Canada

Charity calls on government to help resettle 300 LGBTQ2S+ Afghans trying to escape to Canada


A charity that rescues LGBTQ2S+ refugees facing violence and discrimination internationally is calling on the Canadian government to partner with them to facilitate a way out for the hundreds of Afghans who have reached out to them in desperation.


Rainbow Railroad, a charity based in Toronto, called on the Canadian government earlier this week to help them create a streamlined process to bring LGBTQ2S+ refugees over from Afghanistan, where same-sex intimacy is illegal.


The organization says they have identified at least 300 LGBTQ2S+ Afghans who desperately want to escape, fearing that they could face violence — or even death — if their sexuality or gender identity became known to the Taliban.


Kimahli Powell, Executive Director of Rainbow Railroad, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview that the situation is critical.


“What we’re seeing is family members turning over their children to the Taliban,” he said. “In some instances, sexual partners who are sympathetic to the Taliban turning individuals over.


“The conditions for LGBTQI+ persons are really precarious.”


In a press release and petition posted on Tuesday, Rainbow Railroad stated that more than 3,300 LGBTQ2S+ Afghans have reached out to them since mid-August.


“We have a group of at least 300 people who we’ve verified through our process and who are ready for resettlement,” Powell said, adding that they work with organizations on the ground to “help us identify and triage persons for resettlement.”


They are asking for the government to enter a direct referral partnership with them so that they can “create additional targeted and expedited resettlement pathways for high-risk LGBTQ2S+ Afghan refugees, and more broadly for LGBTQ2S+ refugees from around the world,” the release stated.


“The Canadian government and Prime Minister Trudeau have the opportunity, authority, and historical precedence needed to expedite the resettlement and support of vulnerable LGBTQI+ individuals,” Powell said in the release. “It has already implemented an emergency program to support at-risk Ukrainian civilians feeling conflict. A similar program would provide urgent help to the LGBTQI+ Afghans in contact with Rainbow Railroad.”


To boost their message, the organization has launched a petition called #SafeWayOut that reiterates this call for support from the government, with the goal of achieving 50,000 signatures before the start of Pride Month.


On their own, Rainbow Railroad has helped 236 Afghans to resettle or begin the resettlement process so far, a number that does not include the 300 people urgently waiting for aid.


The charity, which was started in 2006 on a volunteer basis and ramped up its operations in 2013 and 2015 after achieving charitable status, received around 8,000 requests for help last year and are on track to receive 10,000 requests in 2022.


Since its founding, the charity has helped more than 1,200 people relocate to somewhere in which it is safe to be themselves, and have provided other assistance to around 2,000 people, Powell said.


“We’re able to resettle and relocate up to 200 people a year,” he told CTVNews.ca. “That is just a fraction of the number of requests for help we receive.”


With support from the government, they could refer and help more people, Powell said, particularly when they are living in regions of the world that are more difficult to travel out of.


“These people are currently in a country that criminalizes same-sex intimacy,” he said. “We’ve identified them, they’ve been through a process and now we need to hear from the government what they’re going to do to provide safe passage for them.”


Even before the Taliban regained power last summer, Afghanistan was not safe for LGBTQ2S+ people.


In 2018, Afghanistan officially adopted a new law that explicitly criminalized consensual sexual intimacy between those of the same sex. Sentences ranged from jail to a maximum penalty of death if Sharia law was implemented.


But reports suggest that in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover, things have become significantly worse for the LGBTQ2S+ community, with the threat of lethal violence suddenly far closer to home.


Human Rights Watch (HRW) and OutRight Action International interviewed 60 LGBTQ2S+ people in Afghanistan following the Taliban’s return to power. The report, called “Even If You Go to the Skies, We’ll Find You,” was released in January, and painted a horrifying picture of what living in the country is like for LGBTQ2S+ people right now. Those interviewed reported being attacked, sexually assaulted and threatened directly by the Taliban. Those who had escaped harsh violence up to that point still reported living on eggshells, under constant worry that they could be reported.


“I was living with my family when the Taliban came,” a trans man interviewed by HRW said in the report. “My father said you have to wear girls’ clothes now and marry a man. So, I had to escape.”


One 18-year-old who was interviewed for the report used to work as a makeup artist in an LGBTQ2S+-friendly beauty salon in Kabul, but went into hiding when the Taliban took over. His mother warned him that his own father was using Taliban resources to hunt him down.


Others interviewed said that they fled after hearing that several gay friends of theirs had been killed, which they believed were targeted killings by the Taliban.


“Most interviewees believed their only path to safety was to relocate to a country with greater protections for the rights of LGBT people, but so far very few LGBT Afghans escaping Afghanistan are known to have reached a safe country,” the report stated.


These reports echo what Rainbow Railroad has been hearing from those seeking their help.


Powell said people can get their homes raided with no warning, and if non-traditional clothing is found — even just clothing deemed too Western in style — the homeowner might be under suspicion of being LGBTQ2S+, and “subject to searches where that intimate partner would be exposed and then maybe subjected to violence as an example.”


While many Afghan refugees have been able to get out of Afghanistan itself, they might be trapped in neighbouring countries that may also discriminate against LGBTQ2S+ people. For many, coming to Canada is the light at the end of the tunnel.


And although the refugee process is complicated, and Canada is already lagging behind in its goals to bring over Afghan refugees who previously worked with the Canadian military or have ties to Canada, Rainbow Railroad believes a partnership could streamline things for the LGBTQ2S+ people that have been waiting for a pathway out.


“The government has proven in different occasions that it has the ability to be nimble and flexible in programs to help resettle refugees,” Powell said, pointing out that the government acted quickly to help facilitate bringing Ukrainian refugees to Canada to settle temporarily.


He said that while they have had some communication with the government previously, such as a meeting with the Minister of Immigration Sean Fraser in April, they are hoping that this new call for a partnership will result in more clear action on the governments’ part.


“We’re not just advocating, we’re also doing, and so we’ve been directly facilitating and supporting individuals,” Powell said. “And what we’re looking for is a commitment. The commitment to resettle these people will allow us to be an effective partner in providing safe haven, and relocation support so that they can be safe.


“We’re just asking for the government and the public to remember that there are a group of LGBTQI+ persons, who are of concern to the government, that are in danger, and we just want to help facilitate a safe way out, and we need the government of Canada to help.” 

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