KAMPALA, Uganda — Like their ancestors, a group of American Quakers have begun to operate what they are calling a ‘new underground railroad’ to guide members of the LGBT community in Uganda to safety.
Uganda recently passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act, a law that sanctions a life prison sentence. This punishment is lighter than the one originally proposed, which was death by hanging. Signed by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in February, the law had been in legislative limbo since 2009. However, anti-homosexuality sentiment is not a new thing, as laws criminalizing homosexuality have been in place in Uganda since the nation was under British control as a colony.
The network, based out of Washington State, is called the Friends New Underground Railroad, or FNUR. Currently, they, with the aid of Ugandan citizens, have funded and coordinated the passage of 107 LGBT Ugandans to freedom.
Of the 107, nine have reached asylum in Sweden, 12 have reached South Africa and recent reports state that approximately 30 people have been able to flee to Europe, while others are in different stages of the relocation process in countries all over the world.
Members of FNUR funnel necessary funds for passage out of the country to Uganda’s conductors. The conductors make all decisions as to who will be given aid. Once the person provided aid has reached the border, the citizens are put in safe houses before moving to different countries.
“We got into this because we were asked,” said Levi Coffin II, the group’s organizer. “They won’t contact the civil society organizations in Kampala. They don’t think they’d be safe. They’re all saying they don’t trust those folks. Quakers have a long tradition of this kind of work. This is work that we were both literally and figuratively called to do.”
According to FNUR, none of the individuals who receive aid have been put in Kenyan refugee camps, which are reportedly very dangerous for LGBT individuals. While Kenya processes its petitions for asylum through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees rather than the local government, as many other African countries do, some Kenyan lawmakers have proposed legislation that is similar to the Anti-Homosexuality Act of Uganda.
The majority leader of the Kenyan assembly, Aden Duale, was quoted calling homosexuality a ‘social problem’ on the same scale as terrorism.
“The political climate is a bit unstable,” said Neela Ghoshal, a LGBT researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Though Kenya is still 100 times better than Uganda for LGBT people, we still have a law against same sex conduct. It’s not enforced, but it could be enforced at any time.”
However, there are some who feel that FNUR has neither the knowledge nor the experience to keep the program running as a long-term commitment.
“In order to run a program like that successfully, you have to invest tremendous resources to understand the situation on the ground,” said Neil Grungras, a worker for the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration. “If you’re trying to take donors’ money responsibly, you really have to do that work.”
Reportedly, the number of people seeking asylum in Kenya have gone from five LGBT members a year to 20 in the past two months.
– Monica Newell