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Gays And Lesbians Seeking Asylum In U.S. May Find A Hard Road

Activists protest Uganda's anti-gay legislation in Nairobi, Kenya, this month. LGBT status has been grounds for asylum in the U.S. since 1994, but winning refugee status can be difficult, particularly for people who are unable to obtain visas to the U.S. before applying.
Dai Kurokawa
Activists protest Uganda's anti-gay legislation in Nairobi, Kenya, this month. LGBT status has been grounds for asylum in the U.S. since 1994, but winning refugee status can be difficult, particularly for people who are unable to obtain visas to the U.S. before applying.

Even through a long-distance line from Uganda, you can hear the fear and anxiety in the young man's voice. Nathan, 19, is gay. NPR is not using his surname because he fears arrest.

"Right now we are not safe," he says. "Because we are hearing some people say ... 'If we get you, we will kill you. If we get you, we'll do something bad to you.' "

More than 70 countries have laws on the books criminalizing homosexuality, including Nigeria, Russia and India. And on Monday, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed into law a measure that greatly expands the penalties for being gay in that country.

These laws also raise the likelihood of a tide of LGBT immigrants seeking asylum in the United States. But advocates say there is no smooth path for those claiming a fear of persecution.

In Uganda, the new law means a first-time offender can be sentenced to 14 years in prison. A lifetime sentence can be imposed for so-called "aggravated homosexuality," defined as sex with a minor or while HIV-positive.

Those sanctions are already driving gays and lesbians underground. Nathan and his partner fled Uganda's capital, Kampala, for a village where they hoped to find refuge. In the city, he says, he was threatened by neighbors for being gay.

"They take us as criminals. That's what I can say. They say we have evil in us," he says.

Even before Museveni signed the anti-gay bill, Ugandan activists were warning that the law would give license to more violence against gays.

Frank Mugisha, director of the group Sexual Minorities Uganda, says, "We're going to see people getting beaten on the streets, we're going to see people thrown out by their families, we're going to see people being evicted by their landlords, we're going to see people losing jobs, we're going to see people thrown out of school, because they are perceived or not as homosexuals. Even the suspicion will get someone in trouble."

And Mugisha has another prediction: "There's definitely going to be many people seeking asylum in different countries."

'A Lot Of People Are In Panic Mode'

But winning asylum in the United States is no easy feat. Granted, the U.S. has recognized LGBT status as grounds for asylum since 1994, but the government keeps no records on how many claims it grants.

"It's an unconscionably hard process to seek asylum in the United States of America," says Melanie Nathan, a California-based lawyer who works on behalf of LGBT asylum seekers. She says it's virtually impossible for someone to knock on the door of a U.S. embassy abroad and ask for and receive asylum.

"So what happens is, they come to America on other types of visas. They come to America on workshop conference visas, on visitor's visas," she says. "And once they are here, people have a year to apply for asylum. The average person — especially younger people in Uganda, for example — will never get that initial visa and don't have money even to fly here."

Still, based on her social media contacts in Uganda, Nathan estimates anywhere between 2,000 and 3,000 gay Ugandans will seek asylum in the U.S. or other countries.

Nathan says she has what she calls her "Schindler's List" — "people that have been trying to escape." Since the signing of the new law in Uganda, "my phone has been going crazy, my messages have been crazy," she says. "A lot of people are in panic mode right now."

For its part, the Obama administration calls the new Ugandan law "more than an affront and a danger to the gay community" there. And in a statement, Secretary of State John Kerry has called for a repeal of the law.

"We are beginning an internal review with the Government of Uganda to ensure that all dimensions of our engagement, including assistance programs uphold our anti-discrimination policies and principles and reflect our values," the statement says.

But if the U.S. were to make it easier for Ugandans to get asylum, it's not likely to happen soon, if at all. That's what Nathan, the young man in Uganda, found out when a group of gay activists talked with U.S. Embassy officials there.

"They say they don't have asylum," he says. "So people, we have to fight for [our rights] ourselves."

But that's a difficult proposition in the East African country, where advocating for gay rights is also a criminal offense.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.