'Canada saved my life': Surge of LGBTQ refugees seek asylum in Edmonton

For Adebayo Katiiti, returning to Uganda would be a death sentence.

'They must be given the same kind of support and protection that we had provided other newcomers'

Adabeyo Katiiti arrived in Canada six months ago, after being imprisoned in Uganda for "promoting homosexuality." (Adebayo Quinitiiti/Facebook) (Facebook)

For Adebayo Katiiti, returning to Uganda would be a death sentence.

The transgender man has claimed asylum in Canada, hoping to make Edmonton his permanent home.

He's already been jailed in Uganda, where homosexuality is illegal under a colonial-era law that prohibits sex acts "against the order of nature."

"A lot of gay people in Uganda face threats, they are homeless or they are attacked when people realize that you are gay," Katiiti said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"They can attack you anywhere, even on the side of the road. A few weeks ago I lost my gay friend, he was killed. He was stoned to death."

Katiiti is among a growing number of LGBTQ people seeking asylum in Alberta's capital city.

The Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers (EMCN) is reporting a significant increase in the number of gay or transgender refugee claimants in the region, many of whom are "desperately" seeking protection in homeless shelters.

They've had more cases involving sexual or gender minorities in January and February of this year than in the past three years combined, the EMCN said.

Refugees 'in the real sense of the word'

It's a trend settlement workers expect will continue amid growing turmoil around immigration in the United States.

"We're over capacity in what we're seeing," said Erick Ambtman, EMCN executive director.

"I think there is a lot of apprehension and nervousness out there given the current political climate and, given the border crossings were seeing in Manitoba, we're expecting that number to continue to rise."

Ambtman said LGBTQ refugees face their own set of challenges during the immigration process, including a dangerous Catch-22.

While claimants are trying to escape persecution in their home countries, the act of applying for refugee status based on their sexual orientation or gender identity can leave them even more exposed to violence or imprisonment.

"We see a much higher percentage of LGBTQ claimants getting refugee status because it's known that they would be in danger if they were to return to their country of origin," said Ambtman.

"Anybody can seek asylum, but to get refugee status, they have to prove they're at risk if they're sent back to their country."

'They disowned me'

The few who do gain asylum are often more vulnerable to homelessness, unemployment and isolation from the larger community.

And these vulnerabilities are aggravated by a period of limbo all refugees face, said Ambtman. While a claimant is waiting to obtain status they are unable to work and have "very limited" access to social supports.

"It's just another layer to their challenges when you're fleeing a country because there is a likelihood of death," he said.

"For many, it's regular imprisonment, beatings and extortion. If that's the life you've known, it's difficult to trust that things in the country will be different." 

The agency is hoping to overcome these challenges by providing more assistance with legal claims, work permits and housing applications, but they'll need more government funding and donations to pay for the increased demand. 

Adebayo Katiiti first came to Canada to compete in an international LGBTQ swimming competition. (Rick Bremness/CBC )

Katiiti has been in the country for six months.

He arrived in August 2016 for an international swimming event for LGBTQ athletes, the International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics (IGLA) Championship in Edmonton.

Only days before his trip, Katiiti had been jailed in for "promoting homosexuality," after armed police raided a gay pride event, arresting more than 20 people.

He was released in time to get on a plane to Edmonton but a few days after leaving Uganda, his family warned him to never return.

"They disowned me, and they chased me away," he said.  "They told me they would kill me if I go back home, so I decided to stay here."

Since then, he's been granted refugee status and just applied for permanent residency. 

His time in Canada has given him reason to hope for a better future. For the first time in his life, he feels like he can finally be himself without fear. 

"It means a lot to me. Canada saved my life."


Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.

With files from Natasha Riebe