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“It’s suffocating and you have to fear for your life with every breath you take,” says Nemat Sadat, author and Executive Director of Roshaniya, an organisation that helps LGBTQ+ Afghans facing persecution in the country. “Afghanistan under Taliban rule is the most unbearable place in the world for LGBTQ+ people.” Following the withdrawal of British and American forces in August 2021, Afghanistan quickly fell to the Taliban – instantly changing the lives of those living there. Sadat says members of the LGBTQ+ community are an “extremely at-risk” population, with cases of torture and killings common: “When the West was involved in Afghanistan, LGBTQ+ Afghans had an invisible buffer, civil society and the international community kept Daesh and Taliban and their ilk at arm’s length. Now, you have LGBTQ+ Afghans virtually outnumbered by a society that wishes nothing more than to rid all homosexuals and transgenders.”

Although the situation has rapidly deteriorated in the year since the West’s departure, Afghanistan has never been a great place for LGBTQ+ people. President Ashraf Ghani’s government passed a law explicitly criminalising same-sex sexual relations in 2018, with the previous penal code being so vague that it was widely interpreted as such anyway. Cases of sexual, physical and emotional violence were not unheard of and many members of the community were forced to hide their true selves from those around them. There have even been reports of both the Taliban and Islamic Republic of Afghanistan governments using social media to trick gay men into an in-person meeting, before raping and/or killing them.

Shir, an LGBTQ+ and human rights activist still living in Afghanistan, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, explains that “the dreams of thousands of people, including me, were dashed and destroyed” as soon as the West “hastily” withdrew from the country. “LGBTQ+ people were repeatedly threatened with death, tortured, and these tortures were in various and shocking forms,” he explains, referring to how things have changed for queer people in the last 12 months. “They poured boiling water in the mouth of one of the LGBTQs until he died.” Shir adds that many members of the community are forced to “live in secret” now: “Before, we could at least go out freely to shop, go out for fun, go for a picnic, and have fun, but now we live in hiding and become mentally ill, because we can’t even go out to buy basic materials.” He feels it “is impossible for LGBTQs to breathe under Taliban rule…they do not respect individual human rights.” Shir also shares that he has “been tortured three times by the Taliban,” including incidences of being beaten and having his belongings destroyed.

Under the Taliban’s first period in power from 1996 to 2001, sexual relations outside of heterosexual marriage were criminalised and those found to have breached this faced public execution. Human rights abuses have only become more common since it regained power in 2021, with systemic discrimination becoming the norm. LGBTQ+ people are offered no protections by law and, prior to the fall of capital city Kabul, a Taliban judge even told German tabloid Bild that “there can only be two punishments” for homosexuals: “either stoning, or he must stand behind a wall that will fall down on him.”

The exact number of LGBTQ+ people still trapped in Afghanistan is not known, though it is believed to be in the thousands. Many were unable to leave in the summer of 2021 after the Taliban’s offensive resulted in a mass exodus of Afghans that overwhelmed airports and foreign evacuation efforts. Shir is among those trying to figure out what to do: “When the exit process started, the West announced that we will evacuate the minorities and those who are in danger, but today I see that thousands of our family members are stuck in Afghanistan, and they are being tortured and face bad security conditions…death is waiting for them every moment.”

Sadat’s work with Roshaniya has so far helped 112 queer Afghans relocate to western countries, though he has a list of approximately 1,250 still awaiting resettlement somewhere safe. However, those he is trying to help face a unique set of challenges in trying to leave: “LGBTQ+ Afghans cannot afford the costs to update their passports and get a visa for Pakistan or Iran. And even if they could escape the country, none of Afghanistan’s six neighbouring countries – Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, or China – are supportive of LGBTQ+ rights. So they still have to go under the radar and be unnoticed.” He further explains that those “trying to secure an asylum to a desirable western country” face competition with millions of others in the visa process, resulting in many “losing hope with each passing day.”

The UK government announced in October 2021 that it was “playing a world-leading role” in helping LGBTQ+ Afghans start new lives in Britain, acknowledging that they face “increased levels of persecution, discrimination, and assault” under the Taliban. However, a Freedom of Information request submitted by GAY TIMES to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office revealed that only 70 LGBTQ+ individuals and their dependants had been safely relocated to the United Kingdom by 23 May 2022, with “more expected to arrive in the coming months.”

“Why don’t governments that call themselves supporters of LGBTQs do anything?” asks Shir. “They can at least evacuate the list of Nemat Sadat, which is more than a thousand people…Don’t let this family disappear, they should continue to support this class in practice, because we are the oppressed class of Afghanistan, we have not harmed anyone, we just want to be free and live as we wish, but someone else harms us. And they don’t even let us breathe.”

Sonia Lenegan, Legal and Policy Director at Rainbow Migration, a charity that supports LGBTQ+ people through the asylum and immigration system, states that the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) and the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) are the two main schemes available to people trying to reach the UK from Afghanistan, though neither have a specific focus on LGBTQ+ asylum seekers. “Potentially at some point this year, it might be possible for LGBTQ+ people in Afghanistan to access resettlement,” she adds. “But, the details are so scarce, it’s difficult to imagine thinking, ‘Yes, you know, I’m just going to wait and see what happens with this’ because the chances of being resettled are very small.” Queer people trying to leave a country also face the issue of ‘proving’ how they identify. Lenegan further explains: “It’s very difficult in a country where your life is at risk, if you’re LGBTQ+, to say ‘Hey, me!’ because then what if you’re disbelieved for example, but then everyone else in your community decides that they do believe you?”

Stonewall, Europe’s leading LGBTQ+ charity, and Rainbow Railroad, a charity which helps queer people escape violence and persecution in their home countries, are among the organisations leading the effort to bring LGBTQ+ Afghans to safety and help them resettle. Kimahli Powell, Executive Director of Rainbow Railroad, says relocating members of the community is essential as they live “under the constant threat of being physically assaulted or killed if they have been discovered by the Taliban”. He notes, however, that some may face similar issues after getting out: “Individuals fleeing Afghanistan are going into neighbouring countries where they are also criminalised, which means they are in even further danger. So, if they try to flee to countries like Pakistan and the UAE or others, they face being in a country that criminalises them. But, even more dangerous, they face the threat of deportation, if they manage to get there and do not have onward resettlement to the UK.”

Powell explains that he has heard of cases where outing LGBTQ+ people is used as a way of building rapport with the Taliban, making them “easy targets for persecution” throughout society. “It means that community members are targeting them, family members are targeting them, sexual partners are targeting them,” he adds. “We now have thousands of people requesting assistance from us, so we are hearing those themes consistently through the requests we receive.” Rainbow Railroad and Stonewall worked with the UK government to bring the first group of LGBTQ+ Afghans to the country in October 2021, which Powell said was a “really crucial” thing to do: “One of the things that the UK government should be commended on is that our interaction with them, in this case, was relatively fast compared to other countries, situations and contexts,” he adds.

According to Rainbow Railroad’s 2021 Annual Report, which was published in June 2022, the charity got more than 4,500 requests for help from Afghanistan since August 2021 – the most it had received from any country last year. “One of the aspects of the Taliban taking over is that there are rules around dress, there’s rules around how one presents themselves, which means transgender persons are particuraly at risk,” Powell adds. “It means that if you do not conform to Taliban rule you don’t present either strictly masculine or feminine, you can find yourself to be targets just on the streets.”

Rainbow Railroad has previously stated that the Taliban has a ‘kill list’ of LGBTQ+ people still in the country, with Powell also highlighting the “random raids and searches of homes” that he has been hearing about from those on the ground: “We have documented evidence of one particular case of the Taliban going into an individual’s home, going through their things and discovering clothing they did not feel was appropriate, further investigating and finding images of them and their sexual partner on their phone which led to physical assault and harassment,” he continues, “and the displacement ends up happening when people usually threaten, they threaten to return and out them and then the individuals become displaced within their community, that’s where the need to flee comes.”


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Exact numbers of how many LGBTQ+ asylum seekers have been resettled elsewhere are hard to come by, especially given that many members of the community may not feel safe enough to be out. Some countries have set up schemes with a focus on helping queer people, with Canada’s Rainbow Refugee Assistance Partnership having welcomed more than 170 refugees by May 2022. Looking to the future, Sadat is hopeful that more governments will “work with Roshaniya to help evacuate and resettle the remaining” people on his list. “LGBTQ+ Afghans also need a permanent home – a place where they can restart their lives without the fear of persecution,” he states. “But [a] humanitarian visa for a country like Canada or the UK is a scarcer asset for Afghan refugees than Bitcoin or Rhodium.”

Shah, like many LGBTQ+ Afghans, is finding it hard to stay hopeful as the Taliban tightens its grip on the country after spending a year in power. “I tried many times to contact the organisations that support LGBTQ people, but unfortunately it didn’t work,” he says. “I was planning to go to Pakistan to find a solution for myself, but [I was] unaware of the fact that people who are Pakistanis are also in a hopeless situation [like] all Afghan LGBTQs. But, no one came to us and did not help us and here we wish to die.”

You can donate to Rainbow Railroad’s work to help LGBTQ+ Afghans via its website:

Roshaniya is also accepting donations via its GoFundMe page:

You can read the August 2022 issue of  GAY TIMES Magazine from 15 July via the GAY TIMES app, Apple News+Readly, and Flipster.