RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Russia is among the more than 70 countries that have laws on the books criminalizing homosexuality. This week, the U.S. and the EU reacted with outrage when the president of Uganda signed a law that dramatically expands the penalties for being gay in that country. It's one of a new round of anti-gay laws that raised the likelihood of a tide of LGBT immigrants seeking asylum in the United States.
Yet as NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, there's no smooth path for those claiming a fear of persecution.
RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Uganda's ban on homosexuality 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. Through a long-distance line from Uganda, you can hear the fear and anxiety of Nathan, a 19-year-old gay man. We won't use his surname because he fears arrest.
NATHAN: OK. Right now we are not safe because...
GONZALES: He says right now, we're not safe because we're hearing some people say that if we get you, we will kill you. If we get you, we'll do something bad to you.
Nathan and his partner fled the capital city of Kampala for a village where they hoped to find refuge. He says in the city, he was threatened by neighbors for being gay.
NATHAN: They take us as criminals. They say that we have evil in us.
GONZALES: They say you are criminals, and you have evil.
GONZALES: Even before President Museveni signed the anti-gay bill, Ugandan activists were warning that the law could give license to more violence against gays. Frank Mugisha directs a group called Sexual Minorities Uganda. He was in Los Angeles this weekend, to raise awareness and money for his group.
FRANK MUGISHA: We're going to see people getting beaten on the streets. We're going to see people being 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 being thrown out of school - you know, because they are perceived, or known to be, homosexuals. Even the suspicion will get someone in trouble.
GONZALES: And Mugisha has another prediction.
MUGISHA: There's definitely going to be very many people seeking asylum in different countries.
GONZALES: 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.
MELANIE NATHAN: It's an unconscionably hard process to seek asylum in the United States of America.
GONZALES: Melanie Nathan is a California-based lawyer who works on behalf of LGBT asylum seekers. Nathan says it's virtually impossible for someone to knock on the door of any U.S. Embassy abroad, and ask for and receive asylum.
NATHAN: So what happens is, they come to America on other types of visas. They come to America on workshop conference visas, on visitors' visas. 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.
GONZALES: Still, Nathan estimates anywhere between 2- to 3,000 gay Ugandans will seek asylum from the U.S. or other countries. She bases her estimate on her social media contacts in Uganda.
NATHAN: I would say, as we speak, 30 people that I have on what I call my Schindler's List, these are people that have been trying to escape. Since the signing of the bill, my phone has been going crazy, my messages have been crazy. A lot of people are in panic mode right now.
GONZALES: For its part, the Obama administration calls the new Ugandan law more than an affront and danger to the gay community there. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a statement, called for a repeal of the law, says spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
JEN PSAKI: We are beginning an internal review of our relationship 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.
GONZALES: 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 we heard earlier, found out when a group of gay activists talked with U.S. Embassy officials in Uganda.
NATHAN: They say that they don't have asylum. So we have to fight for ourselves.
GONZALES: So you have to fight for your rights in Uganda?
GONZALES: That's a difficult proposition in the East African country, where advocating for gay rights is also a criminal offense.
Richard Gonzales, NPR News.
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