Refugee group partners with Ottawa to bring hundreds of LGBTQ Afghans to Canada

CBC News

Nick Logan · CBC News · Posted: Dec 22, 2022

A leading advocacy organization for LGBTQ refugees is partnering with the federal government to resettle hundreds of Afghan refugees fleeing persecution because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Rainbow Railroad has received nearly 3,800 pleas for help from LGBTQ and intersex Afghans following the Taliban seized control of the country in August 2021, but has only been able to facilitate the resettlement of 180 vulnerable people in Canada so far (with another 20 more are expected by the end of the year). 

With the partnership announced Wednesday, Rainbow Railroad said it will work with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) to help another 600 LGBTQ and intersex Afghan refugees find safety in this country. 

"This is a really strong example of what happens when civil society and the government collaborate together," said Kimahli Powell, Rainbow Railroad's chief executive officer.

The timeline, however, is not clear. IRCC, in a statement to CBC News, said it would not go into details about the partnership, citing the "safety and security of those involved," but confirmed it does at times "facilitate the resettlement of specific groups or individuals facing extraordinary circumstances" —including LGBTQ refugees — and engages with "a range of stakeholders, including Rainbow Railroad."

The situation for LGBTQ people in Afghanistan was perilous before the Taliban took over, but the fear of abuse, violence and even death has grown more acute under the Islamist group's rule. While Afghans represent one the largest groups of refugees in the world, according to the United Nations, stigma and persecutory laws — in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries harbouring refugees — make it even harder for LGBTQ Afghans to find safe haven. 

"Individuals who have reached out to us for assistance and who we've been helping … have faced obstacles all throughout their journey," Powell told CBC News. "There's just been real consistent danger."

The Taliban-run Afghan higher education ministry says female students would not be allowed access to the country's universities until further notice. Frozan Rahmani, an Afghan-Canadian journalist, has been documenting the dismantling of women's rights in the country since the Taliban took control of Kabul in the summer of 2021.

LGBTQ persecution under Taliban rule

In a report released this week, Rainbow Railroad detailed accounts from LGBTQ and intersex Afghans who had sought the organization's help from within Afghanistan. Of the 3,797 requests for assistance Rainbow Railroad received from LGBTQ and intersex Afghans between August 2021 and August 2022, 1,739 were from people inside the country, while the others came from Afghans who have fled home for other countries.

The risks for LGBTQ Afghans is not alleviated by fleeing to neighbouring countries. In a January 2022 report, Human Rights Watch pointed out "most of the countries" sharing a border with Afghanistan also have anti-LGBTQ laws in place; in Iran, homosexuality is punishable by death.

Those requesting help reported the "intensity and severity of persecution increased markedly under the Taliban regime," and that surveillance of LGBTQ people has become routine, Rainbow Railroad stated in its report.

"Individuals reported multiple tactics used by the Taliban to identify and find LGBTQI+ people, including identifying them from social media photos or videos, during searches at checkpoints, and through emboldening local people to surveil and report on LGBTQI+ people."

In at least one instance this year, the Taliban is reported to have killed a gay man stopped at one of its checkpoints. 

The Guardian reported on the case of Hamed Sabouri, an aspiring medical student who was tortured and killed after the Taliban stopped him at a checkpoint in Kabul in August. Sabouri was tortured for three days and then executed; the Guardian reported a video of him being shot to death was sent to his family and partner. Sabouri's family have since fled Afghanistan, while his partner has gone into hiding.

The advocacy groups OutRight Action International and ILGA World, which submitted a report to the United Nations earlier this year on violence and discrimination in Afghanistan, say the extent of Taliban violence against LGBTQ people is hard to determine. Family members and friends of LGBTQ victims of violence are "often too afraid or humiliated to speak out," the report said.

Crucial help for LGBTQ Afghan refugees

Powell admits it's a "tremendous task" to manage the global need for refugee assistance globally. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there are 100 million people internally and externally displaced worldwide, including 2.6 million Afghans who are registered refugees around the world and a further 3.5 million who are displaced inside Afghanistan. 

Following the Taliban takeover, Canada committed to bringing at least 40,000 Afghan refugees to Canada by the end of 2023; 26,700 have been resettled so far through various pathways and programs.

But Powell said having a referring organization with the expertise in assisting LGBTQ refugees, such as Rainbow Railroad, is "crucially needed" in order to help a highly vulnerable group such as LGBTQ and intersex Afghans. 

"Rainbow Railroad has a fantastic track record in helping to resettle members from the [LGBTQ]  community across the globe," said British Columbia MP Jenny Kwan, the NDP's immigration critic.

While she applauds the partnership with Rainbow Railroad, she said the federal government must expedite the resettlement process for " individuals who are being persecuted [and] whose lives are at risk."

Kwan said wait times for processing refugee claims can take up to three or four years — the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada's website states the projected wait time is approximately 24 months — and vulnerable people such as LGBTQ Afghans don't have that much time to wait.

But Powell is hopeful the government partnering with Rainbow Railroad will help, with his organization able to "identify the unique needs and barriers for LGBTQI+ persons to resettle into Canada."