Gay refugees in Malawi face violence and hunger

© Gemma Taylor/Frontline AIDS

One evening Didier closed up his shop for the day and went to meet friends, but he had no idea his life was about to change so drastically.

One evening Didier closed up his shop for the day and went to meet friends for a party, but he had no idea his life was about to change so drastically. “I miss everything. The way my life was in Kenya was the complete opposite [to here in Malawi],” says Didier*, 27.

“I was at a party with a friend who had come over from America. It was about the time Obama came to Kenya, and we thought he was going to help legalise homosexuality. The party was at someone’s home, just 10 or 12 close friends. A neighbour must have called the police. They came in and started slapping us and shouting ‘get out, get out’.” Didier says that while the officers didn’t give any reason for arresting them, they were shouting gay slurs.

The night ended with him in a cell, outed to his father who refused to pay his bail, and after five degrading days of being taunted and assaulted, being dropped off at the border being told never to return.

Didier believes they were particularly harsh to him as he had a foreign passport, as he was born in Democratic Republic of Congo. “This one’s not even a Kenyan,” he recalls an officer saying. “Go throw him somewhere… you are the ones introducing homosexuality to our children, we don’t need you here.” Didier had moved to Kenya as an infant, at less than two years old.

His instinct was to travel to DRC, to find grandparents, going from Kenya to Uganda to Rwanda. At the Rwanda-DRC border they quizzed him, and also upon suspecting he was gay, his passport was confiscated.

“I didn’t know where to go, I just walked thinking, thinking,” Didier says. “Eventually I approached a truck driver loading his van. I told him I have no documents and only Kenyan shillings, equivalent of approximately $30 or $40. He accepted the money, it was everything I had left.”

Smuggled into Malawi

His destination was decided by the driver’s direction. He smuggled him to Lilongwe, Malawi, and directed him to Dzaleka Refugee Camp. The first person Didier met was a UNHCR protection officer. “I explained why I left Kenya during my interview,” Didier says. “The more I told her, the more she wanted to know. I remember the exact words she said to me: ‘You should not have come to Malawi. You should have looked for somewhere else to go, because people like you here in Malawi, they are not wanted’.

“I thought, if UNHCR can tell me I shouldn’t be here, then what’s going to happen to me? So I had a lot of fear even entering Dzaleka. There are people from various countries and tribes. So I just went in holding my heart, and praying to God – ‘don’t let these people have any right over my flesh, just protect me’.”

Despite his prayers during his time in the camp Didier was beaten, had chemicals poured in his eyes, and was chased by guys with machetes. “I think if they’d caught up with us I wouldn’t be sitting here today,” he says.

Vital source of support

Didier says that living in a refugee camp you need affection from people, you need friends, otherwise you can’t survive. But instead of being shown love and kindness he was shown hatred.

“What hurt me the most was that you couldn’t even go and say ‘hi’ to another person. I’m a sociable person. I love playing football, I’d see people playing football, but know that they wouldn’t accept me joining in. I’d just watch. I’ve been an Arsenal fan for a long time, even though they are disappointing us,” he laughs, “but I’m still a fan.”

“I couldn’t have any relationships in the camp, I just couldn’t… I wouldn’t want to be in a relationship right now. How do you combine love with all these things?” he asks. “It wouldn’t make sense.”

However, it was while at the camp that he found out he had a sexually transmitted disease. Didier was able to talk to Michael Kaiyatsa, advocacy manager at Malawi’s Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), a vital source of support amid the relentlessness of camp life.

“Mike helped me and directed me to another NGO,” Didier says. “They took me to a hospital for treatment. They were very friendly because they were trained, so I was able to present as a gay man. I know where to go for condoms, lube and HIV testing. I tested negative about three months ago.”

Safe house

Didier felt trapped at the camp. Even though there were threats to his life, his reports were at best ignored, or he was accused of exaggerating. It even resulted in Didier being threatened with arrest instead of the perpetrators, because he is the one who is ‘illegal’, a reference to Malawi’s anti-gay laws, which are currently under review, and any arrests on the basis of someone’s sexuality have been halted.

His friend Matofu also experienced abuses, including being stabbed, but they had nowhere else to go. However, an attack on Matofu’s child, aged 10, pushed them over the edge, and they left the camp – for good.

CHRR temporarily put the trio up in a hotel when they found out they had nowhere to go. Now they live in a safe house, provided by Plan Malawi, a UNHCR partner. They hadn’t expected to be housed, really there was no plan, other than to save their lives and get away from a constant state of fear.

The friends are grateful for the house, but their problems haven’t gone away. The fear is so ingrained that even now, away from the camp, they didn’t initially dare venture further than the occasional short walk round the block.

Living with fear and hunger

Didier says: “When I go outside and I see people looking at me, I think will these people come at night to slaughter me? Will these people come to attack me?” A lack of food and essentials has been a problem too. “If we talk to UNHCR about the situation concerning food they say: ‘It sounds like you people want to go back to Dzaleka’. Can you imagine? We told Mike we are going to die of hunger.” This was in December 2017.

CHRR applied for a grant from the International HIV/AIDS Alliance’s Rapid Response Fund to help the men buy food and other essentials while they advocate on their behalf for UNHCR to recognise them as refugees so this state of limbo can end and they can rebuild their lives, which includes making sure they have access to HIV and other health services. The guys found out on Christmas Day 2017 that CHRR’s application had been accepted.

But the long-term picture is still very uncertain. “As much as we are safe here we don’t see any hope,” says Dider. “The people you expect to help us out [UNHCR], they’re not ready to help. As long as they have kept us here, to them that’s enough. I don’t know if that’s the meaning of ‘safe house’, it’s like we are monkeys in a cage.”

Didier and Matofu wait every day for news from UNHCR about their refugee claim, currently they do not have confirmed refugee status, and without this they cannot be resettled. “What keeps me going is the fact that one day, this may all be over. Maybe a different route will open up for me,” says Didier.

Since January 2018, the Rapid Response Fund grant has helped make some small improvements to their lives. Didier and his housemates were getting out and about more using the fund to go shopping for essential clothes and food, and being able to cook some Swahili spice dishes. Prior to the grant it had been a plain, meagre and repetitive diet.

Didier hopes for a future where he can return to a more familiar life, he says: “I feel like I’m asleep in a dream or a coma, and I want to wake up. It’s been a long dream. I loved my life in Kenya, I had my own business – when I left, the shop was still there stocked full of clothes. I don’t know what happened to it. I was also enrolled at the university, and working with St John’s Ambulance, and I had a lot of gay friends.

“Policy makers should legalise homosexuality. Everyone is human, don’t put boundaries on human rights. Teach people to love one another. Remove hatred. Because if people in the government show hatred towards us, what do you expect of the public? They have many followers, people who listen. If you come and say let’s legalise homosexuality then it may be the start.”

UNHCR response

In a comment (January 2018) UNHCR in Malawi said that “efforts have been ongoing in Malawi to bring its refugee policies in line with international standards”.

In response to the accusation that UNHCR in Malawi is homophobic, the statement said: “UNHCR fully adheres to and promotes non-discrimination and respect for diversity and inclusion of all persons of concern including LGTBI persons into all its programmes, advocacy interventions and search for durable solutions. We take all such allegations very seriously and we welcome open dialogue with all relevant counterparts including local authorities and persons of concern to proactively address it… most of UNHCR staff has gone through UNHCR’s LGBTI sensitisation training in Malawi. If need be, more advanced training can be organised. Moreover such training can also be expanded to our partners and counterparts.”

It continues, in reference to their awareness of LGBTI people affected: “UNHCR [in Malawi] is only aware of two LGBTI cases. However, it is likely that there are more as LGTBI persons are likely to keep a low profile… In 2017, no self-identified LGBTI persons were recognised as refugees. The two cases that the office is aware of were registered as asylum-seekers in 2015 and are awaiting for the first instance decisions… No known LGBTI refugees have been resettled during 2017. Both LGTBI cases known to UNHCR are still asylum-seekers. UNHCR is only able to resettle recognised refugees either by the government or through our UNHCR mandate.”

Story update:

The advocacy work of Mike and his colleagues at CHRR on behalf of Didier, Motufu and Suphi finally paid off and the trio were recognised as refugees by UNHCR. They were then granted asylum in Canada and relocated in April 2017.

Didier says: “I hope I’ll settle down sooner rather than later, look for a job, study paramedics and a humanitarian course – two things I have been involved with all my life. I also hope sometime to play soccer. I want to live my life without fear of being persecuted. I thank God that I have found the light here in Canada, I hope it will always be this bright.”

*name changed

CHRR has been assisted by a grant from the Rapid Response Fund, which is managed by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance and funded by the Elton John AIDS Foundation. The Fund makes grants to LGBT and MSM organisations so they can carry out urgent work to alleviate the stigma, discrimination and violence that threaten provision, access and uptake of HIV services for MSM and LGBT people.

This article was written as the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, before we changed our name to Frontline AIDS.


Elton John AIDS FoundationKenyaLGBTMalawiRapid Response FundRefugees