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Toronto charity helps airlift group of LGBTQ people out of Afghanistan

A Toronto charity has played a key role in helping a group of LGBTQ Afghans escape persecution from the Taliban, after a months-long and cross-continental campaign to help them flee Kabul.

Rainbow Railroad worked with the U.K. to help 29 people flee the Taliban

LGBTQ Afghans board a plane destined for the U.K., in joint operation by Rainbow Railroad and Stonewall U.K. to help at-risk Afghans escape the country. (Rainbow Railroad)

A Toronto-based charity has played a key role in helping a group of LGBTQ Afghans escape the Taliban after a months-long, cross-continental campaign to get them out of Kabul.

After receiving hundreds of requests for help from Afghans fearing for their safety, Rainbow Railroad, a group that helps LGBTQ people escape persecution, has worked with a British charity called Stonewall to help airlift members of the community to the U.K.

The first group of 29 people boarded a military flight Friday bound for an undisclosed location in the U.K., the British Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office announced. 

"Rainbow Railroad's hope is that they will be the first of hundreds more arriving in the U.K. through this scheme, and that other governments, notably the American and Canadian governments, will partner with us on similar operations," said Eric Wright, the Canadian charity's communications officer, in a news release on Friday. 

After the group quarantines in a hotel, they will then be resettled in Britain. 

Wright said some of the 29 are students and others are defenders of LGBTQ rights in Afghanistan, making them targets for the Taliban. 

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 LGBTQ people faced discrimination in employment and health-care, and they are also vulnerable to beatings and sexual assault by security forces.

'Living in fear for their lives'

The campaign involved "months of partnership development, and direct advocacy to the U.K. government at the highest levels", Wright said, including an urgent letter sent to U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Aug. 27, just days before the evacuation efforts from Kabul ended. The last U.S. plane left Hamid Karzai International Airport on Aug. 30.

While they were able to airlift only 29 LGBTQ people out of Afghanistan Friday, charities hope to help many more in the coming months. (Rainbow Railroad)

The letter, jointly signed by Stonewall chief executive Nancy Kelley and Rainbow Railroad executive director Kimahli Powell, requested urgent help to airlift LGBTQ Afghans, who were "at extreme risk of torture and death at the hands of the Taliban and already living in fear for their lives."

The two charities complied a list of 200 people who were in easy distance of Kabul's airport, hoping to airlift "as many people on this list as possible" before the airlift efforts ended. However, the U.K. pulled out of Afghanistan the following day.

Some of the group of Afghans show off their passports and boarding passes as they prepare to leave Kabul for a new life in the U.K. (Rainbow Railroad)

The list of people awaiting evacuation has grown since then, and while the spokesman couldn't give a specific figure, he said "hundreds" were still awaiting evacuation.

Rainbow Railroad says it has received more than 700 requests for help from LGBTQ people in Afghanistan since the Taliban took over. The group says that's more than a quarter of the number of requests for help that come in each year from all over the world. As a result, the group has hired extra staff specifically to triage Afghanistan cases.

Charity calls on Canada to step in

Only 29 people could be airlifted at one time because of the the operation and the extreme security risks that arise with the movement of people across borders, Wright said, as well as the Taliban actively pursuing LGBTQ people, their limited mobility due to fear of violence and the lack of help from other governments, other than the U.K. 

Wright called on the Canadian government to step in to help so LGBTQ people could also be resettled in Canada.

"The former Minister of Immigration has been tweeting about this since the beginning, but we need more than this. We need Canadian moral and humanitarian leadership on this file."  

Kimahli Powell, executive director of Rainbow Railroad, says the charity will continue to work with the U.K. government to help at-risk Afghans. (Supplied)

As the final Canadian evacuation flight left Kabul on Aug. 26, former Minister of Immigration Marco Mendicino tweeted his intention to help grant safe passage to Afghan refugees, such as people from the LGBTQ community, to enter Canada.

"Our evacuation is ending, but our commitment to the people of Afghanistan is as strong as ever. In the next months, we'll welcome thousands of vulnerable Afghan refugees forced to flee to other countries — focusing on women, religious minorities, LGBTQ folks and others," Mendicino's tweet said.

In total, Canada airlifted more than 3,700 people from Afghanistan.

The initial group of 29 will now be supported by Stonewall and other LGBTQ charities to begin their new lives in the U.K.

More LGBTQ Afghans are expected to arrive in the U.K. in the coming months. 

In a statement issued by the U.K. Foreign Office Friday, Rainbow Railroad executive director Kimahli Powell said: "This is just the beginning of our efforts to help hundreds of LGBTQI+  individuals we are supporting in Afghanistan relocate to safety."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ashleigh Stewart is an investigative journalist from New Zealand now living in Toronto, via stints in Dubai, Tokyo and Jakarta. She's particularly interested in stories about mental health, inequality and underrepresented communities. Outside of work, you'll find her on a ski field or a mountain trail. Follow her on Twitter @ash_stewart_ or email her on ashleigh.stewart@cbc.ca.

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