying to access medical treatment is daunting, distressing, and mentally exhausting. Very few refugees have proper documentation and gender-affirming care, such as medical transition services, is prohibitively high.
For transgender men, women, and gender non-conforming persons, the financial burden and barriers to services often lead to depression and despair. Inconsistent care and institutional transphobia can result in breakdowns in mental health.
Given the bureaucracies in registration, changing names on documentation will only ever be a dream for transgender refugees.
These challenges faced by transgender refugees, while acute in Kenya, are part of a global struggle for rights and acceptance.
The World Health Organisation has announced a forthcoming guideline on the health of trans and gender-diverse people. It is essential that refugees and asylum seekers are included.
Beyond these guidelines, collective effort and immediate action are needed to create a safer and more inclusive environment for LGBTQI+ individuals. Recognizing transgender refugees’ existence and specific needs is the first step in ensuring their integration and access to the protection and rights they deserve.
I urge the following interventions to be implemented on a national and global level:
In the words of the gay liberation activist Marsha P. Johnson “No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.” I believe the above actions will take us a step closer to achieving freedom for all.
Adrian Kibe is a trans rights activist with the Kenya Human Rights Commission. His work focuses on advancing transgender rights, amplifying marginalized voices, and fostering inclusivity in Kenyan society.