Shortly after the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August 2021, the Canadian government announced its intention to resettle 40000 Afghans as quickly as possible. This promise was made at the United Nations General Assembly in recognition that Canadians were “overwhelmingly” calling on the government to do more. The intent of the Special Program for Afghans was to offer resettlement space to those who remained especially vulnerable to abuse and violence at the hands of the Taliban, including lesbian, homosexual, bisexual, and transgender people (LGBTQ+).
In July 2022, the CBC reported that the program was closing down without having met its target – only 18000 applications will have been processed. When pressed, the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship’s office reportedly said only that other avenues remain available for Afghans seeking safety. Among those in jeopardy are LGBTQ+ Afghans.
The Canadian NGO Rainbow Railroad – the only international LGBTQ+ group on the ground in Afghanistan – has expressed deep worries about the likely future of LGBTQ+ Afghans. There are widespread reports that names of suspected LGBTQ+ people are being circulated. LGBTQ+ Afghans describe how neighbours reported them to the Taliban to curry favour. According to one trans woman interviewed by the Guardian, the return of the Taliban has empowered vigilantes, homophones and others nurturing long-term feuds to report LGBTQ+ people or to act with impunity. In her case, her family threw her out of the home after the takeover. Since then, she has been attacked, raped, imprisoned and beaten by the Taliban. Lesbian women, in particular, face the risk of being targeted by their families, subjected to violence, or forced into marriage if discovered.
LGBTQ+ people were in danger in Afghanistan even before the Taliban retook Kabul in 2021. Homosexuality has been prohibited in Afghanistan under the penal code since 1976 when the act of ‘pederasty,’ which encompassed same-sex intimacy, was punishable with ‘long imprisonment.’ On 14 February 2018, a law passed by the government of President Ashraf Ghani came into force explicitly criminalizing same-sex sexual relations. This law – Penal Code 2018, and in particular Article 646 – criminalizes acts of ‘sodomy,’ ‘inciting sodomy’, and other forms of intimacy, punishable by up to two years in prison.
The result is obvious: for years, LGBTQ+ Afghans have experienced danger to their lives and safety. They have been subjected to a variety of legally and socially sanctioned mistreatment as a result of their gender identity, including sexual assault, child and forced marriages, physical abuse, and expulsion from schools and work. Many have had to hide their identities from the public as well as from their families, friends, and colleagues.
Still, for many, this may have seemed to be a bearable situation. As Afghanistan is a signatory to important international human rights treaties, including the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the prior government had legal obligations to uphold and defend the rights of all citizens, including LGBTQ+ individuals. Indeed, the United Nations Human Rights Committee has specifically concluded that sexual orientation is a protected class and that discrimination against LGBTQ+ people on the basis of their sexual identity is a violation of their human rights.
So, while the Afghan penal code from 1976 until 2018 criminalized both same-sex relations, as we wrote above, there had been cause for hope as the United Nations, international human rights organizations, and civil society advocated for harmonizing the 2018 penal code with more progressive international standards. Even so, ongoing discrimination and violence against LGBTQ+ persons undercut the rights allegedly protected by these international documents, causing these organizations to recommend that LGBTQ+ Afghans remain in the shadows, observing that violent public backlash against them remained a significant threat.
Just after its takeover, the Taliban reaffirmed the previous government’s criminalization of same-sex relations. A Taliban judge told the German tabloid Bild, “For homosexuals, there can only be two punishments: either stoning or he must stand behind a wall that will fall down on him.” A manual issued by the Taliban Ministry of Vice and Virtue in 2021 states that religious leaders shall prohibit same-sex relations and that “strong allegations” of homosexuality shall be referred to the ministry’s district manager for adjudication and punishment.
Those who hide their sexuality in a bid to evade violence face daily horrors as they suffer extreme stress and anxiety due to the risk of being exposed by members of the public. A gay man living in western Afghanistan stated: “The [Taliban] have taken our rights to live. We can’t dare to leave our house. We are just waiting for our death.” For lesbian and bisexual women, escaping the Taliban is particularly difficult because the Taliban prohibits women from travelling without male relatives. Even escape to neighbouring countries like Pakistan provides little relief since homosexuality is also criminalized.
These deteriorating conditions make the government’s decision to end the Special Program for Afghans all the more confounding. Only a small percentage of the LGBTQ+ Afghans who have fled Afghanistan have found safety. According to organizations that offer support to LGBTQ+ individuals inside of Afghanistan, thousands of people have been in touch seeking urgent evacuation. Despite this need, Canada had chosen to close its Special Program for Afghans before its target was reached; many of those who submitted applications have heard nothing.
The government made repeated promises to resettle 40000 Afghans. Just in June 2022, at the start of Pride Month, the government reiterated the promise and invoked Canada’s proud history of protecting and helping resettle the world’s most vulnerable groups. To turn around a month later and withdraw this protection brings this proud history into question. Now is not the time for Canada to break its promises to the Afghan people and the international community. Now is the time for Canada to widen its doors to Afghans – particularly LGBTQ+ Afghans fleeing their country in search of safety.