Uganda is home to the largest refugee population in Africa – and the third largest in the world – and has been widely praised for its progressive policies, which allow asylum seekers to work, start businesses, and move freely. However, a new law imposing harsher penalties on the country’s sexual minorities has made life harder for LGBTQ+ people who have taken refuge there and increased the risks they face if they leave the refugee settlements.
Same-sex relationships were already illegal in Uganda. However, the Anti-Homosexuality Act signed into law by President Yoweri Museveni on 22 March advanced the government's long-running campaign against homosexuality. Engaging in homosexual acts can now result in a life sentence, and attempting to have same-sex relations can earn a 10-year prison term. There is even the death penalty for "aggravated homosexuality", which includes same-sex relationships with HIV-positive people, and up to 14 years in prison for "attempted aggravated homosexuality".
While the new law, which has been couched in the language of decolonisation, religious mysticism, and a narrative of a weakened West, will almost certainly result in further persecution and discrimination of Uganda's LGBTQ+ minority, its impact extends beyond local people to the 1.5 million refugees living in the country.
Forced to stay in the camp
Discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community in Uganda is not only a result of the harsh laws in place. As Stephen Kaduuli explores in his research on "Perceptions of LGBT in Uganda and Africa", it is significantly shaped by perspectives rooted in false narratives of homosexuality being "un-African", as well as by religious beliefs, and the traditional importance placed on marriage and family. Despite this, Ugandan civil society has historically played a pivotal role in advocating for the freedoms and rights of the LGBTQ+ community.
Within the refugee context, additional challenges arise. The majority of refugees in Uganda live in one of the country's 13 refugee settlements, where levels of poverty and unemployment levels are high. The conditions within the camps are especially tough for marginalised members of the refugee population, including LGBTQ+ individuals.
The recent changes in legislation have only amplified the plight of LGBTQ+ refugees, trapping them between a rock and a hard place.
During one of my visits to one of the settlements in the first quarter of this year, I engaged in conversation with a colleague and a policeman regarding the situation of LGBTQ+ people. They wanted to know what I thought of "those people". Knowing my colleague's typically open-minded attitudes, I shared my belief that everyone's fundamental rights should be respected. My comment was welcomed with a sluggish smile and then silence, followed by my friend's suggestion to "move on".
The recent changes in legislation have only amplified the plight of LGBTQ+ refugees, trapping them between a rock and a hard place. While refugees are allowed to settle elsewhere, leaving the camps could potentially expose LGBTQ+ refugees to prosecution under the new law.
As the debate about the country's policy gained attention, I contacted a member of LGBTQ+ community in the aforementioned settlement, asking about their situation. They replied that they were “safe”, but only because of the protection provided by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. As they explained to me, Uganda's strict policy is not directly implemented in the settlement.
Because of their refugee status and the presence of international organisations in the camps, they may have a certain sphere of protection from arrest based on their sexual orientation. However, this has led to a distressing reality: Their fundamental right to free movement has become obsolete in the face of systemic discrimination.
The UNHCR plays an important role as a guarantor of protection for all refugees, including LGBTQ+ people. Other international organisations also offer a variety of services to refugees: Alight (security), Windle International (education), and TPO (psychological assistance). Now, more than ever, these organisations need to be on high alert when it comes to refugee safety.
Concerns regarding the discrimination and persecution of LGBTQ+ individuals in Uganda have long been reported to UNHCR, even before this new law came into effect. And sexual orientation has previously been a factor in determining priorities for resettlement in third countries. In this regard, individuals who faced heightened safety concerns in the Ugandan refugee camps due to their sexual orientation have had the potential to receive priority consideration.
However, following several cases in which individuals were shown to have falsely claimed to belong to the LGBTQ+ community in order to secure resettlement, more stringent screening procedures have been implemented. Unfortunately, they have not resolved the primary issue. Today, very few, regardless of their need, can benefit from the resettlement process, and LGBTQ+ refugees are left in a state of limbo, unable to leave the camp and condemned to the grim reality of being stuck in a settlement.
Is there a way out?
According to OECD data, Uganda received around $2.52 billion in net official development assistance (ODA) and official aid in 2021. Some voices were urging the use of ODA to exert pressure on Ugandan politics. In the most recent challenge to Uganda's anti-LGBTQ+ policies, the World Bank announced in August that it would refrain from considering new loans for the country. However, it appears unlikely this will have the desired impact, as Museveni swiftly responded, stating that he would not forsake "faith, culture, principles, and sovereignty" in exchange for "money".
Similar instances of international aid being withheld have occurred in the past. For example, in 2014, also in response to the country's laws against homosexuality, the World Bank postponed loans to Uganda, while Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands declared suspensions or cuts in aid. However, these actions clearly did little to impede the new legal developments that unfolded in 2023.
It is possible that LGBTQ+ rights could be brought back to the forefront of refugee protection. But this would require the UNHCR to establish strong grassroots partnerships with community-based organisations in Uganda.
In his influential publications, including "Who depends on whom? Uganda's refugee 'success story', corruption, and the international community", and in The New Humanitarian, researcher Kristof Titeca argues that Uganda's ‘success story’ in refugee protection forms the foundation of interdependence between the country and the international community. Uganda is positioned as an example of the benefits of funding refugee relief efforts, encouraging continued international support.
Considering the increasing number of refugees seeking protection and Uganda's pivotal role in the region – its refugee population has grown tenfold since 2011 – it is challenging to imagine a substantial suspension of international funds. In just the first three quarters of 2022, Uganda received over 109,098 new arrivals, primarily from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This figure surged by an additional 63,286 as of August 2023, mainly due to ongoing conflicts in DR Congo, Sudan, and South Sudan.
That said, it is possible that LGBTQ+ rights could be brought back to the forefront of refugee protection. But this would require the UNHCR to establish strong grassroots partnerships with community-based organisations in Uganda, as well as reconsidering the priority for resettlement to third countries of refugees from the LGBTQ+ community.
UNHCR should take seriously the words of the Ugandan refugee who told me that they are only "safe" because of the agency’s protection. The only thing standing between Ugandan politicians and the safety of LGBTQ+ refugees is UNHCR, and this is a responsibility that should not be taken lightly.