Persecuted gay men from Chechnya who sought refuge in Canada now fear for their safety after a disturbing incident in which one of them was physically threatened.
The Liberal government is worried about the security of the men taken from safe houses in Russia and brought to Canada as refugees under a secret program that Ottawa has still not officially acknowledged.
Although the victim refused to report the incident out of fear of retribution, Toronto police are investigating. The question now is how serious the risk to the men might be, and what can be done to deter people who might wish to harm them.
As previously reported by The Globe and Mail, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland spearheaded a secret program to rescue Chechen men who had been arrested, detained and tortured earlier this year because they were homosexual.
As a result of the detentions, dozens of men fled from Chechnya and other parts of the North Caucasus region of Russia to safe houses operated by the Russian LGBT Network, a non-governmental organization.
From June through August, 31 of them were spirited to Canada via a secret underground railroad the federal government set up.
According to two sources, speaking on deep background because they are not authorized to discuss the situation openly, at least one of the refugees has been threatened since arriving in Canada.
In August, a young Chechen male who came to Canada via the underground railroad talked with another man on a dating app and the two agreed to meet at a certain time and place in Toronto. When he arrived for the rendezvous, two men confronted him. They placed him in the back seat of a car and began swearing at and berating him in Chechen, saying his homosexual lifestyle had brought disgrace to Chechnya. He was released physically unharmed.
A spokesperson for the Toronto Police Service confirmed the force is investigating an incident involving a Chechen refugee, but could provide no other information.
Word of the incident has alarmed other refugees. They are emotionally vulnerable, having been subjected to persecution and abuse. They spent months in hiding, fleeing from that abuse, but were assured they would be safe in Canada. This incident brings into question those assurances.
The Chechen-Canadian diaspora is small, and largely concentrated in Toronto. It is not known whether any of the members of that diaspora would truly wish to harm homosexual members of their community who were brought to Canada as refugees from their homeland.
However, government and other officials agree that the best protection for the men is to get them settled and integrated into Canadian society as quickly as possible. This involves finding each of them appropriate housing, enrolling them in language training, providing mental-health counselling as required and helping them to find work.
A spokesperson for Ms. Freeland declined to comment on the situation of Chechen refugees in Canada on Wednesday.
Kimahli Powell, executive director of Rainbow Railroad, which is helping to settle the refugees, also declined an offer to comment.