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Countries urged to offer refuge to LGBTQ Afghans

Taliban has said it will execute gay men

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(Bigstock photo)

KABUL, Afghanistan — Advocacy groups have urged the U.S. and other countries to offer refuge to LGBTQ Afghans after the Taliban regained control of the country.

“As Afghanistan falls to the Taliban, members of the LGBTIQ community are among those at greatest risk of suffering under Taliban rule,” tweeted the Organization for Migration, Refuge and Asylum on Tuesday. “The international community must act quickly and decisively to aid all those fleeing persecution.”

Stonewall, a British LGBTQ rights group, echoed ORAM’s call.

“LGBTQ+ Afghans have endured routine discrimination, abuse and persecution, including by the state,” said Stonewall CEO Nancy Kelley on Tuesday. “With the Taliban in power we expect this situation to deteriorate further, including the potential for a return to active enforcement of the laws that prohibit same sex relationships.”

President Biden last month announced U.S. military operations in Afghanistan would end on Aug. 31. The previous White House in 2020 brokered a peace deal with the Taliban that set the stage for the withdrawal.

The Taliban on Sunday entered Kabul, the Afghan capital, and toppled President Ashraf Ghani’s government. Evacuation flights resumed at the city’s Hamid Karzai International Airport on Tuesday, a day after thousands of Afghans who were desperate to leave the country swarmed it.

Media reports indicate a Taliban judge last month said the group would execute gay people if it once again governed Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan already is not a safe place to be LGBTQI+ people,” said Kimahli Powell, executive director of Rainbow Railroad, a Toronto-based organization that assists LGBTQ refugees around the world. “According to the U.S. State Department, public attitudes across the diversity of Afghan society 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. 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 LGBTQI+ community in Afghanistan,” added Powell. “And although it remains to be seen how the Taliban will respond to international pressure to uphold human rights, early signs are not encouraging. Just last month, a Taliban judge threatened that gay men will be crushed to death by toppling walls onto them should the group regain control of Afghanistan.”

Powell said Rainbow Railroad has received 50 “requests for help originating in Afghanistan” so far this year, “and we anticipate an uptick in requests due to the deteriorating security situation that threatens the safety of LGBTQI+ people.”

“Moreover there is very limited human rights defenders and civil society engagement to support LGBTQI+ persons at risk,” said Powell. “However, we are currently relying on our deep international network and contacts within the country in order to reach people at risk. “

‘We don’t know what’s happening’

Charbel Maydaa is the founder and general director of MOSAIC, a Lebanon-based advocacy group that works throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Maydaa is also the first alternate co-chair of ILGA Asia.

Maydaa on Tuesday noted to the Washington Blade that the Taliban use Sharia law to target LGBTQ people. Maydaa noted the Taliban wants “to look good in front of the international community,” but added LGBTQ Afghans who remain in the country are terrified.

“We lost contact with many people there,” said Maydaa. “We don’t know what’s happening. They’re not online or they are really afraid to talk on Facebook.”

Maydaa said three female academics with whom he has worked “disappeared” five days ago. Maydaa told the Blade an LGBTQ person in Kabul with whom he spoke on Monday “didn’t mention anything.”

“He was really afraid to communicate, so he was just like I’m alive. I’m fine,” said Maydaa.

Maydaa said ILGA Asia is currently working to find shelters for LGBTQ people in Afghanistan before they are able to leave the country. Maydaa added ILGA Asia is also “trying to advocate for some governments” to “literally rescue them.”

The Canadian government on Friday announced it will allow up to 20,000 Afghans — including members of the LGBTQ community — to resettle in the country.

“Canada will continue to implement the special immigration program for Afghans who contributed to Canada’s efforts in Afghanistan,” a Canadian government spokesperson told the Blade on Monday. “In addition, we will introduce a special program to focus on particularly vulnerable groups that are already welcomed to Canada through existing resettlement streams, including women leaders, human rights defenders, journalists, persecuted religious minorities, LGBTI individuals and family members of previously resettled interpreters.”

“The program will welcome government-supported and privately sponsored refugees, along with those sponsored by family already in Canada,” added the spokesperson. “In the coming weeks and months, we will be engaging with our international and domestic partners to develop a plan for moving forward.”

President Biden on Monday said the U.S. will expand “refuge access to cover other vulnerable Afghans who worked for our embassy; U.S. non-government agencies — or the U.S. non-governmental organizations and Afghans who otherwise are at great risk; and U.S. news agencies.” State Department spokesperson Ned Price on Monday also said the State Department will “continue to pursue all options to relocate interested and qualified Afghan SIV (Special Immigration Visas) applicants and their immediate families, as well as other vulnerable Afghans.”

Price and Biden in their remarks did not specifically mention LGBTQ Afghans. Rupert Colville, a spokesperson for U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet did not either on Tuesday.

“We call on the international community to extend all possible support to those who may be at imminent risk, and we call on the Taliban to demonstrate through their actions, not just their words, that the fears for the safety of so many people from so many different walks of life are addressed,” said Colville.

Log Cabin Republicans Managing Director Charles Moran on Monday sharply criticized the Biden administration.

“Make no mistake, the reinstatement of the Taliban is a literal death sentence for LGBT Afghans,” said Moran. “Human rights abuses will absolutely increase under this radical regime. The Biden administration talks a tough game about supporting the LGBT community, but that support evidently doesn’t extend to our allies in Kabul.”

“We hope the administration will be held accountable by both parties for this unprecedented disaster, but right now the priority must be to evacuate as many proven U.S. partners and allies from Kabul as possible, including LGBT Afghans,” added Moran.

Powell stressed “now is time for governments to step up and support LGBTQI+ Afghan refugees.” He specifically noted the Canadian government’s announcement.

“Rainbow Railroad is looking forward to engaging with the Canadian government to identify and refer LGBTQI+ Afghans in need of emergency assistance,” said Powell. “We strongly encourage other governments to do the same.” 

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Southern-Central Asia

Petition urges White House to protect LGBTQ Afghans

Taliban regained control of country on Aug. 15

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Two men in Kabul, Afghanistan, in July 2021 (Photo courtesy of Dr. Ahmad Qais Munzahim)

WASHINGTON — More than 10,000 people have signed a petition that urges the Biden administration to do more to help LGBTQ Afghans who remain in Afghanistan after the Taliban regained control of the country.

The Human Rights Campaign; the Council for Global Equality; Immigration Equality; Rainbow Railroad; the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration and the International Refugee Assistance Project on Friday presented to the White House the petition that urges the administration to adopt “a 10-point action plan … to expedite and ease the refugee and asylum process for LGBTQI Afghans.”

The same six groups last month urged the Biden administration to adopt a plan that would “prioritize the evacuation and resettlement of vulnerable refugee populations, including LGBTQI people, and ensure that any transitory stay in a third country is indeed temporary by expediting refugee processing.” The groups, among other things, asked the White House to “speak out forcefully against human rights abuses by the new Taliban regime and any increased targeting of vulnerable communities, including LGBTQI people, and use existing mechanisms to sanction and hold accountable perpetrators of human rights abuse.”

The Taliban entered Kabul, the Afghan capital, on Aug. 15 and regained control of the country.

A Taliban judge in July said the group would once again execute people if it were to return to power in Afghanistan.

Rainbow Railroad and Immigration Equality are among the other groups that have continued their efforts to evacuate LGBTQ Afghans since American troops completed their withdrawal from the country on Aug. 30. Some of the 50 Afghan human rights activists who Taylor Hirschberg, a researcher at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health who is also a Hearst Foundation scholar, has been able to help leave the country are LGBTQ.

“We reiterate our call for President Biden to adopt the 10-point policy plan which will expedite and ease the refugee process for LGBTQI Afghans,” said Human Rights Campaign Senior Vice President for Policy and Political Affairs JoDee Winterhof in a press release. “The 10,000+ people who signed our petition have demonstrated that they want the United States, long a beacon of refuge for those fleeing persecution, to take action to protect LGBTQI Afghans—a vulnerable group who risk oppression, even death, simply for who they are or who they love. Now is the time for action.”

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Southern-Central Asia

Transgender activist in Pakistan fights for change

Jannat Ali attended 2018 HRC summit in D.C.

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Jannat Ali at WorldPride 2021 in Copenhagen, Denmark (Photo courtesy of Jannat Ali)

LAHORE, Pakistan — A pioneering transgender activist in Pakistan continues her fight for change in her country.

Jannat Ali—who describes herself as an “artivist”— is the executive director of Track T, a trans rights organization that is based in Lahore, the country’s second largest city that is the capital of Punjab province.

Track T in December 2018 organized Pakistan’s first-ever trans Pride march that drew nearly 500 people. A law that permits trans people to legally change the gender on their national ID cards and other official documents, allows them to vote and bans discrimination based on gender identity in employment, health care, education and on public transportation took effect earlier that year.

“That was an opportunity (for people) to celebrate their real true identities,” Ali told the Los Angeles Blade on Aug. 19 during a telephone interview from Copenhagen, Denmark, where she was attending WorldPride 2021. “People were shaking hands because we did it so beautifully.”

Jannat Ali, left, with Delaware state Sen. Sarah McBride at WorldPride 2021 in Copenhagen, Denmark (Photo courtesy of Jannat Ali)

Ali in March launched “Journey with Jannat”, an “inclusive infotainment show” with episodes on Instagram and YouTube. She is the first openly trans person to host her own program in Pakistan.

Ali in 2018 traveled to D.C. to participate in the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Global Innovative Advocacy Summit. Track-T last year received a $5,000 HRC grant.

“They changed my life,” Ali told the Blade, referring to HRC. “They helped me to fulfill my dreams in my life and make me be able to share my work.”

Pakistan’s Supreme Court in 2009 ruled in favor of recognizing trans people as a third gender on identity cards. The Pakistani government in July opened the country’s first school for trans people.

Section 377 of Pakistan’s colonial-era penal code that criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual relations remains in place. Ali told the Blade that implementation of the 2018 trans rights law— especially in the country’s tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan and in rural Pakistan — remains a problem.

“The government doesn’t (make it a) priority,” she said. “It’s a responsibility of other provinces to adopt or to amend it and present their bill in their own provinces.”

Ali said violence based on gender identity remains prevalent in these areas.

Alisha, a trans activist who worked with Trans Action in Peshawar, a city in Khyber Pakhtunkwa province that borders Afghanistan, died in 2016 after a man who reportedly raped her shot her several times.

Activists said staff at a local hospital delayed treatment because she was trans. The province’s then-governor ordered personnel to place Alisha in a private room, but she died a short time later.

“We are thankful to the governor,” a local activist told the Blade after Alisha’s death. “This was the first time that a government executive showed support.”

Taliban regaining control of Afghanistan ‘really sad’

Ali spoke with the Blade four days after the Taliban entered Kabul, the Afghan capital, and regained control of the country.

A Taliban judge in July said the group would once again execute gay men if it were to return to power in Afghanistan.

Some of the 50 Afghan human rights activists who Taylor Hirschberg, a researcher at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health who is also a Hearst Foundation scholar, has been able to help leave the country are LGBTQ. The Toronto-based Rainbow Railroad and Immigration Equality are among the other groups that have continued their efforts to evacuate LGBTQ Afghans since American troops completed their withdrawal from the country on Aug. 30.

“I was really worried,” Ali told the Blade when asked about the plight of LGBTQ Afghans in Afghanistan after the Taliban regained control of the country. “I was really sad.”

Ali this week said she is now “in touch” with LGBTQ Afghans who have fled to northern Pakistan.

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Southern-Central Asia

Columbia University researcher helps evacuate LGBTQ people from Afghanistan

Taylor Hirschberg working with Belgian lawmaker

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Taylor Hirschberg (Photo courtesy of Taylor Hirschberg)

NEW YORK — Some of the 50 human rights activists that a Columbia University researcher has helped evacuate from Afghanistan since the Taliban regained control of the country are LGBTQ.

A press release the Los Angeles Blade received notes Taylor Hirschberg — a researcher at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health who is also a Hearst Foundation scholar — has worked with Belgian Sen. Orry Vandewauwer to help 50 Afghan “activists leave the country.”

“The refugees included those who identify as LGBTQI+ or gender non-conforming and their families,” notes the press release.

The Blade has seen the list of names of the more than 100 people that Hirschberg and Vandewauwer are trying to evacuate from Afghanistan. These include the country’s first female police officer, the independent U.N. expert on Afghanistan and a number of LGBTQ activists.

“There are many more human rights advocates we are still trying to get out of the country,” said Hirschberg.

Hirschberg has previously worked in Afghanistan.

He and Vandewauwer were also once affiliated with Skateistan, an NGO that works with children in the Middle East and Africa. The documentary “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone” features it.

Two men in Kabul, Afghanistan, in July 2021 (Photo courtesy of Dr. Ahmad Qais Munzahim)

The Taliban entered Kabul, the Afghan capital on Aug. 15 and toppled then-President Ashraf Ghani’s government.

A Taliban judge over the summer said the group would once again execute gay men if it were to return to power in Afghanistan.

The U.S. evacuated more than 100,000 people from the country before American troops completed their withdrawal from the country on Aug. 30. It remains unclear whether the U.S. was able to successfully evacuate LGBTQ Afghans from Kabul International Airport, but Immigration Equality earlier this month said it spoke “directly” with 50 LGBTQ Afghans before the U.S. withdrawal ended.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sept. 13 during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing expressed concern over the fate of LGBTQ Afghans who remain in the country.

The Human Rights Campaign; Immigration Equality; the Council for Global Equality; Rainbow Railroad; the International Refugee Assistance Project and the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration have called upon the Biden administration to develop a 10-point plan to protect LGBTQ Afghans that includes prioritizing “the evacuation and resettlement of vulnerable refugee populations, including LGBTQI people.” Canada is thus far the only country that has specifically said it would offer refuge to LGBTQ Afghans.

Hirschberg on Monday told the Blade that he and Vandewauwer have charted an airplane to evacuate Afghans, but they have not secured a “third country” to which they can bring them.

“Currently, we are working towards a multi-country collaboration for resettlement,” he said. “Our work has now expanded to include election officials and women activists, including those from the LGBTQI+ community.”

Hirschberg also urged the U.S. and humanitarian organizations to do more to help evacuate LGBTQ people, human rights activists and others from Afghanistan 

“I understand that this is complicated and that I do not have all the working pieces but why does the United States ignore those who helped in building their agenda in Afghanistan. The same goes for multilateral organizations,” he told the Blade. “Why are neither funding charters and creating agreement with partnering states? If they are why have the not contacted the countries that we are creating collaborations with?” 

Editor’s note: Hirschberg is a Blade contributor.

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