Encamped within a camp: transgender refugees and Kakuma Refugee Camp (Kenya)

Photo from @campLGBTI Twitter, September 2020

Series Introduction

This post is a part of a series introducing the recent anthology Invisibility in African Displacements (Zed Books 2020). The book was edited by Simon Turner and AMMODI co-founder Jesper Bjarnesen, and offers new analytical ideas for understanding migrant in/visibilisation. In each post, the contributors present their chapter in a more accessible format, either by selecting one empirical example or aspect or by relating their central argument to broader societal concerns or debates.

For an outline of the overarching idea behind the book, see the introducing blog post by the editors here.

by B Camminga

In the wake of the 2014 Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill, Uganda, and by extension Ugandans, have become synonymous, in the global media, with two interlinked concepts on the African continent. First, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and state-sponsored homophobia underpinned by brutality, exclusion and the public permissibility of violence. Second, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) people and vice, underpinned by the perceived destruction of the state, Western influence and the corruption of religious morals. Those most targeted by the Ugandan state, and by extension broader society, were those most visible and, by extension, those ‘most hated’: transgender people.

Kenya and Kakuma

In the aftermath of the Bill, LGBTQ+ people from Uganda began to flee to neighbouring Kenya.  Given that Kenya still upholds colonial-era penal codes, which continue to criminalise LGBTQ+ people, the country may seem like a peculiar choice. Although the Kenyan state does not protect or indeed outright acknowledge LGBTQ+ rights and by extension LGBTQ+ asylum seekers, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), through its mandate of international protection, does. The Kenya state  requires all refugees, regardless of their identity, to reside in either the Dadaab or Kakuma refugee camps jointly run by the UNHCR and the Kenyan Department of Refugee Affairs.

An areal view of Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. Photo by Matja Kovac, 25 May 2010. Source Wikimedia.

As the main camp in which LGBTQ+ refugees have resided, Kakuma is a space set at the borders of the country, meant to gather the displaced and make them visible to the international community as people in need. Established in 1992, located in north-western Kenya, Kakuma Refugee Camp, comprising Kakuma 1, 2, 3 and 4, has an estimated population of 180,000 people.  As Dave Eggers’ protagonist, Valentino, repeatedly describes it in What Is the What, Kakuma is ‘a camp at the end of the world’, placed as it is at the borders of Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda, ‘in a land so dusty and desolate … arid and featureless … a place in which no one, simply no one but the most desperate, would ever consider spending a day.’

As I describe in my contribution to Invisibility in African Displacements, I have interviewed transgender refugees in Kenya and drawn from archival media material about LGBTQ+ refugees in an effort to understand the ongoing difficulties experienced by LGBTQ+ refugees in Kakuma. From the moment they entered Kakuma, LGBTQ+ refugees garnered a particular kind of visibility. Their nationality, as Ugandans, made them especially visible not only to the broader Kenyan community outside the camp but to other national groups within the camp.

Almost every transgender Ugandan I spoke to reported having heard the question, ‘your country is not at war. Why are you in Kenya?’

Given their heightened visibility due to their perceived gender nonconformity, those who were transgender bore the brunt of this exposure. Indeed, almost every transgender Ugandan I spoke to reported having heard the question, ‘your country is not at war. Why are you in Kenya?’ To protect LGBTQ+ arrivals from the camp’s almost immediate hostility, the UNCHR proposed two methods – encampment and discretion.


Protest in Kakuma refugee Camp. Photo from @campLGBTItwitter, September 2020.

Kakuma custom is to give refugees construction materials to build their own houses. In this instance, the UNHCR set the LGBTQ+ group up with a plot of land and organised with a partner organisation to construct a set of small huts as their residence. To further limit their interactions with other refugees, their enclosed area also had a tap with running water placed nearby. A makeshift border was created around the compound with thorny shrubs. It is unclear if this was to keep the LGBTQ+ refugees in or the threatening elements of the wider refugee population out.

According to reports, the perceived privilege LGBTQ+ residents received, made other camp residents envious, heightening the group’s already precarious position. On the part of the UNHCR, the intent was to assist the group in acclimating to the camp. At the same time, they wanted to cause the least amount of upheaval for both LGBTQ+ refugees and the rest of the camp’s population. They hoped that by cordoning the group off, they might be better able to stick to themselves and remain inconspicuous. The perceived special treatment had the opposite effect and provided heightened exposure rather than mitigating it. It seems that while living together offered the protection of numbers, marked and shrub-encircled, it also made targeting LGBTQ+ people easier.


From the Trans Day of Visibility press release, 31 March 2021. Photo by Ola Osaze.

Julia, a trans woman from Uganda whom I interviewed in 2019, was among the first to flee her country and enter Kenya seeking safety. When she was brought to Kakuma, she was asked, like others, to remain discrete.  A controversial practise and request, discretion has been used historically as a basis on which to reject asylum claims due to the belief that an applicant can avoid persecution if they hide their sexual orientation in their country of origin. Arguably, the request of discretion is, in fact, a request to conceal oneself, or at least make a very crucial part of oneself all but invisible. Doing so becomes somewhat tricky when considering issues of gender identity. Asylum is a system based on self-exposure for access. Whereas sexuality might be verbalised and later concealed it is far more difficult, if not impossible, to conceal gender, manifested, among other means, through clothing, gesture and comportment, during an asylum claim. Yet, as people claiming asylum on the basis of persecution due to gender identity have become increasingly visible within the global asylum regime, the controversial request that they practice discretion has often been applied to them. The UNHCR guidelines make clear that the requirement for discretion when claiming asylum should be rejected. Critically the guidelines  note that, ‘discretion may result in significant psychological and other harms’.

As someone self-described as ‘visibly transgender’, Julia explains that attempts to hide or be discrete did not make sense to her, and in many ways, she described them as almost nonsensical and impossible tasks. Following the request to be discrete, Julia explained that she could not help wearing her dresses and makeup, ‘because those are my clothes’. Within the first few days of doing so in the camp, ‘people instructed the camp police to arrest me … they said I was bringing bad vices to their kids’. In Kakuma, Julia had resigned herself to the fact that as a trans woman, no matter what she did, she would be a target. Her very nature in such a confined and monitored space as both a Ugandan and perceived visible deviance meant almost constant scrutiny. She explained that this was the point at which she made a choice: If she had to die from her visibility, she would do so as authentically as possible.

The request that those within the camp remain discrete places the onus of protection on the individual and, as Johannes Lukas Gartner adds, subverts

“the entire logic behind the establishment of a system that grants surrogate protection. The assumption present in such reasoning is a view of queer identity as something sexual and behavioural, as opposed to considering queer identity being a highly complex matter integral to one’s personal identity. An assumption, which would hardly be applied to heterosexuals”

The critical point Gartner makes here is that discretion, the request to conceal or make oneself invisible, would not be a request levelled at a heterosexual or cisgender person because to be visible as such is considered innate. To then be encamped within a camp, cordoned off in a ‘protection area’ while also requesting concealment or discretion is to request that LGBTQ+ refugees take responsibility for their own protection, subverting ‘the entire logic of the system’ while effectively being corralled in a highly visible area – a veritable Catch-22.

Ongoing deterioration

Graphic calling for global solidarity with LGBTQ refugees in Block 13 Kakuma, 8 April 2021.

Since the publication of this chapter, the situation in Kakuma for LGBTQ+ refugees has seemingly continued to deteriorate. Following an arson attack on 15 March 2021, two members of an LGBTQ+ group in Kakuma calling themselves #FreeBlock13 suffered second-degree burns. One of the burn victims, Chriton ‘Trinidad’ Atuhwera, later died in hospital. In a public statement, a global coalition of organisations has accused the UNHCR in Kenya of waging a ‘campaign of misinformation’ and treating LGBTQ+ refugees as ‘disposable and not worthy of protection and care’.  The statement ends by calling on the UNHCR to fulfil their mandate: ‘to aid and protect refugees, forcibly displaced communities, and stateless people, and to assist in their voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement to a third country’.

The two methods proposed by the UNHCR to protect LGBTQ+ Ugandans since their arrival in Kakuma over five years ago – encampment and discretion – have all but failed. As Svetlana Sytnik has argued encampment, particularly long-term encampment, fosters conditions that are ‘incompatible with the realisation of human rights’. Given recent and ongoing violence, this seems particularly true for LGBTQ+ people in Kakuma. As one refugee noted in a recent newspaper interview: “Places like Kakuma … should not be places for LGBTIQ persons”. For those most visible, like Julia, displacement as a trans person has meant attempting the impossible in ‘places like Kakuma’, concealment coupled with heightened visibility, all the while asking: ‘when will I ever be myself? Like when will I ever think about being me?’

About the author

B Camminga (they/them) is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the African Centre for Migration & Society, Wits University, South Africa. They are the co-convenor of the African LGBTQI+ Migration Research Network (ALMN), and the author of Transgender Refugees and the Imagined South Africa. Bodies Over Borders and Borders Over Bodies (Palgrave 2019). They are currently working on a new collection addressing African LGBTQI+ migration entitled Queer and Trans African Mobilities: Migration, Diaspora and Asylum (Zed/Bloomsbury 2022).

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