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False Claims, Real Harm: LGBT Ugandans Shut Out From Asylum by Impostors

NAKISANZE SEGAWA, GPJ UGANDA: Ariana Mutomi says she witnessed manipulation of the asylum process at Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya by people who admitted to her they were pretending to be gender and sexual minorities for asylum opportunities.

In July 2015, Uganda didn’t feel safe for Ariana Mutomi. It was just over a year after President Yoweri Museveni signed an anti-homosexuality bill into law. Although Uganda’s Constitutional Court annulled the law later on procedural grounds, anti-homosexuality sentiments were on the rise in the country. Afraid, Mutomi relocated to Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, where she hoped for a safer life and a chance to seek asylum in Canada. She was 16 at the time, went by her birth-assigned male sexuality and used a different name.

Mutomi, now a transgender woman, says her friends told her that at Kakuma Refugee Camp, with the help of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, “it would be easy to process and get asylum as a sexual minority.”

Like her, many sexual and gender minorities face violence, stigma and discrimination because of Uganda’s anti-homosexuality laws, leading them to seek asylum. Rainbow Railroad, a nonprofit that helps LGBTQ+ people gain asylum, reported that soon after the government reintroduced the anti-homosexuality bill, in 2023, there was an increase in the number of those fleeing the country to seek asylum.

A crisis of false claims

The Dutch Immigration and Naturalization Department started to suspect possible abuse of visa and asylum procedures in 2018, according to a 2020 report provided to Global Press Journal by spokesperson Cilya van der Kooij. The Dutch agency found the number of people who entered the Netherlands on short-stay visas, then subsequently submitted asylum applications on the grounds of being gender and sexual minorities, had increased.

Upon further investigations, the department says it uncovered organized networks that specifically train Ugandan applicants to fabricate stories about their sexuality so they can successfully navigate the asylum approval process, and others who sell “ready-made package visa applications documents” from Uganda for about 2,500 euros.

ZZ, a Ugandan who has been living in the Netherlands for five years, says she lied about her sexuality to gain asylum. ZZ is heterosexual. She applied for a three-month tourist visa at the Dutch Embassy in Uganda to visit a friend, with her other plan already in motion. After three weeks, her visa was ready. On arriving in the Netherlands, she says she applied for refugee status as a lesbian. “I cut my hair short and wore [baggy] men’s clothes,” she says. This, she believed, would prove that she was a lesbian.

ZZ asked to use her initials for this story for fear of jeopardizing her asylum application, which is still in progress. She believes that lying about her sexuality is the only guarantee of remaining in the Netherlands.

“I was given a house, health insurance and a monthly stipend of about 1.5 million Ugandan shillings [about 410 euros] by the Dutch government — things I would never have gotten had I told them I was straight. In my entire life as an educated woman with a master’s degree in business administration, I had never received such huge amounts of money on a monthly basis,” she says. If she gets her two daughters over to the Netherlands from Uganda after a successful asylum application, she adds, she will receive about 1,230 euros per month to care for her household.

According to the European Council on Refugees and Exiles database on asylum information, asylum-seekers receive a monthly allowance of 280.08 euros from the Dutch government to cover food, clothing and personal expenses. On top of the financial allowance, they receive accommodation, free transport tickets to see their lawyers, health insurance and insurance for civil legal liability, among other benefits.

The Dutch immigration department has yet to approve ZZ’s application. She has been invited to three interviews so far. “It’s almost five years since I submitted my applications, but every time I hear from my lawyer, he tells me that the [immigration] people think that my story is not credible,” she says. She worries they might not approve her application.

That she might be exploiting opportunities for LGBTQ+ people doesn’t bother her too much. “I have to look out for me and my children; and if an opportunity presents itself, I am taking it,” she says.

The cost for LGBTQ+ people

These false claims, according to sources who spoke to Global Press Journal, come at a cost for LGBTQ+ people who seek asylum abroad.

“They take advantage of our welcoming community,” says Monalisa Ankintole, a transgender woman and the programs officer at Transgender Equality Uganda, a nonprofit that advocates for transgender women and transgender sex workers. Ankintole says she is familiar with cases of sexual and gender minorities whose asylum applications were denied because officials have lost trust in LGBTQ+ applications from Uganda. “They’re stuck here in Uganda and Kenya because they have no other safe place to go to,” she says.

In response to false applications, the Dutch government took a stricter stance toward asylum-seekers from Uganda than from other countries, according to a 2023 report by Center for Culture and Leisure, a Dutch LGBTQ+ rights group. “In 2015, the acceptance rate of Ugandan asylum applications in the Netherlands was still around 50%, compared to only 29% in 2018. The impression was created that Ugandans were applying for asylum en masse in the Netherlands on the basis of a (false) visa,” the report says.

The group says it spoke to asylum lawyers and organizations working with refugees who said that Ugandan sexual and gender minorities were examined more strictly and had applications wrongfully rejected. “The conclusion seems justified that there is discrimination against Ugandan LGBTI people. In the present study, ten files of Ugandans have been studied and only one of whom was granted a status,” the report says.

Sabine Jansen is a researcher at the human rights group that authored the report. “I find [the Dutch immigration department’s] report not very impressive, and their assessments seem to be based on stereotypes,” she tells Global Press Journal via email. In 2022, two Ugandan men lost a court case against a decision by the Dutch immigration department to withdraw their status because their homosexual orientation wasn’t believed, she says.

However, van der Kooij, the spokesperson, through email tells Global Press Journal that there is no difference in how the Dutch assess applications from Uganda and other countries. He adds that the investigations have helped the immigration department be more alert to fraud.

Already, the asylum process is complicated enough for LGBTQ+ people. A June 2022 report by the Williams Institute — a think tank on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law — shows that officials require LGBTQ+ asylum applicants to prove their sexuality or gender. Decisions to reject applications as false are often based on biased or stereotypical ideas of how LGBTQ+ people live, the report says. The report also shows that the asylum application process can have deleterious effects on LGBTQ+ people, including mental and physical health outcomes and insecurity as they “wait in a precarious state of uncertainty.”

Corruption and exploitation further complicate the situation. Genesis, who prefers to use his first name for fear of persecution, says a lawyer once asked him for 3,000 United States dollars to help him with his asylum application, a price he couldn’t afford.

Likewise, Mutomi says that an official working with UNHCR asked for 4,000 dollars to expedite her asylum process. “Uganda [wasn’t] safe for me, but Kakuma wasn’t safe,” she says. There was no point staying. “The next month I came back to Uganda,” she says.

UNHCR Kenya takes allegations of corruption by its employees very seriously, says Charity Kamene Nzomo, a spokesperson. Every report is assessed and, if substantiated, disciplinary action is taken, including summary dismissal from the organization, she says.

Meanwhile, Moses Makumbi, a commissioner with Uganda’s Ministry of Ethics and Integrity, says people who exploit the law and immigration processes by faking their sexuality also ruin the country’s credibility.

Nicholas Opio, a human rights lawyer, sees a bigger issue for his country. People who struggle economically want to leave the country so much that they will lie to do so. But in the process, everyone ends up stuck, he says. “People feel unsafe living in this country and would want to go to places that are safe.”

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