A Canadian NGO is helping LGBTQ Afghans flee their country for safety in Britain. But the Canadian government has not stepped up, despite promises.
It’s time for Ottawa to stop making excuses and to get an underground railroad up and running for some of the most vulnerable people in Afghanistan. Lives are on the line.
Twenty-nine Afghans from the LGBTQ community landed in Britain Friday evening. These activists and other high-profile members of the community were at very high risk of being persecuted, assaulted and killed by members of the extremist Taliban regime.
Friday’s arrival “is hoped to be the first of many of LGBT Afghans who are able to start new lives in the U.K.,” said a statement issued by the British government.
Rainbow Railroad, a Toronto-based non-governmental organization that assists LGBTQ people at risk around the world, helped arrange the flight to safety.
“We’ve been providing safe havens and are looking relentlessly for any mechanism to get people to safety outside of Afghanistan,” Kimahli Powell, executive director of Rainbow Railroad, told me. He was unwilling to disclose details of how the refugees were evacuated. But “the list of folks who we are still trying to get out of Afghanistan to safety remains long.”
Of the approximately 700 people at high risk identified by Rainbow Railroad, 200 are in urgent need of immediate evacuation. But while the British government has shown its willingness to accept LGBTQ refugees from Afghanistan, Canada is still all promise, no delivery.
In an Aug. 13 release, the Immigration department promised to set up “a special program to focus on particularly vulnerable groups,” which included “women leaders, human-rights defenders, journalists, persecuted religious minorities, LGBTI individuals, and family members of previously resettled interpreters.”
That announcement of Ottawa’s commitment to help LGBTQ people at risk in Afghanistan caused a spike in requests for assistance, said Mr. Powell. But at the time of the announcement, Canada was in the midst of an election campaign.
It took more than a month after the Sept. 20 election for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to name his cabinet, and then he shuffled experienced ministers Marc Garneau and Marco Mendicino out of Foreign Affairs and Immigration, respectively, replacing them with Mélanie Joly and Sean Fraser, who are new to the files.
As a result, “we’ve had to look at other places to find safe havens for people,” said Mr. Powell. Other countries besides Britain have accepted refugees, he said, but they have asked that their involvement not be made public.
It’s inexcusable that, more than two months after Ottawa promised to enact special measures to protect the most vulnerable, those measures aren’t in place. It contradicts Canada’s honourable tradition of granting asylum to LGBTQ people at risk.
In 2017, the Liberal government helped dozens of LGBTQ Chechens flee to Canada, after Chechen authorities launched a pogrom against sexual minorities in the country.
Stephen Harper’s Conservative government supported an underground railroad that helped LGBTQ Iranians leave that country and settle in Canada.
Such past actions make Ottawa’s delay in living up to its commitment in Afghanistan all the more frustrating. There may be no group there more at risk than the LGBTQ community. A Taliban judge has warned that the punishment for homosexual acts will be death, either by stoning or by being crushed under a wall. There are reports of LGBTQ Afghans being raped by Taliban supporters. Many queer Afghans have gone into hiding and are desperate to escape the country.
“At this moment, the Taliban has kill lists,” said Mr. Powell. “We need immediate tools for LGBTQI-plus persons at risk.”
Canada has increased its commitment to settle Afghan refugees from 20,000 to 40,000. But the greatest need for LGBTQ people in Afghanistan is to get those most at risk out now.
Mr. Powell said Rainbow Railroad will work with Britain and other governments to bring as many LGBTQ people as possible to safety as quickly as possible. Canada needs to join that list of welcoming countries. Today.
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