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‘Everything is prohibited’: Uganda’s anti-gay law forces community into hiding

‘Wherever we have been renting, they have been chasing us.’

Pictured are people at a protest holding placards during a demonstration against the newly proposed Ugandan anti-LGBTQ bill, which makes homosexuality illegal and punishable by harsh sentences, in Pretoria, South Africa on 31 March 2023. Alet Pretorius/Reuters
People hold placards during a March 2023 demonstration in Pretoria against a Ugandan bill (which has now become law) to make homosexuality illegal and punishable by harsh sentences, including life in prison.

When Richard Lusimbo came for the interview at an office in the suburbs of the Ugandan capital, Kampala, he looked exhausted. The bags under his eyes told the story of long sleepless nights. Throughout the interview, his phone wouldn’t stop ringing, and he would occasionally glance at it to check who was calling before placing it face-down on the brown coffee table. 

“It’s like an emergency service,” he said. “Everyone looking for shelter but without anywhere to really put them.”

Lusimbo is the first phone call for many in Uganda’s gay community, which has been forced into hiding since the country passed one of the harshest anti-homosexuality laws in the world, with steep penalties including life sentences for “aggravated homosexuality” and jail terms of up to 20 years for “promoting homosexuality”.

At least four people have been arrested and are facing trial for violating the law, which the government appears determined to keep enforcing despite blanket condemnation from rights groups, as well as the suspension of funding from the World Bank.

The law has already led to an increase in gay Ugandans fleeing the country and seeking resettlement elsewhere.

James* now spends his days in a shelter in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, awaiting a decision on being resettled. He fled Uganda earlier this year at the start of the legislative process that led to the passing of the bill. 

“There was a lot of hate against us,” he said. 

Initially, the law had demanded that landlords report people they suspected of being LGBTQ+ to authorities or face a fine. For James, the harassment started almost immediately. 

“Wherever we have been renting, they have been chasing us,” he told The New Humanitarian. “It was only going to get worse.”

When he decided to flee, he feared reporting to the office of the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) and instead found a shelter in Nairobi. He now needs UNHCR to process his resettlement paperwork, but it has been three months without word on his application. 

Lusimbo said that since the break-up of the majority of shelters in Uganda in the wake of the new law, sexual minorities looking to be resettled are being urged to apply to UNHCR for processing, but the options for countries to go to are slim.

Authorities in Uganda were breaking up shelters even before the law was passed. In 2020, police closed an LGBTQ+ shelter in Nsangi, a town about 20 kilometres west of Kampala, and arrested over 20 people in it. In August, a month after the law was passed, four more people were arrested from a shelter and charged under the new law. 

The UN’s refugee agency refused to be drawn on any specific measures it may have taken since the law was passed but told The New Humanitarian it continues to provide support to persons of diverse sexual orientation seeking asylum or resettlement.

“UNHCR’s doors are open to [LGBTQ+] refugees seeking support,” UNHCR Uganda spokesperson Frank Walusimbi said, adding, “resettlement decisions are made by government authorities in resettlement countries and not UNHCR”.

Refugees also threatened by the law

It isn’t just Ugandan citizens imperilled by the law. LGBTQ+ refugees arriving in Uganda are also caught in its crosshairs. 

With nearly 1.5 million refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, the country is Africa’s biggest refugee-hosting nation. It has also received global praise for its treatment of those seeking asylum, whom it offers resettlement, land, opportunities to continue studies, and integration into communities. This progressive refugee policy has made Uganda a donor-magnet, garnering the country’s coffers close to 300 million euros from the EU alone since 2017.

Elodie* is a Burundian lesbian refugee living in the Nakivale refugee settlement – home to nearly 120,000 asylum seekers – in the southwest of the country. She has been in Uganda for seven years.

“I fled to Uganda because of insecurity and persecution in general, and I thought that Uganda [would be] the most secure country for [LGBTQ+ people],” Elodie told The New Humanitarian. The reality, however, has proven to be very different, even within the camps. “One of the pastors was preaching last Sunday and said publicly that [LGBTQ+] refugees must be burnt,” Elodie said.

Read more: Uganda’s anti-gay law has turned camps into prisons for LGBTQ+ asylum seekers

Douglas Mawadri, a legal officer with Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) – an umbrella organisation that advocates for LGBTQ+ rights, and that was ordered to close its offices in the country in August 2022 – said Uganda has no framework for consideration of asylum on grounds of persecution for sexuality. He said that since the passage of the anti-homosexuality law, many LGBTQ+ refugees had reached out to the group complaining of increased discrimination.

“The law is broad and does not distinguish between citizens and refugees,” he said. However, the impact of the law is mainly felt outside the refugee settlements. Though Uganda’s progressive refugee policy allows asylum seekers to assimilate into communities outside the settlements, many urban LGBTQ+ refugees working in small shops as hairdressers, barbers, and tailors have found themselves accused of “trying to corrupt the morals” of Ugandans.

Since the passage of the law, advocacy organisations established by LGBTQ+ refugees within the settlements have also been shuttered.

“Before the adoption of the law, our office and activities were tolerated but after the promulgation of the law everything is prohibited,” said a statement from the Last Hope Refugee Association (LHRA), which says it represents 27 gay, lesbian, and trans refugees within Nakivale.

A human rights activist with the Angels Refugee Support Group Association (ARSGA), who asked not to be named for safety reasons, said over 80 LGBTQ+ refugees affiliated with the group had gone into hiding following the passage of the law, “making it increasingly challenging [for them] to access basic services such as healthcare, education, and employment”.

‘Being gay is not by choice’

Both ARSGA and LHRA told The New Humanitarian that since the passing of the law some asylum applicants had been rejected by the Ugandan authorities on suspicion of being LGBTQ+ though this could not be independently verified.

ARSGA said the anti-homosexuality law has provided grounds for authorities to kick out refugees who do not conform to gender stereotypes and that this has put many LGBTQ+ refugees in an extremely precarious position.

In June, ARSGA claimed to have received five asylum seekers from DR Congo who had fled the Rwamwanja refugee camp just two weeks after their arrival. “They felt compelled to escape this environment due to suspicions of their homosexuality, fearing potential repercussions,” it said in response to queries from The New Humanitarian. “These vulnerable, at-risk young individuals currently find themselves living in hiding, devoid of any official documentation.”

UNHCR says resettlement applications from LGBTQ+ individuals are confidential and wouldn’t say if Uganda has accepted any resettlement requests for LGBTQ+ individuals since the passing of the law. 

Several emails and calls to Uganda’s Internal Affairs ministry and the Office of the Prime Minister, which handle these requests, went unanswered. 

Ugandan institutions are walking a tightrope since the passing of the law. The criminalisation of “promotion of homosexuality” has prompted fears that those providing services to LGBTQ+ people could find themselves in trouble. And a recent Ministry of Health regulation to health workers urging them to pursue non-discriminatory treatment to all people seeking treatment, which would include LGBTQ+ refugees, has provided little reassurance.

Legal scholars and activists are challenging the constitutionality of the law, but there is little indication on when the cases will be heard. Lusimbo is among the plaintiffs in one of the cases. He said they are asking the courts to strike down the law because it is unconstitutional and promotes discrimination of same-sex couples. A similar law was struck down by Uganda’s Constitutional Court in 2014 and he hopes the same will happen this time around.

However, evangelical groups and political leaders in parliament have been mounting pressure on President Yoweri Museveni to use his influence on the Constitutional Court to prevent the law being struck down.

In late August, the head of the Anglican church in Uganda, Dr Stephen Kaziimba, who was presiding over the 50th wedding anniversary of the president and his wife, urged Museveni to remain a strong guardian of family values and reject “Western ideas”. 

For LGBTQ+ refugees like James, the lived reality of the law has started to set in.

In his email, he said: “Tell the government of Uganda that we are all Ugandans and we are all human beings and we all pay taxes. Being gay is not by choice, but homophobia is a choice.”

* Names changed due to security fears.

Additional reporting by Armel Igiraneza, a Burundian journalist in Uganda’s Nakivale refugee camp. Edited by Patrick Gathara.

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