December 15, 2015 at 3:57 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Gay Ugandan refugee in Kenya: Life is ‘hard’

Ronnie Aine Mugisha, gay news, Washington Blade

Ronnie Aine Mugisha (Photo courtesy of Mugisha)

A gay Ugandan man says he had no choice but to flee to Kenya, even though the country remains largely hostile to people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Ronnie Aine Mugisha, 23, told the Washington Blade last month during a telephone interview from the Kenyan capital of Nairobi that he fled Uganda in December 2014 to escape persecution because he is gay.

Mugisha, who is from the city of Mbarara in western Uganda, said administrators at his school in 2009 found text messages that he had sent to a male teacher who he was dating.

The administrators suspended Mugisha for two weeks. He told the Blade that he did not tell his father the reason why he had been kicked out of school until he returned to class.

“They called a school assembly,” said Mugisha. “I was punished. Then from that day my dad started suspecting me.”

David Bahati, a Ugandan lawmaker with close ties to U.S. evangelicals, in 2009 introduced the so-called Anti-Homosexuality Bill. The measure contained a provision that called for the death penalty for anyone convicted of “aggravated homosexuality.”

President Yoweri Museveni in 2014 signed the controversial bill with a provision that those found guilty of repeated same-sex sexual acts would face life in prison, as opposed to the death penalty. The Constitutional Court of Uganda later struck down the Anti-Homosexuality Act on a technicality.

‘You are no longer my son’

Mugisha told the Blade that he has engaged in sex work in order to support himself.

He said he began dating a man from Kampala, the Ugandan capital, in 2013 who he had met on Facebook.

Mugisha said he spent the night with him at an Mbarara hotel last year.

He told the Blade that the receptionist at the hotel was a family friend. Mugisha said she called his father, who is a pastor, after he left.

A crowd of people was “waiting” for Mugisha when he returned home later that day.

“They took me inside the house,” he told the Blade. “They beat me.”

Mugisha told the Blade that his stepmother suggested that the people who were attacking him kill him. He said others in the crowd said that the police should arrest him for violating Uganda’s colonial-era sodomy law.

Mugisha told the Blade that his father disowned him.

“I can’t allow this,” said his father, according to Mugisha. “From now on I don’t want to see you talking to my kids, coming to my family. You’re no longer my son.”

Mugisha fled to Kampala after the incident.

He told the Blade that a friend refused to allow him to live with him because “they will come looking for you” and “because I too am gay.” Mugisha said that others in the Ugandan capital told him to engage in sex work in order to support himself.

Mugisha told the Blade that he soon began to speak with a man in Nairobi. He traveled to Kenya after he sent him money.

“He wanted to only use me and dumped me,” said Mugisha. “He was all about sex.”

He told the Blade that the man gave him the names of several people who were in his network, including someone who worked at a gay brothel.

“I can’t do that,” Mugisha told the man, referring to working in the brothel. “I can’t manage.”

Ronnie Aine Mugisha, gay news, Washington Blade

Ronnie Aine Mugisha fled to Nairobi, Kenya, from Uganda in December 2014 because of discrimination he said he experienced because of his sexual orientation. (Photo courtesy of Ronnie Aine Mugisha)

Mugisha told the Blade that he eventually received the address for the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) office in Nairobi. He was only able to travel there after he paid the Kenyan police officers who had arrested him two days earlier about $20.

Mugisha said he told UNHCR staffers “the whole story” about what he said happened to him in his homeland after he registered as a refugee with the Kenyan government.

He told the Blade that he received a stipend from a non-governmental organization that works with UNHCR in order to pay for his rent for three months. Refugees from Uganda, Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo who arrive in Kenya typically live in UNHCR camps that Mugisha described as “very homophobic.”

Mugisha told the Blade that his landlord evicted him from the house in which he had been living. He said he is unable to get a job in Kenya because the government has not given him a work permit.

Mugisha also complained that Kenyan UNHCR personnel are “very homophobic.”

“They look at you, they say ‘for us in Kenya we don’t allow gays. We don’t allow homosexuality,’” he told the Blade.

Mugisha told the Blade that his initial interview with UNHCR took place in April. He said he has not received a final decision.

“Everything is very hard,” said Mugisha.

UNHCR: 454 LGBT Ugandan refugees in Kenya

Kenya is among the more than 70 countries in which consensual same-sex sexual relations are criminalized.

President Obama in July highlighted LGBT rights during a Nairobi press conference with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. Obama on the same trip met with Eric Gitari, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, and other Kenyan LGBT rights advocates.

Deputy Kenyan President William Ruto — who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court over violence he allegedly orchestrated in the wake of the country’s 2007 general election — ahead of Obama’s visit condemned the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that extended marriage rights to same-sex couples throughout the United States. Kenyatta in October during an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria said that Kenya has “more pressing issues” than extending rights to people based on their sexual orientation.

UNHCR statistics indicate there were 593,529 registered refugees and asylum seekers in Kenya as of Nov. 30. The agency notes that 62,892 of them live in cities, while 530,537 are in camps throughout the country.

UNHCR spokesperson Catherine Hamon Sharpe told the Blade the majority of the 454 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people who are registered with her agency in Kenya are from Uganda.

Sharpe said the Kenyan government has thus far granted refugee status to 136 of them, and another 318 LGBT Ugandans are awaiting a decision on their asylum claim.

UNHCR in the current fiscal year has received $47.6 million from the State Department to provide protection and assistance to refugees in Kenya.

The U.S. has directed $16.1 million of the $47.6 million to fund projects in Nairobi and the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps that non-governmental and international organizations run. This money includes funding for projects that assist LGBT Ugandans and other vulnerable refugees in Kenya.

A State Department spokesperson told the Blade the U.S. Embassy in Kenya “actively and regularly consults with” UNHCR staff in the country about the needs of the LGBT Ugandans who have sought refuge in the country.

Sharpe told the Blade last week during a telephone interview from Nairobi that the number of LGBT Ugandans who have sought refuge in Kenya has increased since Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act. She said that UNHCR has expedited the process through which LGBT Ugandans can seek asylum, recognizing that it would be “very difficult” for them to return to their homeland “for the foreseeable future.”

The U.S. depends upon UNHCR to refer LGBT refugees for resettlement in the country. They undergo the same screening process as any other refugee who wishes to resettle in the U.S., but their cases are expedited.

Mugisha told the Blade that he has met other LGBT Ugandans in Nairobi.

“We don’t stay in the same places, but we are facing the same challenges,” he said, noting that up to eight of them can live together in the same room. “Everyone will be asking what they are doing. Are they terrorists? They are Ugandans? They are gays? We also get diseases?”

Sharpe told the Blade that the Kenyan government continues to accept the Ugandan LGBT refugees into the country, even though attitudes towards them remain hostile. She also stressed that UNHCR staffers treat them with respect.

“We have an obligation to protect these people and equally as anyone,” said Sharpe.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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