Ugandan activists say they are each receiving dozens of requests from LGBT+ people trying to leave the east African country before a new anti-homosexuality Bill is signed into law, but the options for escape are very limited.
The details of the Bill have been reported in different ways as it moved through various amendments. According to a recent draft seen by The Irish Times, the Bill aims to “to protect the traditional family”, saying it prohibits not only homosexuality, but also its “promotion”.
Same-sex relations can be punished with life imprisonment, while “aggravated homosexuality” – which can include having sex with a minor or someone impaired by drugs or alcohol, passing on HIV/Aids or being a “serial offender” – carries a death sentence. Those who rent properties to LGBT+ people can be liable to 10 years in prison, and those who share materials, give financial support or operate organisations seen as “promoting or encouraging homosexuality” face 20 years. People who believe homosexuality is taking place, but do not report it, can be imprisoned for six months.
LGBT+ Ugandans have been reaching out to journalists, activists and diplomats appealing for help. “I live in fear that any minute I could face my death,” one wrote to this reporter.
A fund created late last week by a group of Ugandans and UK-based allies has raised more than €14,300, with a set target of £25,000, or about €28,500. Its organisers say they are raising the money with the aim of supporting 65 people at risk, including by covering bail for anyone imprisoned, emergency accommodation costs, relocation within Uganda, legal and medical fees, and visa and transportation costs for those leaving the country. Fundraising events are being planned for cities including London, Barcelona, Berlin and Amsterdam.
LGBT+ people have told The Irish Times they are assessing routes to escape, with discussions ongoing, amid few assurances, about whether those who reach Zambia, South Africa or Kenya can register with the United Nations and hope to be resettled to Europe or the US. The Irish Department of Foreign Affairs did not answer a question about whether humanitarian visas might be made available to LGBT+ Ugandans. Rainbow Railroad – a charitable organisation which helps LGBT+ people escape countries where they are in danger – also did not reply.
In response to a request for comment, the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) said its position was that people should not face persecution on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, and/or sex characteristics.
“LGBTIQ+ people are entitled to the same human rights as all other human beings and have the right not to be discriminated against. Every individual has the right to seek asylum. The decision to seek asylum in another country lies with the individual. Once someone crosses an international border and seeks asylum, UNHCR supports host countries to provide protection and assistance, also in co-operation with national and international partners,” it said.
On the phone from Kampala, an LGBT+ artist and activist, who asked not to be named, said they planned to leave the country this week on a hard-to-get visa that they fortuitously secured before the latest Bill was approved. The most frightening part of the Bill, they said, was that all Ugandans had been ordered to report on their fellow citizens. “Our neighbours have been turned against us, it’s kind of an extension of policing.”
Alongside that, “over the past few months there has been a steady increase in hate crimes”. They noted an uptick in hate speech too, “especially on social media, I think a lot goes under the radar of the western press”.
Examples can be found by searching the Luganda words “ebisiyaga”, a derogatory phrase for gay people which effectively means “somebody who eats rubbish”, they said, or “abasiyazi” and its plural “omusiyazi”.
“Using those tags on TikTok you’ll see a lot of crazy sh*t happening,” the artist said.
“I think the big brunt of the violence is targeted towards trans people,” the artist continued, explaining that they were in the most immediate need of help. “I have trans friends who have been targeted… they’ve raised the suspicion of the neighbours so they’ve had to relocate somewhere else.”
Getting visas to Europe or the US is proving impossible for most, not least because of requirements that the applicants have a large sum of money in their bank accounts, which is hard for LGBT+ people who may have already been discriminated against and blocked from employment or ostracised by their families. “The embassies are very hard-wired to block any potential asylum case before it even gets to their home country,” the artist said.
“Obviously we cannot evacuate the whole LGBT population of Uganda,” the artist continued, saying that the future looked incredibly uncertain. “We don’t know how long this is going to be going on for.”
De Lovie Kwagala, or Papa De, Uganda’s first openly non-binary queer photographer, said: “At the moment there’s a lot of violence happening.”
Kwagala said neighbouring Kenya would be the easiest place to travel to logistically, but hostility against LGBT+ people was also increasing there. Ahead of the Bill, Kwagala said, the Ugandan government “paralysed most of the queer organisations”, making it much more difficult for anyone to get assistance.
“We need more coverage, we need people talking about this,” they said. Kwagala is also appealing for volunteers: therapists and counsellors who can talk to LGBT+ Ugandans online.
An online petition addressed to president Yoweri Museveni, asking him not to sign the Bill into law, has more than 1,380 signatures.
“Whether the Bill gets signed by Museveni or not, the fear that has been created, the craziness that has been going on, it’s not going to stop,” said Kwagala. “And honestly, who wants to live in a space where they are not wanted? Where they are hunted down for basically existing? Until when are we supposed to run and hide and not fully be? Everyone deserves the right to freedom. Everyone deserves to show up as authentically as they can be. We only live once, so if they are trying to suck the life out of us and erase us, where the f**k do they want us to go?”
Kwagala said they were aware of 30 or more trans people whose IDs did not reflect their transition, creating another barrier when it came to escaping. And those who did get out may be “stuck in the systems of asylum for literally years”, they said.
A spokesperson for the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs said: “The promotion and protection of the rights of LGBTI+ persons, who continue to suffer disproportionate levels of violence and face systematic discrimination in many countries, is a domestic and foreign policy priority for Ireland. We are deeply concerned by the alarming and accelerating global pushback on LGBTI+ rights and are working to firmly oppose any attempts to undermine existing international commitments and standards on LGBTI+ rights. Ireland is committed to engaging with all countries in an open and constructive spirit on this crucial issue.”
The department added: “The Embassy of Ireland in Uganda continues to work with EU and like-minded partners in the co-ordination of the response to the passing of the Bill by the Ugandan parliament, including in relation to consular matters. Ireland will continue to be an advocate of LGBTI+ rights and to support LGBTI+ communities in Uganda.”