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Why are LGBTQ+ people struggling to survive in a UNHCR refugee camp?

Updated: Feb 28

By David Warden

The image on the left is of 27-year old Campos Gambino – known as Bobby to his friends. He had to flee Uganda when he was discovered with his boyfriend, who was shot in the leg. Bobby has been stranded for three years in a vast UNHCR refugee camp where homophobia is rife and food is scarce. Can he make it to an alternative centre to have his refugee status processed? (The tinsel and balloons represent an effort to celebrate Christmas.)

In August 2023, when I was at the World Humanist Congress in Copenhagen, I started getting messages on Twitter from someone called "Boby Wilson" (sic). He wrote, "We are as LGBT refugees we are suffering and starving. We are denied medication, no food, shelters being burnt down. All in all we are not ok and safe Mr Warden. I ran away from my home country Uganda due to persecution. They wanted to kill me because of my sexual orientation. It has been three years since I came here. I spend most of my time in fear because of the straight refugees in the camp." Later that month we connected again on Twitter. Bobby wrote: "Mr Warden it's coming to three days sleeping on an empty stomach. In terms of food here we are neglected because of our sexual orientation. Imagine sleeping on an empty stomach. I call for ur advocacy and also support for a daily survival sir. Really we are dying of hunger and sleeping outside on blue mats."

In September he wrote again: "We are fair just struggling with the situation here, the situation is very terrible and horrible, we are facing a lot of discrimination, persecution, homophobia and transphobia from the straight community, our shelters are burnt down, food is scarce, finding medical services is very hard. Both the police and host community are homo/transphobic. We are being beaten each and every day, detained, oppressed in this hell camp. Mr. Warden we are just struggling, starving and surviving. We sleep on empty stomachs, sometimes taking warm water. Please we kindly request to help us with what you have. We are living in scarcity of food. This place is a semi-desert. Finding access to food is a big problem, food is expensive because there is no farming here and finally finding medical services is also another problem, because the hospitals here have limited services and the doctors are homophobic."

I had no idea how to help Bobby. A couple of months passed by and I asked him "Are there any international aid agencies helping?" He replied: "There's Norwegian refugee council (NRC), Danish Refugee Council (DRC). But all these agencies are under UNHCR Kenya. The officials who work in these agencies are homo/transphobic. So we end up not receiving any help."

By the end of November, I discovered that it was actually very easy to make a donation via Paypal which could be used for an immediate food purchase in the camp or nearby town. Was I being duped? Was I the victim of an elaborate scam? I didn't think so. I first heard about the Kakuma Refugee camp from our greatly missed Africa correspondent Lynda Hayes who died suddenly last year from a stroke. It turns out that she and others had been supporting mainly lesbian refugees in the camp. I had established from the UNHCR Kenya website that there were about 1,000 LGBT people in Kakuma camp in 2021. I had also discovered that someone called Siobhan Green from Annandale, Virginia (United States) was raising money for them via a GoFundMe page.

I sent a small donation and got this reply: "Thank you so much, we managed to get some food that will actually push us for a week. We really appreciate your big heart. 🌈🌈 Hope all is well with you, we would like to meet you through a Zoom meeting so that you can see the situation we guys are going through here just if you are okay with it."

So I arranged our first Zoom meeting on December 2, 2023 at 3.00pm Kenya time. The wonders of modern communication technology! At least they do have a smartphone and an internet connection in the camp. It was amazing to actually see and speak to Bobby and the other people in the compound – about twenty, although there are another twenty or so in what they refer to as "reception". I could see that they were in UNHCR tents and that everything was very basic in terms of living quarters. I spoke to half a dozen men with names like Isaac, Harden and Protus. Some of them have English sounding surnames like Smith and Jackson – a legacy of colonial times. It struck me that they have very little to do, so apart from everything else the boredom must be crushing. After the Zoom meeting, Bobby wrote "Thank you so much for the love and support, we are really happy to meet you. Hugs, Love and solidarity."

Later in December they sent me a shopping list for their hoped for Christmas party, including two goats and five chickens! I asked if I was the only person helping them. Bobby replied: "Actually David as I speak truthful you are the one who has given us the ears for help as I speak we are counting on you in this but if it's much not reaching your sight we can reform the budget and leave out the people in the reception centre because the budget is counted with them on but it can be reduced to us 20 people thanks, Bobby." I sent what I could spare and this enabled them to have quite a feast on Christmas Day. At 3pm their time, my husband and I had a WhatsApp video call with them. By mid-afternoon, they had had their fill of roast goat, potatoes and rice with soda to drink. I was a bit shocked to see a photo of the goat, in a pool of blood, which they had slaughtered near the tent.

Bobby's story

In mid-January, Bobby shared more of his story and he gave me permission to publish it. "I am Campos Gambino, a Ugandan by nationality aged 27, and people call me Bobby. Am one of the persecuted LGBT asylum seekers/refugees in Kakuma refugee camp located in Turkana west Kenya and am a gay man. I was born on 12th February 1996 at Mulago hospital, a 4th born out of six children. We are five boys and one girl. We have been residing in Luzira-Nakawa division for all along. Am a bit educated because back home I was a mechanical technician, my area of emphasis was assembling and dismantling of tower cranes as well as operating and servicing.

In 2010 during my high school, I met Saul a caring and loving person. I spent almost 11yrs of happiness with him. In 2016, I got a job in a construction company and two years later I managed to help my lover Saul to attain a job in the same company where he was appointed as assistant store keeper in one of the sites. One weekend [in 2021] I received a call from my workplace requesting me to attend an emergency. I duly responded and took Saul with me. During weekends at the site most workers were off. After dealing with the emergency, me and Saul went to the stores for mutual fun. Unfortunately the store keeper Marriam walked in on us while we were compromised. She raised the alarm and security guards shot Saul in the leg. That was my last day to see my lover. All the news were spread all over and I couldn't go back home. My family abandoned me to the extent of hunting me down. I ran to my friend Dickson who was a bus driver and he allowed me to spend a month hiding at his place. One day he had to leave to drive to Maraba. He thought it was the best to take me because I was being hunted down everywhere. He dropped me to the border where I became homeless and life was harder. Eventually, I asked a boda boda man [a motorcycle taxi operator] where to find the Red Cross. Subsequently, I was taken to the Red Cross at Kitale where I was later taken to Kalobayei reception in Turkana. After two months, I was taken to Kakuma refugee camp. I have spent three years in this horrible camp. I managed to create queer friends and we are 20 living here in the compound plus the queers at the reception. We are residing in Kakuma 3, Block 8, Zone 3. We are queers from different countries i.e. Ugandans, Rwandese, Congolese, Burundians and Sudanese from the south but we Ugandans we are the majority.

Kakuma in Turkana County sits slightly north of Equator. Its northwest Kenya roughly 50 kilometres from the boarder of Uganda. Turkana is generally a dry and hot place. We swelter under the heat all year around which makes life more miserable. The Aberdare range of mountains sits mainly to the south of us, sometimes sending rainfall surging towards this area and causing flooding and misery in camp. The heat can also cause dehydration when we don't have sufficient water. Our water source is close by but often we are refused by straight refugees and have to walk much further to collect water with obvious risks from harsh weather and the behaviour of others.

The United World Food Program (WFP) provides our food ration. A single person is given a monthly total quantity a combination which is available between a minimum of 2kgs and a maximum of 3kg. The amount depends on supply and availability. Sorghum and yellow peas plus one litre of fortified oil. Sometimes we don't collect food from ration centres because moving around the camp is unsafe for LGBTQ refugees. Even the medical staff are homophobic and transphobic plus the UNCHR protection officers fail to respond.

We have been struggling with the situation, there was no food, clear water and medication. We thank you David because you have been there for us. In addition, our well being is improving.

Warden we are so grateful at heart. Love and solidarity." 🏳️‍🌈 🌈

My reactions

I worry that some readers might think that Bobby and Saul were reckless to "have some fun" on work premises. But how many of us in the free West have not done things in our youth which were a little risqué? Bobby and Saul were 24-year old men frustrated by rare opportunities for intimacy. They were still living with their families and occasionally met in secret. In Uganda, homosexuality is prohibited. Last year, the President of Uganda signed the toughest anti-LGBTQ laws in the world, including the death penalty. Tying in with our theme this month, Uganda is an extremely religious country. Around 85-90% of the population are Christian with most of the remainder being Muslim.

What happened to Saul? Bobby wrote: "To be honest up to now I don't know what happened to Saul. I have made many searches about him but up to now haven't seen him. Am really devastated."

I informed Bobby that he shares his birthday with Charles Darwin. He wrote: "Am so happy to share the same birth date with such an influential human being. Let me hope you will also remember mine on that date". I'm sure I will as we are celebrating Darwin Day at Dorset Humanists in February.

The future

Bobby and all of the LGBT refugees at Kakuma are hoping to make it to an alternative centre where there is a possibility that their applications for asylum will at last be processed. Bobby wrote: "Many queers have left Kakuma and we are left few here in the camp. This also leaves our lives in danger as we cannot defend ourselves. As you know we are 20 residing here in the compound, we also want to leave this homo/transphobic camp but the problem is transport. Please David we are requesting for your support so that we also leave Kakuma because its no longer safe for us. We really appreciate what you're doing for us. We are so grateful at heart... The journey is by bus or taxi. I contacted one of my friends there and told me transport fare is 30,000 Kenyan shillings per person [about £150]. He said there are many road blocks on the way with police and soldiers. Remember we don't have travel documents, so we are forced to pay some amount on road blocks. So he told me all those amounts are included the 30,000ksh. ❤ 🌈

Meanwhile, they need about £15 per person per month to supplement their very meagre food rations and to support their nutrition and health. I can't feed 40 people on my own and I hope some of our readers can help.

How you can help

You could give a regular or one-off donation to help get food to Bobby and the other gay men in the compound. Any amount is appreciated. I'll try to bring you regular updates here in Humanistically Speaking. Thank you for reading this far and for any help you can give. Love and solidarity! ❤ 🏳️‍🌈 🌈

GoFundMe is here. Apart from GoFundMe fees, every penny you donate goes to buy food for Bobby and friends. Thank you.

Further reading

Kakuma Refugee Camp - Xmas 2023 Siobhan Green's fundraiser

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