Out of the Closet and Across the Border: LGBT+ Refugees Fleeing Afghanistan

Image by Ian Taylor on Unsplash

By Brigid Rawdon

Content warning: Homophobia, death penalty, sexual assault 

In August of 2021, the Taliban, an extremist armed militant group regained control of the nation of Afghanistan. The group had been driven out of power following the invasion by the American military in 2001. However, after American troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021, the Taliban quickly seized control, striking fear within the nation’s LGBT+ community. In response, LGBT+ refugees have fled Afghanistan in search of safety. The UK government has stated that LGBT+ refugees are welcome. However, the process is complicated and LGBT+ refugees from other countries are often overlooked. 

Life in Afghanistan as an LGBT+ person was dangerous even before the Taliban came to power. The Afghan government criminalized homosexual acts, meaning that gay, lesbian, and bisexual Afghans could be imprisoned for prolonged periods of time if they were open about their sexuality, even to trusted friends and family members. In addition, gay men often experienced other forms of harassment my police such as assault and robbery. As the Taliban set up the new government, spokespeople claimed that the group would rule differently than in the past, such as by giving women more opportunities. However, many are sceptical about the truth of these statements and there is no expectation that the Taliban will change its laws against homosexuality. Similar to the previous government, the Taliban criminalizes homosexuality but imposes significantly harsher punishments on those who are found guilty of engaging in homosexual acts. According to a statement from a Taliban judge, gay men will be put to death either by stoning or by crushing. Media reports have suggested that gay men are experiencing similar levels of harassment and sexual assault by police compared to the previous Afghan government.

Consequently, since the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan, many LGBT+ Afghans have decided to flee the country for reasons of personal safety. They know that if they stay, it will be difficult to avoid being captured by the Taliban and subjected to the brutal treatment that the groups have claimed it will enact against gay Afghans. In order to flee, Afghans have been using a variety of methods to leave the country. Some were able to board evacuation flights out of the capital city of Kabul in summer. While most of the refugees fleeing Afghanistan headed to Pakistan or Iran, others sought refuge in the United States, United Kingdom, and other nations. 

In late October of 2021, the government of the United Kingdom helped 29 Afghan refugees who are members of the LGBT+ community to make their way to the UK. Here, the refugees filed asylum applications and began the process of resettling without fear of government persecution. The UK government, which has relatively progressive laws concerning the LGBT+ community, has welcomed these refugees and stated that they hoped to welcome more in the future. Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities stated ‘We played a key role getting these people out and will continue to do all we can to help at-risk Afghans leave the country.’ In addition, various charities such as Rainbow Road, an organisation that helps LGBT+ people escape state-sponsored persecution, aided in the process of resettling these LGBTQ+ Afghan people in the United Kingdom. 

However, it would be naive to claim that LGBT+ people who seek asylum in the United Kingdom always have the eager support of the UK government. This process is often long, complicated, and dangerous for people fleeing nations with less widely-publicised persecution of their LGBT+ citizens. Like many other nations, the United Kingdom utilises the definition of a refugee set by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees which is ‘someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.’ While this definition does not specifically mention persecution based on sexual orientation or gender, the UK accepts that being LGBT+ makes a person part of a persecuted social group. 

As such, once these LGBT+ refugees entered the United Kingdom, they were able to submit asylum claims at their port of entry. In order for an LGBT+ asylum seeker’s claim to be considered valid by the UK government, said asylum seeker must prove well-founded fear of persecution on account of their actual or perceived sexual orientation that is deemed not to conform to prevailing political, social or cultural norms in their home nation. In addition, the asylum seeker must be expected to be able to return to their home nation and conceal their sexual orientation. This is relatively simple for those fleeing Afghanistan because of the aforementioned well-documented persecution of LGBT+ people by the ruling Taliban government. However, it is important to note that if these LGBT+ Afghans are granted asylum, their claims only last for five years until they must reapply. 

These Afghan refugees are far from alone in their struggle to escape state-sponsored persecution of LGBT+ people. Following the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces on February 24th, 2022, countless LGBT+ Ukrainians began to flee their home nation in fear of persecution by the Russian government. While LGBT+ people in Ukraine are protected from discrimination and are able to live openly, LGBT+ Russians are not protected from employment or housing discrimination and are subjected to fines if they speak out about anti-LGBT+ laws or are reported for discussing their life experiences as LGBT+ people. Many Ukrainians believe that if Russia gains control over the Ukrainian government, they will be subjected to the same censorship and discrimination that LGBT+ Russians face. If this happens, many of these Ukrainians will be forced to flee to more accepting nations. As a nation with aforementioned progressive laws concerning LGBT+ rights, there is a strong possibility that these refugees fleeing Ukraine will attempt to relocate to the UK. As a result, the government of the United Kingdom has the same obligation to these Ukrainians as it did to LGBT+ Afghan refugees. The UK government must continue to not only welcome LGBT+ refugees but also to expedite the process of granting their asylum claims and allowing them to resettle in the United Kingdom.

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