Synopsis: Trans Rescue uses their existing experience and infrastructure for moving African trans people to safety to help LGBTQ+ people of all sorts escape genocide in Uganda, costing an estimated €150 to move a person to safety outside the country and €1257 in housing costs and other support to help them become financially self sufficient in their new location.
You might have heard about Uganda’s new laws and crackdown targeting LGBTQ+ people, which began in March. “Homosexual activity” has been illegal in Uganda for a long time, but under this bill, people who even say that they are LGBT+ or “promote homosexuality” (such as advocating for LGBTQ+ people’s rights, or writing a positive or neutral article about homosexuality) face criminal charges and imprisonment. Renting living space to a gay person or conducting a same-sex marriage ceremony would also be criminalized with prison sentences of up to 10 years.
The president of Uganda has not yet signed the bill, but the homophobic fervor around it is already wreaking havoc in LGBTQ+ Ugandans’ lives. Many of Trans Rescue’s passengers were evicted by their landlords without any warning or opportunity to retrieve their things. In one particularly violent example, a landlord was convinced by a local preacher that his two trans tenants were evil and set fire to their belongings while they weren’t home, burning down his building in the process. Existing shelters for LGBTQ+ people also face eviction. Violence and sexual assault is becoming more frequent (cw violence, rape, police brutality: source).
International NGOs have been slow to respond. In an article on Trans Writes, Trans Rescue treasurer Jenny List writes that their passengers haven’t seen any other international organizations working to protect or evacuate LGBTQ+ Ugandans, though some organizations say they have plans in the works.
“Of course, we’ve asked around to find out what’s being done by those organisations, and the answer has come back from several quarters that things are in motion, but under the radar. We’re told that too public a move might cause them to be accused by the Ugandan government of being colonialist, and we understand that. We’re happy to hear that so much is being done, we really are.”
“Unfortunately, the fact remains that the people on the ground aren’t seeing it. Things they can’t see are of little use to them, when what they need is to escape an angry mob or a police manhunt.”
Trans Rescue was unusually well positioned to help. They’ve been helping trans people escape danger, especially in Africa and the Middle East, since 2021, and several of their board members did similar work in the organization’s previous incarnation as Trans Emigrate. In addition to their experience planning travel for people who face extra scrutiny due to their country of origin, they operate a trans safe haven in neighboring Kenya called Eden House. In light of the danger that queer Ugandans of all sorts are facing right now, they are providing transportation and shelter for LGBTQ+ people of all sorts fleeing Uganda.
Effective Altruists often avoid donating to acute crisis that make the news. Newsworthy events are often relatively less underfunded, especially when they occur in the western world. The difficult logistics of providing aid for events like natural disasters can also be an obstacle. Uganda’s proposed LGBTQ+ bill has received some media coverage, but the people who have the ability to donate and would consider the people affected “one of us” - LGBTQ+ people in wealthier nations - are focused on the rise in transphobia in the US and UK right now. Trans Rescue already has a presence in the region in Eden House, their trans haven in neighboring Kenya, and has prior experience with helping LGBTQ+ people in east Africa escape dangerous situations.
Trans Rescue’s passengers leave Uganda on Trans Rescue’s hired bus, to avoid the risk of a non-affiliated passenger on a public bus reporting the group to the police. Trans Rescue also facilitates them getting the vaccinations they need to legally cross the border, when necessary. On arrival, passengers stay at Eden House, or another group living space rented by Trans Rescue, or with local friends. This method lets Trans Rescue help large numbers of at-risk Ugandans to safety on a very minimal budget.
Estimate of Costs
The chair of Trans Rescue’s board, Anne Ogborn, tells me that helping a person leave Uganda costs about €120, plus a 20% buffer to account for people who don’t show up (sometimes scammers, sometimes people too afraid to travel), bringing the estimate up to €150. This includes hiring a bus, buying food for the trip, and providing the passengers with the vaccinations required to cross the border. Trans Rescue is working on buying a car so that they can reduce the cost further, and reduce the risk of being discovered by the police by hiring a local driver they know and trust. They also hope to reduce the cost of vaccinations for future passengers through a partnership with a sympathetic local nurse.
It’s near impossible to be completely prepared for a crisis, and Trans Rescue has had to iterate rapidly to rise to the occasion. Challenges have included avoiding scammers (by closing online intake and instead using passengers’ networks of LGBTQ+ friends and family to contact others who might need to leave) and avoiding the notice of the police. They are also moving more people more quickly than ever before and changing the way they operate to accommodate that. This includes the change from buying bus tickets to hiring a bus, and expanding Eden House.
Eden House was originally conceived of as a way for Trans Rescue to both reduce costs and keep passengers safer. A shared house costs less per person than rented rooms, and there is safety in numbers. Long term accommodation is less expensive than short term, and Eden House has formed connections with the local community by buying local lumber and produce and hiring local people to help make it ready to live in. Eden House had space for 8 people when it first opened, and now can house 20.
Soon after Uganda’s latest anti-gay bill was proposed, Trans Rescue applied for a grant from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was awarded 40,000 euros to expand Eden House to a larger building with space for 30 people. It will be paid out in two 20,000 euro disbursements, and as of Thursday night it had not yet been paid out. The grant is earmarked specifically for Eden House and can’t be used for helping additional people leave Uganda, but it will ensure that they have somewhere to go when they arrive.
Prior to the current crisis, Trans Rescue’s passengers stayed at Eden House for varying lengths of time. Some had friends they could stay with and never needed Trans Rescue’s help with housing, some stay on a temporary basis while finding their feet after moving, and some stay indefinitely. (There are also passengers who stay at Eden House while waiting for a flight to a European country where they can claim asylum. Trans Rescue only attempts this when traveling this way is likely to succeed; airport staff can stop a passenger from boarding the plane if they “don’t like the look of them”, and people of some nationalities have more difficulty flying than others. Trans Rescue doesn’t currently book flights for Ugandans for this reason.) Nearly every passenger who chooses to stay at Eden House over the long term finds employment and becomes self-sustaining, paying for their share of the house’s costs.
The one-time expenses associated with one person’s stay at Eden House (bedding, settling grant, and later assistance with starting a business) are about €483 in total. Anne estimates monthly cost of living to be about €172 per person per month. She tells me it’s difficult to guess how long residents will stay, but for the sake of estimation she modeled a per-person budget in which the average resident begins earning income after 3 months and contributes 30% of their upkeep costs for months 4 - 6, then 70% for months 7-9, and after that becomes self-sustaining or moves out. Under these assumptions, the total cost of a person’s stay at Eden House would be €1257. In combination with the cost of travel from Uganda to Kenya, the total estimated cost of helping an LGBTQ+ Ugandan move is €1407.
This lines up with my own attempts to estimate Trans Rescue’s costs from the outside. According to a budget report published September 2022 and an article on accomplishments published October 2022, Trans Rescue had at the time moved 20 trans people to safety and was in the process of moving and sheltering 5 more on a budget of about 33,000 euros. Counting only the passengers who’d already arrived at their destinations, Trans Rescue spent an average of 1630 euros or less per person moved, while at the same time establishing the original Eden House. On the one hand, some of these 20 passengers were still staying at Eden House at the time of writing and were not yet self sustaining. On the other, this budget also included temporary housing in budget hotels (more expensive than Eden House) for passengers who’d fled abusive homes but could not yet leave the country, and several airline flights from the Middle East to Kenya and Europe.
Based on the budget and operations information Trans Rescue published in Autumn 2022, I think Anne’s estimate of the cost of helping an LGBTQ+ Ugandan escape and move to Kenya is accurate, and if anything on the low side. Cost of living is lower in East Africa than in the Middle East (where several of the 20 passengers Trans Rescue had moved as of 2022 departed from), and ground transportation costs less than flights. The unpredictability of a crisis scenario does tend to make operations more costly (see the 20% loss to scammers and other no-shows in the estimated cost of leaving Uganda), but due to Trans Rescue’s existing presence in Kenya, this only affects the relatively small transportation-related portion of costs.
As a basis for comparison, Give Well reports costs of about €4,600 per life saved for three of its’ four top charities. I’m really not sure how to make a good comparison between lives saved from disease and people saved homophobic violence and/or arrest in Uganda. By the estimates we have available, Trans Rescue can move a LGBTQ+ person in danger in Uganda to safety for 30% of the cost to save a life through malaria prevention. Trans Rescue also operates on a triage system, prioritizing moving people who are in the most danger first. By my estimate, the dangers faced by LGBTQ+ people remaining in Uganda are at least 30% as bad as a certainty of dying by disease, so I donated my charity budget for this year to Trans Rescue.
You should also consider donating to Trans Rescue if you want to donate to an LGBTQ+ cause specifically, while doing the most good possible within that constraint. Pride month is coming up; if your employer makes a contribution to an LGBTQ+ cause, recommending Trans Rescue would be a way to direct their donation to helping some of the world’s most marginalized queer people.