Silent battles, resounding strength: the lives of transgender refugees in Kenya

IIED and partners have been examining how urban development can be more inclusive of LGBTQI+ communities. Guest blogger Adrian Kibe discusses the experiences and struggles of LGBTQI+ refugees − focusing particularly on transgender individuals − as they seek to establish new lives in Kenya’s towns and cities.

Adrian Kibe's picture
Insight by 
Adrian Kibe
Trans rights activist with the Kenya Human Rights Commission
21 November 2023
Aerial view of desert refugee camp with makeshift homes.

Kakuma and Kalobeyei refugee camps, where around 250-300 self-declared LGBTQI+ asylum seekers and refugees live (Photo: Axel Fassio/CIFOR-ICRAF, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Around two billion people around the world are impacted by fragility, conflict or violence – from the war in Ukraine and Russia, the violent struggles between Palestine and Israel, to the political upheavals in West Africa. And it is the most vulnerable among us, be it women, children or other minorities, who suffer the most. 

For LGBTQI+ persons, vulnerability is not confined to times of war and strife; it persists even in moments of relative calm. 

Discrimination is escalating

Across Africa, an anti-rights movement directed at LGBTQI+ people is spreading. Legislation restricting rights is taking effect in countries including Uganda and Ghana, and there are reports of backlash and blackmail targeting LGBTQI+ individuals in Tanzania. 

So, what do you do when living in your own country becomes unbearable, and your existence is outlawed? You flee. 

The plight of asylum seekers and refugees is often associated with escaping war-torn countries. But many people around the world seek refuge for many other reasons, including persecution for their sexuality, and gender identity and expression. 

Kenya: a safe haven? 

Kenya is considered a relatively safe destination for LGBTQI+ refugees compared with its neighbouring nations. The country’s constitution upholds human rights and freedoms, and seeks to preserve the dignity of individuals and communities. 

UNHCR estimates there are around 250-300 self-declared LGBTQI+ asylum seekers and refugees in Kakuma and Kalobeyei refugee camps in north-western Kenya, around 50 individuals in the north-east Dadaab camp, and 900-1,000 living in or around cities. 

Yet despite perceptions of Kenya as a safe haven, Amnesty International and the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission have documented hate crimes, discrimination and other human rights violations suffered by LGBTQI+ asylum seekers and refugees. 

Personal accounts show how transgender refugees experience extreme discrimination and violence. 

The deep struggles of transgender refugees 

The experiences of transgender refugees are complex and their specific challenges often get lost when data, information and experiences are gathered about the wider LGBTQI+ community. 

IIED, Amka Africa Justice Initiative, and SDI-Kenya are researching how LGBTQI+ refugees are grappling with adversity. There are stories are of hope. For example, a gay man who established a chain of hair and beauty salons, and through these provided employment to fellow refugees. 

But there are also stories of discrimination, of people being displaced from their homes or being attacked in refugee camps. 

For me, the experience and resilience of transgender refugees stand out.

One transgender man recounted how he couldn't wear a binder due to the camp’s hostile environment. While fortunate to have a binder to alleviate chest dysphoria, other refugees misgendered him, and labelled those close to him as homosexual. Transgender women endure mockery, verbal abuse and physical attacks. Reporting these incidences rarely leads to action – and in some instances leads to further abuse from the very authorities who are meant to protect them.

Towns and cities: a new life? 

Some escape the persecution in camps and move to cities; but few have the required documentation. For any refugee, this often leads to confrontation with authorities and police. 

Transgender refugees, whose paperwork does not match their gender expression face further hurdles. They are forced to pay bribes and endure invasive searches, groping and offensive questioning. 

Work options are limited, and economic hardship pushes transgender refugees into extreme vulnerability. One transgender man described being homeless and living in constant fear of rape. Some are forced to resort to sex work for survival: a transgender woman who had turned to sex work told us she risked her life just by meeting clients. 

The heavy barriers to transitioning

Trying to access medical treatment is daunting, distressing and mentally exhausting. Very few refugees have proper documentation and gender-affirming care, such as medical transition services, is prohibitively high. 

For transgender men, women and gender non-conforming persons, the financial burden and barriers to services often leads to depression and despair. Inconsistent care and institutional transphobia can result in breakdowns in mental health. 

Given the bureaucracies in registration, changing names on documentation will only ever be a dream for transgender refugees.

Five practical steps towards protecting transgender rights 

These challenges faced by transgender refugees, while acute in Kenya, are part of a global struggle for rights and acceptance. 

The World Health Organisation has announced a forthcoming guideline on the health of trans and gender diverse people.  It is essential that refugees and asylum seekers are included.

Beyond these guidelines, collective effort and immediate action is needed to create a safer and more inclusive environment for LGBTQI+ individuals. Recognising transgender refugees' existence and specific needs is the first step in ensuring their integration and access to the protection and rights they deserve.

I urge the following interventions to be implemented on a national and global level:

  1. Legal reforms: we must rally for legal changes in Kenya that explicitly protect the rights of transgender refugees, ensuring they are shielded from discrimination based on their gender identity and sexual orientation. This means engaging in active lobbying efforts, launching public awareness campaigns and collaborating closely with lawmakers to drive legislative change
  2. Access to healthcare: transgender refugees must have affordable access to gender-affirming healthcare and medical procedures. Collaboration between healthcare providers, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and government bodies is key to break down barriers to accessible healthcare
  3. Documentation and name change: government agencies need to simplify the process of changing gender markers on official documents to match individuals' true gender identities. Streamlining these changes isn't just a matter of paperwork; it ensures the safety and access to vital services for transgender refugees
  4. Education and awareness: education and awareness programmes are tools to combat stereotypes and discrimination against transgender individuals. By partnering with NGOs and educational institutions we can implement programs within refugee camps and urban areas. These initiatives shed light on the experiences and needs of transgender refugees and foster a more inclusive society, and
  5. Global advocacy: our responsibility extends beyond Kenya's borders. To support transgender refugees worldwide we need to engage with international organisations and advocacy groups. Collaborative advocacy campaigns and active participation in international conferences are essential. We must join forces to push for inclusive policies and guidelines on a global scale.

In the words of the gay liberation activist Marsha P. Johnson "No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us." I believe the above actions will take us a step closer to achieving freedom for all.

About the author

Adrian Kibe is a trans rights activist with the Kenya Human Rights Commission. His work focuses on advancing transgender rights, amplifying marginalised voices, and fostering inclusivity in Kenyan society.

Adrian Kibe's picture