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Refugee charity says it's partnering with feds to resettle 600 LGBTQ2S+ Afghans

A rainbow flag flies at Queen's Park at the annual Pride flag raising ceremony at the official launch of Pride Month in Toronto on Wednesday, June 1, 2016.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/Eduardo Lima A rainbow flag flies at Queen's Park at the annual Pride flag raising ceremony at the official launch of Pride Month in Toronto on Wednesday, June 1, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Eduardo Lima

Rainbow Railroad, a charity that helps LGBTQ2S+ refugees find a safe home, says they are partnering with the Canadian government in order to resettle approximately 600 Afghans.

This comes after months of asking for the feds to work with them to establish a dedicated referral path to help LGBTQ2S+ Afghans who are living in fear of persecution and violence from the Taliban.

The group’s executive director Kimahli Powell told in a phone interview that the partnership is a big step forward.

“This is a clear example that we can work collaboratively to help LGBTQI+ people at risk,” he said.

“We know that there's even more than 600 LGBT Afghans who are immediately at risk. Our numbers are in the thousands. But this is a significant first step that signifies just the need to ensure that LGBTQI+ people at risk are resettled.”

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada wouldn’t confirm the initiative, citing security risks, but says it does facilitate the resettlement of specific vulnerable groups in collaboration with stakeholders, including Rainbow Railroad.

"We continue to explore all avenues and maximize every opportunity to bring Afghans to Canada as quickly and safely as possible," Jeffrey MacDonald, department spokesperson, said in an emailed statement to

Rainbow Railroad’s announcement regarding the 600 refugees comes after the Toronto-based group released a report on Monday detailing some of the horrific conditions that LGBTQ2S+ people have faced in Afghanistan since the Taliban took over in August 2021.

The research report, based on 1,739 requests for help submitted to Rainbow Railroad by Afghans in Afghanistan, describes heightened surveillance, families and former sexual partners turning LGBTQ2S+ people into the Taliban, and LGBTQ2S+ people being beaten in public, raped, detained and even killed for their sexuality or gender identity.

“Individuals are frequently subjected to random searches in their home, on the street, there's a lot of inspection on how people dress, how people are allowed to conduct themselves,” Powell said. “And if there's any suspicion or the realization that a person may be a member of the LGBTQI+ community, they are almost immediately facing persecution, violence.”

Since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, more than 6,000 Afghans have reached out to Rainbow Railroad for aid from within the country or neighbouring nations, according to the group, a far cry from the 50 requests for help they had received from Afghanistan in the year prior to the takeover.

So far, they have been able to facilitate the resettlement of around 230 LGBTQ2S+ Afghan refugees into numerous countries such as the United Kingdom and Ireland, with 143 of these refugees finding a home in Canada.

According to Rainbow Railroad, these numbers mean Canada is one of the most accepting countries in terms of taking in LGBTQ2S+ Afghan refugees.

But considering the scope of the problem, the organization has been pushing for more than a year for the government to allow them to directly refer people for refugee status and aid, as the existing refugee pathways are not accessible to many needing help.

"Canada's humanitarian program focuses on resettling Afghan nationals who don't have a durable solution in a third country, which includes 2SLGBTQI+ individuals," Macdonald said.

But while LGBTQ2S+ Afghans are eligible for refugee status through Canada`s dedicated humanitarian pathway, in order to actually receive it, they need to either be privately sponsored or referred – and only the United Nations Refugee Agency is listed as a specific referral partner on the government`s website. According to Rainbow Railroad, this means many in need have been falling through the cracks.

Powell explained that until this point, the individuals they’ve been able to help get into Canada were facilitated through a partnership between Canada and the United States, with Rainbow Railroad utilizing their connections within the U.S. to get people into Canada.

This new agreement to facilitate the resettlement of 600 refugees marks a shift, according to Powell.

“This is a direct relationship with the Canadian government,” he said.

A parliamentary committee called on the government in June to create a “dedicated pathway” to help LGBTQ2S+ Afghan refugees.

Powell himself participated in that committee in the hopes of garnering a clear commitment.

“My specific intervention was to make the case that because we've been doing the work, because we were on the frontlines of moving some of the first people out of Afghanistan, that we have unique experience and expertise that will help the Canadian government,” he said. “That was really the motivation for my intervention at the select committee. And we were really pleased that two of our major recommendations made it into the report. One was to increase the amount of referring partners to help Afghans at risk, and very specifically, to partner to support 300 LGBTQI+ Afghans to resettle in Canada.”

He noted that this partnership with the government has been in the works for a while.

“This past summer, I brought one of the people that we helped to arrive into Canada [to meet] with the [immigration] minister,” he said.

That refugee, who is now living in Nova Scotia, told in late August that he no longer feared for his life, now that he’s settled in Canada.

“After 26 years, I feel safe,” he said.

When the Taliban took over Afghanistan, Canada pledged to accept at least 20,000 refugees, a number which was soon increased to 40,000.

More than 26,700 Afghan refugees have been resettled in Canada as of Dec. 14.

Those belonging to the LGBTQ2S+ community were highlighted as a priority group of at-risk Afghan refugees by the Canadian government back in 2021, Powell mentioned.

“This partnership allows the Canadian government to really fulfill the promise of that announcement over a year ago,” he said.

“It was not clear that LGBTQI+ people were really going to be represented in the tens of thousands of individuals that are being resettled into Canada. Obviously, there might be some within that number that have not pre-identified as LGBTQI+, but (with this new partnership) we know for sure that they're now getting closer to 1,000 people that will be resettled into Canada as part of Canada's commitment to resettle LGBTQI+ people and that is the most important thing.”

Macdonald noted that the Canadian government had recently increased its capacity for privately sponsored refugees through the Rainbow Refugee Assistance Partnership – established in co-operation with Vancouver- based Rainbow Refugee Society – to provide 150 additional spaces for LGBTQ2S+ Afghan refugees between 2022 and 2024.

“Our goal to bring at least 40,000 Afghan nationals to Canada by the end of 2023 is unwavering and we will continue to work closely with international and domestic partners to see it through,” he stated.

There are still many barriers to helping LGBTQ2S+ refugees escape Afghanistan and make their way to Canada. Sometimes people have to stay in hiding without even being able to leave and get food or basic necessities for weeks at a time, Powell said, “just because they are fearful of what might happen if they're discovered by the Taliban.”

Even if they are able to make it safely to the border to a neighbouring country, from which they may be able to arrange transportation to Canada, many LGBTQ2S+ people have further complications. For instance, trans or gender diverse Afghans may have difficulty crossing borders if their gender presentation doesn’t match their identification.

“The conditions in Afghanistan make it difficult for individuals to flee,” Powell said. “And neighbouring countries also criminalize same-sex intimacy, which means even if people are able to flee, they're not necessarily safe. This is the reality for people on the ground, which is why we will continue to work as hard as we can to help as many people as possible.”

The ability to resettle 600 individuals that they have already identified in urgent need of help is a positive sign, one that Powell hopes could signal further commitments down the line.

“Our ultimate goal is the creation of a refugee stream, similar to the human rights defenders stream, that will allow us to identify people from multiple communities [and refer them] to be able to resettle into Canada,” he said. “That's ultimately a key goal of ours. And this is a great first step in that direction.” Top Stories

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