It’s becoming progressively more difficult to persist in enjoying my longstanding daily ritual of reading the Washington Post, particularly when juxtaposed with the increasing number of desperate email messages and Facebook communications coming to me from Kakuma, Kenya.
It’s 7,209 miles from this frigid winter in Washington to that baking hot refugee camp in Turkana County in Kenya’s northwest – a formidable distance to be sure – but we now appear to be planets apart. The United States of America, the world’s most powerful and wealthiest country, now wallows, disempowered. We are transfixed and immobilized by the latest daily disclosures of our broken presidential governance, and the alarming tally of damage it is doing to us as a nation and to our place in the world. Trump commands news cycle after news cycle, and the plight of the rest of the world barely warrants a mention.
It wasn’t always so. Until quite recently in fact, the care, compassion, and generosity of Americans was evident in our internationalism, our staunch (if still inadequate) commitment to foreign assistance, our stand on human rights, the hard and selfless work of our Peace Corps Volunteers abroad, and our solidarity with human rights defenders. All have been weakened in the era of Trump. Yes, even before Trump it should have been much better – too frequently we chose to let the State Department justify funding of very narrow “strategic targets” at the expense of sustainable development. While the truly urgent demands of humanitarian emergencies still command some attention among American policy makers and among individual and non-profit donors, the level of funding remains woefully inadequate.
And that’s for the emergencies.
What about the chronic needs of the more than 35 million refugees (80% of whom are women and children) currently in camps in more than 125 countries? What about the nearly 180,000 refugees at the Kakuma refugee camp? What about the approximately 200 refugees at that camp who happen to be LGBTQI? But then again, why should we care about 200 sexual and gender minority refugees in northwestern Kenya (95% of whom are Ugandan) compared to the needs of 35 million refugees and asylum seekers around the world?
We should care because they are all human beings. We should care as a way of respecting their human dignity – and the universality of human dignity. We should care because we can afford to care, financially, with such caring (were it to be properly funded) imposing an almost negligible impact on our relatively comfortable quality of life . We should care because there at Kakuma, but for the grace of God, you or I could now be one of those 200. Yet the grace of God shines brightly in each one of them, in their courageous resilience in the face of enormous hardship, and in the strength and clarity of their voices reaching out to me, and to us all. I cherish each one of their messages, although I feel deep discomfort in my relative inability to offer them any meaningful support.
The primary global mechanism for responding to the needs of long-term refugees is the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). Such needs have never been higher; as of September 2017, the UNHCR’s budget was pegged at an all-time high of US$7.763 billion. Not even half of that sum (just 46%) is currently funded. This extreme shortage is having a direct impact on Kakuma, as well as on UNHCR’s work supporting long-term refugee populations in South Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Central African Republic, Afghanistan, Burundi, and in so many other economically poor countries where UNHCR supports continuing relief operations.
And what is the response of the United States Government to this unfolding tragedy? We’ve gone past being surprised: the Trump administration is currently seeking devastating cuts of more than 50% in funding for U.N. programs overall, with reports of cuts of up to 36 percent on humanitarian aid programs. The World Food Program faces similar funding shortfalls, and rations of food and water within the camps have been cut by 30%, while medicines (including essential medications for those who are HIV+) are reportedly also in short supply there.
As a nation, we are turning our backs on my 200 friends in Kakuma.
Why don’t they simply leave the camps, find work, and forge a new life? It’s not for lack of trying. Camp residents are not permitted to leave, unless they are formally repatriated or resettled. Such opportunities for LGBTQI refugees within these camps are scarce to nonexistent, and many sexual and gender minority refugees and asylum seekers try very hard to avoid that forlorn and dire destination entirely. Refugees who have attempted to settle outside the camps but within the Kenyan economy were, until recently, supported by a modest UNHCR stipend ($45) until they could find some new livelihood. For those LGBTQI refugees coming from neighboring Uganda, where anti-LGBTQI discrimination levels are truly toxic, finding employment within the Kenyan economy is nearly impossible. They lack the appropriate documentation, and whenever their status as members of the LGBTQI population is discerned (which for transgender persons is almost immediately) they face nearly universal rejection from a society that is also homophobic and transphobic. Some find no other survival option but to take refuge at Kakuma.
It is a choice of utter desperation.
What does that “refuge” look like for the residents? Life in Kakuma is hard for all of the refugees and asylum seekers there, sheltering in a hot and arid environment replete with poisonous spiders, snakes and scorpions, and being regularly exposed to rampant outbreaks of malaria, cholera, and many other hardships. According to the many messages that I receive, for those refugees and asylum seekers who happen also to be LGBTQI, it is worse still. At Kakuma they are housed in six compounds with thatched roof huts, tents, or in mud-abode dwellings. Due to their high vulnerability to violence from straight and cisgender camp residents, LGBTQI camp residents aren’t able safely to access other services made available to all refugees in the camp. They are unable to avail themselves of education, important food-supplementing employment, UNHCR-organized social events, and even attendance at religious services. When they must go to medical facilities, they experience pervasive discrimination. Throughout the camp, LGBTQI residents also experience discrimination and abuse from security staff.
I’m not blaming the UNHCR. They carry an impossible burden, and their necessary reliance on donors for programming support is no longer sustainable. Despite many efforts to raise the alarm, UNHCR has been met by a crushing silence. The countries who host these camps for refugees and asylum seekers, as Kenya does for Kakuma, notice the impassivity of the international community and consequently are led to demonstrate diminishing political will to find local solutions to support refugee populations. They may even decide to take steps to push refugees back to their countries of origin, which for most LGBTQI refugees is tantamount to a death sentence.
I have no solutions, other than to stand in steadfast solidarity with my LGBTQI friends in Kakuma, and all refugees and asylum seekers everywhere. Those of us whom fate has blessed to live in relative affluence must do much more to help, starting with intense pressure on our government to be responsive to this very human tragedy, and to the UNHCR to reinstitute the modest stipends that refugees depend upon to stay out of the dead-end of the camps.
But will they listen?