By Matthew Lavietes and Rachel Savage
NEW YORK/LONDON, Aug 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — It was never easy being gay or transgender in Afghanistan. Now it could be deadly, according to LGBTQ+ Afghans, whose fear of violence under the Taliban is driving a frantic bid to escape.
But how any evacuation might work is another matter, with scant practical support coming from overseas and even less hope that Islamist militants will let them into the airport.
"If I find a visa and a country gives me permission to leave, of course I will risk everything to get out," said one gay Afghan student, whose name was withheld for his protection.
"Any country, but not here. Living here means nothing for us," he added.
The odds are stacked against an escape as the 21-year-old hides indoors, paralysed by fear of what might happen on the street, with few exit routes open amid chaotic airport scenes.
Nor is it clear where LGBTQ+ Afghans might be welcome to set up home or whether sexuality or gender identity are criteria for automatic asylum in many countries around the world.
Canada has pledged to resettle 20,000 Afghans, explicitly including LGBTQ+ people in its commitment.
As we face this crisis together, Canada is leading with our commitment to welcome 20,000 refugees who’ve fled Afghanistan, focusing on women and girls, LGBTQ individuals and targeted minorities.— Marco Mendicino (@marcomendicino) August 19, 2021
In offering such clear assurance, Canada is an outlier.
Irish media has reported that LGBTQ+ people will also be among its 150 Afghan refugees brought to the country. Ireland's foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
But in other Western democracies, including the United States and Europe, there was no such clarity.
On Monday, the day after Kabul fell, US President Joe Biden wrote a memo granting $500 million for "unexpected urgent refugee and migration needs of refugees, victims of conflict, and other persons at risk" in the tumult.
US State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters on Tuesday that the United States would "bring to safety... vulnerable Afghans" without specifying who. Asked if this covered LGBTQ+ Afghans, the State Department declined comment.
Britain says it will welcome up to 5,000 Afghans under year one of a resettlement program that will prioritize women, girls, religious, and other minorities.
Again, it made no mention of LGBTQ+ Afghans and did not respond to a Thomson Reuters Foundation request for comment.
We have an enduring commitment to the Afghan people, and we will honour it.— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) August 18, 2021
A new resettlement scheme will create a safe and legal route for those in most need to come and live safely in the UK.
Many European leaders are wary of accepting any migrants — of any type — and some countries, including Australia, have explicitly rejected an Afghan influx.
Turkey is bolstering its border walls with Iran, which neighbors Afghanistan, expressly to keep out Afghan migrants.
Secrets and Fear
Rainbow Railroad, a Canadian-based LGBTQ+ advocacy group, has urged governments to help gay and trans Afghan refugees.
"Public attitudes...towards LGBTQI+ people are extremely negative, which leads members of the LGBTQ+ community to keep their gender identity and sexual orientation a secret in fear of harassment, intimidation, persecution, and death," it said. "Now, with the return of the Taliban, there is understandable fear that the situation will worsen."
Rainbow Railroad is concerned that the return to power of the Taliban will lead to instances of extreme violence directed at members of the #LGBTQIA community in Afghanistan. We call on governments to step up and support Afhgan refugees. Full statement: https://t.co/5QigIKIrOV— Rainbow Railroad (@RainbowRailroad) August 18, 2021
US novelist Nemat Sadat, a gay Afghan-American who left his homeland as an infant, then taught at the American University of Afghanistan from 2012 to 2013, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation he had been contacted by more than 100 LGBTQ+ Afghans desperate to flee.
"People are messaging me, telling me 'What can we do? We're going to get exterminated. The Taliban are going to weed us out and kill us,'" Sedat said in a video call.
Sedat said he was working with an American based in Kabul and lobbying his congressman to try and arrange a flight out.
Contacted over WhatsApp, the American confirmed he was at Kabul airport, but said the situation was "really bad" and he was unsure even how to get LGBTQ+ people safely through the city.
Chaos has swamped the airport, with reports of stampedes, Taliban fighters turning back Afghans with travel documents, and women throwing their babies over the wall to US soldiers.
Since Sunday, 12 people have been killed in and around the airport, according to NATO and Taliban officials.
(Reporting by Rachel Savage @rachelmsavage, editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)