Gay Somali refugees face death threats

Gay, lesbian and HIV-infected refugees fear violent persecution should they return home.

Somalia refugee
UN officials have claimed that Somalia is safe and requires its citizens to help with the reconstruction process [EPA]

Nairobi, Kenya – Gay, lesbian and HIV-infected refugees from Somalia are facing persecution – and even the threat of death – should they return home.

Refugees have been under pressure to leave accommodations in Kenya, where many also face racist discrimination, after claims the country is now significantly safer than when Al-Shabaab had control of Mogadishu.

But many gay Somalis say returning is not an option for them.

“Warlords have made Somalia a death chamber for gays and lesbians,” said Jamal, a Somali journalist. “It is against international law to force such groups back to Somalia, given the risks.”

‘It will be a massacre’

Top UN officials, among them Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, have claimed, however, that the country is safe and requires its citizens to help with the reconstruction process.

Witness: Sisters of Somalia

But for some refugees, the reality of going back home – whether by force or voluntarily – rests somewhere between a rock and hard place.

“I have no doubt all gays, lesbians, HIV/AIDS positive people and other minorities will be killed. It will be a massacre,” claimed Said Elmi, a 25-year-old taxi driver, who is fluent in kiSwahili, Kenya’s national language.

“I fled Bossaso [in northern Somalia] ten years ago, when a friend informed me and my partner that we were set to be arrested and prosecuted for imitating women and committing indecent acts,” revealed Elmi, who told us that his sexual orientation was, “not a secret”.

Cases such as Elmi’s are not isolated, but realities facing hundreds of refugees, doubly marginalised.

Another of Elmi’s friends, who works as a male sex worker in Nairobi’s Parklands area, said he would prefer to spend the rest of his life in a Kenyan jail than return to Somalia, and the possible “death by stoning” that awaits him there.

The risk of return

Aid workers and civil rights group privately and publicly say the level of risks, threats and hostility towards gays and lesbians has further complicated and worsened the plight of civilians in Somalia’s war-torn landscapes, as well as for refugees in Kenya and their families back home.

World powers hail Somalia’s progress, but warn of dangers

Abdinoor Farah, a Somali refugee who has lived in Kenya for more than ten years, says armed gangs, including al-Shabaab, have publicised their intent to “enforce harsh punishments” against perpetrators of adultery and homosexuality as a means of attracting funding from religious groups and sects.

“A careful analysis of past prosecution cases has never been conducted fairly. It has been in total disregard of Sharia law,” claimed the elderly Farah, formerly a teacher in Somalia. “In fact, they [the prosecutions] have been criminal and sinful acts.”

Farah’s colleague told the story of his son, executed in public by al-Shabaab for “acts of sodomy”.

“My son was killed simply because he declined to join al-Shabaab,” he said. “Nobody ever raised the matter [of his sexuality]… or complained. He was picked up from my house [and] taken into custody.”

He went on to explain that he was summoned to watch the death sentence be carried out. “I did not attend. But all my neighbours witnessed his execution, carried out in an open space.”

The father of the deceased claimed he was never offered a chance to defend his son; never saw either the complainant or witnesses. Nor was he allowed to attend the case “hearing”.

“Islamic law is very clear: strict procedure must be observed in such serious cases,” stated Farah, determined to stay in Kenya. “Complainants making accusations must be seen. The mental status of persons, including witnesses, juristic teams, and the offenders, must be deemed fit.” Yet in Somalia, he noted, “in less than an hour, people are shot dead”.

‘The most infamous crime’

A cross section of Somalis and aid workers interviewed for this article said homosexuality has been widely practiced for centuries in Somalia. Despite this, armed gangs in the ascendency since the rise of former dictator Siad Barre have declared the orientation “the most infamous crime”.

Mrs Fatuma is an HIV-positive single mother of three who left Nairobi last month. “I pray they don’t learn about my HIV-positive status,” she said. “I know of a number of women who have been killed to prevent them from spreading the disease.”

Somali refugees in Kenya reluctant to return

She also feared she would be forced to marry other HIV infected people. Her fears were shared by health workers who escaped death threats at the notorious Dabaab refugee camp, fleeing to Nairobi thereafter, after conducting a series of campaigns advocating the use of condoms to prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

“I fled Dabaab camp four years ago to save my life,” said former health worker Haji. “I’m glad it was after the successful campaign to help stem the HIV prevalence – which had risen to an alarming number of more than 15,000 positive cases.”

Haji said his work helped reduce cases of abortion, and saved the lives of many young girls as well as infants. But instead of praise, it earned him many enemies.

“They vowed to kill me, my enemies. They are in Somalia and are aware that I am alive,” said Haji, who managed to move his family to Europe and hoped soon to join them. “They will only be relieved when I am dead.”


Political analyst Ahmed Yasin said a large number of refugees were not willing to go back to Somalia, due to the immense trauma experienced.

“It is inhuman to force women whose husbands were killed, and other vulnerable people, to return to Somalia, where the criminals who committed these crimes are still around,” said Yasin.

But UNHCR officials at the Dadaab camp denied the number of people faced by such threats was either alarming or significant. “We have classified a special number of cases – young girls who escaped forced marriages and genital mutilation; secured them relocation to other countries or allowed them more time to stay,” said a UNHCR programme officer, who asked to remain anonymous due to security concerns.

A field officer working on a relocation programme that seeks to move at least one million Somalis said, likewise on condition of anonymity, that alleged threats presented by some of the refugees were merely a ploy used by refugees to seek resettlement in Europe or the US.

Yet in a recent statement, Human Rights Watch (HRW), a non-governmental organisation, proposed that the Somali government should revise its draft law to comply with the UN’s Paris Principles on human rights to create a culture of human rights in Somalia.

Hundreds of Somalis who purchased properties or made other investments in Kenya, who married or are attending schools and colleges, are among those who are most opposed the relocation plan.

The simmering war of words between the Somali federal government and regional rebel leaders, alongside the latest outbreak of fatal clashes in Jubaland, have all prompted many refugees to change their minds about returning to a country where peace has been elusive for more than two decades

“Al-Shabaab is back,” said Ali, a Somali refugee in Isiolo, northern Kenya. “They are regrouping.”


Research for this article was carried out thanks to funding from FAIR, the Forum for African Investigative Reporters. 

Follow FAIR on Twitter: @fairreporters

Source: Al Jazeera