opinion

'The UK government has left LGBTQ Afghans to fend for themselves - time is running out to help them'

Home Office guidance has previously stated that Afghanistan was safe for LGBTQ people. We're now seeing the terrible cost of that policy, writes Billy Stockwell.

2021-08-23

Words: Billy Stockwell; Image: Pexels

After years of UK Government failures, LGBTQ+ Afghans have been left stranded and vulnerable in a country that Home Office guidance recently claimed was safe for them.

Thousands of LGBTQ+ Afghans are now resorting to social media to escape the country, but with the Taliban in full control, even getting to Kabul airport could end up being a deadly journey.

I spoke to Nemat Sadat, the first ever Afghan to publicly come out as gay, about the current situation in Afghanistan. He now lives in the US but is working remotely to airlift LGBTQ+ Afghans out of Kabul.

“I have interacted with hundreds of LGBT Afghans over the past week and a common thread has emerged: each of them contacted the embassies of the UK, US, and various EU countries, leaving desperate emails begging someone to help them”.

I asked him if there was any evidence that these governments, including the UK, are helping.

“Nobody has responded” he replied.

With the US set to withdraw forces by the end of the month, effectively halting UK evacuation plans too, time is running out for members of the LGBTQ+ community to get to safety.

"The Taliban’s takeover has worsened conditions for Afghanistan’s LGBTQ+ people, but the criminalisation of homosexuality is nothing new in the country."

Sadly, they have good reason to fear being left behind. Only last month Gul Rahim, a Taliban judge, told the German newspaper Bild that gay men would be killed when they gained control of the country, either by stoning or being crushed by a wall.

“We are so scared, we are hiding, we know they will come after us, but we don’t know what to do,” one LGBTQ+ person texted Sadat earlier this week.

But was this an avoidable situation? A direct line could be said to exist between this scramble for safety and the failure of UK Home Office policy in recent years.

Until just last year, the UK Home Office’s official guidance stated that gay Afghan asylum seekers could be safety deported back to Afghanistan as long as they pretended to be straight.

A gay man would not face “a real risk of persecution” in Kabul as long as he did not “attract or seek to cause public outrage”, the guidance read.

However, even before the Taliban took over, sex between two men was punishable with imprisonment and LGBTQ+ people were reporting harassment, violence and detention by police. These facts were stated in recently removed UK Home Office documents.

If the Home Office had taken seriously this persecution by the state and the concerns of LGBTQ+ people in Afghanistan, then thousands of LGBTQ+ people would not be in need of emergency evacuation now.

That is the point: the Taliban’s takeover has worsened conditions for Afghanistan’s LGBTQ+ people, but the criminalisation of homosexuality is nothing new in the country.

However, historic decisions made by the UK Government have failed to acknowledge the risks posed to LGBTQ+ Afghans seeking asylum, rejecting their applications based on those grounds time and time again.

This systematic failure of western nations to accept vulnerable LGBTQ+ people over the last decade should be recognised as one of the main reasons why Afghanistan’s LGBTQ+ community is fearing for their lives today.

"LGBTQ+ Afghans do not have that much time."

Other European nations have also rejected LGBTQ+ asylum seekers in recent years. For example, in 2018 an Afghan teenager was denied asylum by the Austrian authorities because he did not “walk, act or dress” like a gay man.

Research conducted by the University of Sussex suggests that the absurdity of that decision is not an anomaly, but rather routine procedure across many European nations.

One-third of the asylum seekers they interviewed believed that their claim had been rejected because the decision-maker did not believe that they were gay.

They also found that around 40% of asylum seekers had to wait over six months for their main interview, to decide if their application was rejected or not.

LGBTQ+ Afghans do not have that much time.

So, are the UK Government taking the action that is needed? Seemingly not. In Wednesday’s House of Commons debate, LGBTQ+ people were only mentioned four times and none of these references were backed up by any concrete plans to evacuate them. Boris Johnson made no mention of LGBTQ+ Afghans.

I fear that too many vulnerable citizens – women, children, LGBTQ+ people – will be deserted, any chance of living a safe and open life broken by the Taliban’s encroachment and western policy failures.

Whether it’s persecution by the Taliban, criminalisation by the state or rejection by western countries, LGBTQ+ people are consistently being ignored, rejected and left on the margins.

Nemat tells me that he hopes to rescue at least 1000 LGBT Afghans before the US and allied forces cease their evacuation efforts.

But should it require NGOs and individual campaigners like Nemat, either underfunded or not paid at all, to save the lives of Afghanistan’s forgotten people?

I’m sure most of us think the answer is no, but evidently not the Home Office. Let’s make sure they realise this error before time runs out.

Billy Stockwell is the Investigations Editor at Epigram, the University of Bristol’s Student Newspaper. He also writes for both local and national media, focusing on environmental issues, climate justice and LGBTQ+ rights. Follow him on Twitter @StockwellBilly.