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Ottawa must decide if it wants to help Chechnya’s gay men

Aid agencies are urging the Trudeau government to establish an emergency relocation program for gay men fleeing persecution in Chechnya. But thus far, Ottawa is prepared to offer only moral support.

In the weeks since the Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta first reported that Chechen authorities had detained and physically abused an estimated 200 homosexuals, three of whom have reportedly been killed, about 30 gay men have fled the republic, according to Kimahli Powell, executive director of Rainbow Railroad.

The Canadian charity, which last year helped about 80 members of the LGBT community relocate from countries in which they are at risk of state-enabled violence, is working with the Russian LGBT Network, an NGO, to protect Chechens fleeing the purge.

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Opinion: The international community must respond to attacks on gay men in Chechnya

International aid organizations are pleading with Western governments to provide emergency visas so that the men can be brought to safety.

"Canada can quickly and easily be seen as a leader on this issue," Mr. Powell said. But while his organization has had "a productive conversation" with Randy Boissonnault, who is special adviser to the Prime Minister on LGBTQ2 issues, the government hasn't formally responded.

Russia's human-rights commissioner said Tuesday that she was unable to confirm any abuse was actually taking place. The Chechen government has condemned the reports as "an absolute lie." Political and Muslim religious leaders have vowed to punish the journalists who reported the abuse, which has been independently confirmed by Western journalists and Human Rights Watch.

Alex Neve, secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada, urged the Canadian government to use diplomatic pressure on Russia to put a stop to the arrests, torture and killings.

But even more important, "there is an urgent need for protection right now, and Canada is very well situated to play a key role there," he said. "This would be the perfect time for Canada to put in place an emergency program to provide immediate protection for LGBT individuals from Chechnya who are fearful for their lives."

For Calgary MP Michelle Rempel, coming to the aid of Chechen homosexuals at risk is "a no brainer." The Conservative immigration critic described LGBT Chechens as "one of the most persecuted people in the world right now." She urged the Liberal government to bring forward a plan, and a budget, to resettle Chechens at risk. The Conservatives would support the issuing of emergency visas under these circumstances "100 per cent," Ms. Rempel said.

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NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan said the government should condemn the Chechen government's action, if it is indeed complicit, and "we strongly believe the Canadian government should offer refugee protection for those who manage to escape this horrendous situation."

Refugee crises are among the most complex international challenges any government faces. The urge to help runs up against the hard reality of limited resources, and deciding whose need is greatest inevitably involves political as well as humanitarian consideration.

Refugee candidates need to be vetted to make sure they are who they say they are, that they are truly in danger, and that no one with ill intent is trying to infiltrate any Chechen underground railroad to Canada – although, as Mr. Powell observed: "The people who request our help are detailing really traumatic situations that are really hard to fake."

Supports would also need to be in place to help Chechen refugees settle in and adapt to Canada, just as Syrian refugees were supported last year. This situation could afford Canada's LGBT community an opportunity to show its ability and willingness to help sexual-minority refugees in need.

And, as Ms. Rempel points out, the time is past due for a federal policy statement detailing how and when the existing refugee program should respond when an emergency arises involving ethnic, religious or sexual minorities.

Although Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has called the beatings and killings of gays in Chechnya "reprehensible," the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship did not answer requests for information on how it planned to respond to the Chechen situation.

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Whatever the complexities, the fact remains that gay men in Chechnya are being systematically detained, tortured and sometimes killed, simply because of who they are. Ottawa must decide sooner rather than later whether it wishes to offer anything other than a strongly worded communiqué.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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