Toronto charity getting pleas from LGBTQ+ Afghans desperate to escape Taliban rule

Toronto-based charity Rainbow Railroad says it has received more than 200 requests from people in Afghanistan in the LGBTQ+ community fearing for their safety and looking to escape.

'Some of the risks include being beaten, detained and murdered,' group's executive director says

Nemat Sadat, an Afghan and LGBTQ+ activist now living in the United States, says LGBTQ+ people have a bleak future in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. (Submitted by Nemat Sadat )

Rainbow Railroad, a Toronto-based charity that helps LGBTQ+ people escape persecution, says it has received hundreds of requests for help from Afghans fearing for their safety.

Kimahli Powell, the group's executive director, says it has received more than 200 requests from LGBTQ+ Afghans trying to escape. He says people also fear being outed to the Taliban by their families.

"Our fear with the Taliban is that members of the [LGBTQ+] community will be targets," said Powell. "We're already seeing disturbing reports that the Taliban is seeking out members of the LGBTQ community and a report of someone allegedly being killed."

Homosexuality is criminalized under Afghan law, with offenders facing imprisonment or a maximum penalty of death. A 2020 report from the U.S. Department of State on human rights in Afghanistan found that LGBTI people faced employment and healthcare-based discrimination, including assault and rape by security forces.

Already a difficult place to live for those in his community, Powell is concerned that things will become worse in Afghanistan, as the Taliban is even more intolerant when it comes to the country's LGBTQ population.  

"Some of the risks include being beaten, detained and murdered," he said. "It is a dangerous place for [LGBTQ+] people. It was before the Taliban took control, and it will most certainly be a precarious situation after the Taliban fully seizes control."

Tell us what you think!

Help shape the future of CBC article pages by taking a quick survey.

Taliban fighters stand guard at a checkpoint in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021. Their return to power has pushed many Afghans to flee, including the LGBTQ community, fearing reprisals from the fighters or a return to the brutal rule they imposed when they last ran the country. (Khwaja Tawfiq Sediqi/The Associated Press)

Rainbow Railroad works globally to relocate or support individuals from the LGBTQ+ community who face police harassment, discrimination in the workforce and deadly violence from their communities or families.

With Canada announcing that it has ended its evacuation effort, Powell says the organization's efforts will be focused on providing immediate relief and basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter in Afghanistan, while also investigating other resettlement options for those at risk.

'The war has just started for Afghans'

Nemat Sadat, an Afghan and LGBTQ+ activist now living in the United States, says LGBTQ+ people have a bleak  future in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

"Americans are rejoicing saying that this is the end of the war, but the war has just started for Afghans," he said. "I feel like the LGBTQ+ community has the most to lose."

Sadat says he's heard from contacts back home that the Taliban are going door-to-door looking for journalists, interpreters and LGBTQ+ people.

That has forced some from the LGBTQ+ community in Afghanistan, like a man named Ahmadullah, to go into hiding. CBC News is not disclosing his last name because he fears for his safety.

"I don't know how to describe my feelings, but I'm scared, and I can't even think straight," he said.

"I want to leave this country."

Through his social media platforms and email, Sadat has received over 250 requests from LGBTQ+ people in Afghanistan, pleading with him to help them escape.

"I'm very scared for the [LGBTQ+] community there," said Sadat. "I believe that they will be annihilated completely."

Empty promises?

When the Taliban was in control of Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, Aurel Braun, professor of international relations and political science at the University of Toronto, says many people fled the country. Among those refugees would likely have been members of the LGBTQ+ community, he says.

With few opportunities for people to escape, Braun says the Taliban's rule will be defined by absolute control and no tolerance for dissent.

"When we look at any repressive system, the vast majority except for that ruling group suffers," he said. With the collapse of civil society and law, Braun says those from vulnerable groups, such as LGBTQ+ people, will be even more targeted.

And despite the Taliban's promises of peace, he says that the international community shouldn't be easily swayed.  

"It's not infrequent that when totalitarian systems take over, they make these kinds of promises," he said.

"But it's not so much a question of whether we believe it as it is whether the Afghan people believe it."