OPINION: There’s still time for the United States to do the right thing in Afghanistan for LGBT+ people

by Kimahli Powell | Rainbow Railroad
Tuesday, 23 November 2021 09:15 GMT

FILE PHOTO: An Afghan man hangs Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan flags at a flag printing workshop in Kabul, Afghanistan November 17, 2021. REUTERS/Ali Khara

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Kimahli Powell is executive director of Rainbow Railroad

It has been more than two months since the United States withdrew from Afghanistan, in what was a chaotic bookend to a two decades-long occupation.

This war cost the lives of thousands of Americans and Afghans. And now, the humanitarian crisis in its wake could have an even worse toll on the country and the region. Post-withdrawal, the United States must marshal its resources to stem the crisis of forced displacement that this war, and the Taliban’s resurgence, has exacerbated. 

The number of Afghans who are internally displaced or have fled across land borders to neighbouring countries is truly staggering.

The UNHCR estimates that 3.5 million Afghans have fled their homes but remain within the borders of the country. Since the beginning of this year, this number has surged by at least 550,000. And, 2.6 million Afghans have already fled across borders to neighbouring countries – making it the third-largest refugee crisis in the world after Syria and Venezuela.

Many Afghans are fleeing because there is no future for them in the Taliban’s extremist vision of the country.

Since August, Rainbow Railroad has been receiving disturbing reports confirming some of our worst fears. Taliban soldiers are going door-to-door, identifying LGBT+ people by name, and asking families to ‘give up’ their brothers, sisters and children.

There have been multiple reports of gay men and their families being severely harmed in Afghan towns. And while Afghanistan was not a haven for LGBT+ people during the U.S. occupation, it’s now becoming a terrifying police state in which people suspected of being LGBT+ are hunted down by the authorities.

I fear, as many Afghans do, that this persecution will only worsen and become more widespread in the weeks and months to come. 

In light of these circumstances, millions are uprooting their lives and fleeing across borders, even when neighboring countries try to block their entry. Every day, it’s becoming more and more clear that the humanitarian plight of Afghanistan’s refugees will be with us for years to come and may eventually rival in scope those taking place in Syria and Venezuela.  

The Biden administration must address this growing and urgent crisis of forced displacement of Afghans and move to immediately evacuate and resettle vulnerable refugee populations and ensure that any transitory stay in a third country is temporary by expediting refugee processing.

In February, the administration released a sweeping memorandum outlining its intention to implement comprehensive pro-LGBT+ foreign and refugee policies.

Among the memorandum’s points were commitments to combat the criminalization of LGBT+ people globally, protect LGBT+ asylum-seekers and refugees and take “swift and meaningful United States Responses to Human Rights abuses of LGBT+ persons abroad.”

The administration must now deliver on its promises. 

We cannot afford to wait any longer – I know this because I'm hearing stories of LGBT+ people on the ground every single day.

We wrestle with publicly sharing individuals’ stories because we’re mindful of how these can retraumatize individuals who we help and provoke those who would do harm to LGBT+ people. However, we have a responsibility to sound the alarm when we hear of egregious and systemic human rights abuses. In fact, many of the more than 800 Afghans who have reached out to us since August have asked us to publicize their stories.

I share the following story having considered these factors.

While we were working with someone in the country recently, people entered the house without any sort of uniform and began ransacking the place. During this, they discovered information that made them suspect that the person was part of the LGBT+ community.

Then they took their phone, through which they confirmed the person was a part of the community and proceeded to physically assault and humiliate this individual. Then they found their passport and burned it.

These stories are heartbreaking, but they promise to become even more common. Many people will have no option but to flee.

Will America be there for them?

Related Stories:

First LGBT+ Afghans arrive in Britain since Taliban's return

Kabul diary: A gay Afghan tries to flee the Taliban

LGBT+ Afghans in hiding, fearing death under Taliban