Kimahli Powell (he/him) is the Executive Director of Rainbow Railroad and the Chair of Dignity Network. Rainbow Railroad is a global not-for-profit organization that supports LGTBQI+ people facing persecution based on their sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics. Since their founding, the organization has helped over 3,100 LGBTQI+ individuals find safety through emergency relocation and other forms of assistance.
LGBTQI+ individuals immediately face vulnerabilities in the wake of conflicts and consistently fall through the gaps in conflict responses. In Afghanistan, the situation for LGBTQI+ individuals is life threatening, and has dramatically worsened after the Taliban offensive in August 2021. Reports have emerged of the precarity under which LGBTQI+ people are now living in the nation, with many afraid to reveal their sexual orientation to anyone, fearing being found by the Taliban. Significantly, while the Taliban has made verbal overtures (and albeit failed promises) to protect women’s rights, they have made zero mention of protecting the rights of LGBTQI+ people. Afghanistan’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs was also shut down, increasing the state of precarity for queer women who have lost nearly all of their protections, especially from gendered violence.
LGBTQI+ Afghans have experienced the additional barrier of the world’s response to one crisis over another, especially as global attention shifted after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As humanitarian measures prioritized the safe evacuation of Ukrainian nationals, queer Afghans who had, months earlier, fled to Ukraine from Afghanistan, were excluded from receiving immediate support. “There are refugees in Ukraine who are mostly people of colour who did not have the same access to resettlement,” said Powell in an article for The Globe & Mail this April. “Do they not have the right to refuge?”
Over 70 countries worldwide still criminalize same-sex intimacy. In 11 of them, LGBTQI+ people can be put to death. They are uniquely vulnerable due to systemic, state-enabled homophobia and transphobia, and those factors can either displace them in their own country or prevent them from escaping harm.
Afghanistan is one of these places, and when the Taliban captured Kabul on August 15, 2021, the situation rapidly deteriorated. Since then, over 3,300 LGBTQI+ Afghans have reached out to Rainbow Railroad for help.
Amina is a young, lesbian human rights defender. Despite facing bullying and discrimination throughout her teenage years, Amina was committed to helping other LGBTQI+ people find support and safety both as she went through university and beyond. When Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, Amina and people like her faced persecution, violence, and extreme danger. Amina tells a story of her and her friends being called devils, threatened with murder, and being forced to run and hide – changing addresses, and covertly travelling from safehouse to safehouse on an almost daily basis. The LGBTQI+ activist networks she was a part of completely disappeared. With Rainbow Railroad’s support, Amina managed to escape – but for so many others, this is not the case.
LGBTQI+ Afghans simply do not have the luxury of waiting out timely refugee and asylum application processes. Some have fled to neighbouring countries that also criminalize same-sex intimacy, and their lives remain at risk.
Right now, Rainbow Railroad is in contact with 300 LGBTQI+ Afghans who are ready for imminent travel and resettlement in a safer country. But they’re stuck, and urgently waiting to secure a way out.
This January, in collaboration with Outright Action International and Human Rights Watch, we released the report, ‘LGBTI People in Afghanistan After the Taliban Takeover‘, describing the violence and persecution LGBTQI+ Afghans have faced, including beatings, surveillance, having their identification documents burned, having their families threatened with violence, and being imprisoned for their identities. I have personally been to the region twice and witnessed firsthand the state of trauma of those who managed to flee. LGBTQI+ Afghans simply do not have the luxury of waiting out timely refugee and asylum application processes. Some have fled to neighbouring countries that also criminalize same-sex intimacy, and their lives remain at risk.
In precarious situations like this, civil society organizations have the expertise and knowledge that many governments lack, and such organizations need to be empowered to deliver on their capabilities.
In precarious situations like this, civil society organizations have the expertise and knowledge that many governments lack, and such organizations need to be empowered to deliver on their capabilities. Rainbow Railroad operates through global partnership networks that provide ongoing monitoring in crisis-prone environments and create pathways to safety when they occur. Presently, we are monitoring anti-LGBTQI+ persecution in many countries — from LGBTQI+ persons in Ukraine to human rights defenders who are being actively targeted in Chad.
This year, Rainbow Railroad will receive 10,000 requests for help from LGBTQI+ people all over the world, and the only way to reach them is through government action and partnership. As a Canadian organization, we strongly believe there is an opportunity to partner directly with the Canadian government to provide more international pathways to safety.
To reach the most vulnerable populations in Afghanistan, including women leaders, human rights defenders, journalists, persecuted religious minorities, family members of previously resettled interpreters, and LGBTQI+ persons, the Canadian Government is hoping to rely on Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) slots. But this is a long, slow process, and waiting for this option can be a literal death sentence for people hiding in countries where their very existence is a crime. Luckily, there is another option, and Government Assisted Refugee (GAR) spots can meet the time-sensitive needs of those most critically impacted by this crisis.
In May, Rainbow Railroad launched a petition calling on the Canadian government to work with us to urgently evacuate and resettle 300 LGBTQI+ Afghans. We are asking for the public’s support in this effort; Rainbow Railroad stands ready to partner with the Canadian Government to identify, triage, verify, and assist as many LGBTQI+ Afghan refugees as possible.
This Pride Month, I ask you to help us provide LGBTQI+ Afghans with a safe way out. Sign the petition at SafeWayOut.ca.
Kimahli Powell, L.L.D. (Hons)
Executive Director, Rainbow Railroad
Guest Essay Series
The final essay in our Pride and Indigenous History Month series will be posted on June 29, 2022.
To read the other essays in this series:
June 1 | On Intersectionality, Access to Justice, and Walking Between Worlds, by Benjamin Vandorpe, Founder, JusticeTrans.
June 15 | Indigenous Women, Girls and Gender-Diverse People Are Humans With Rights by Lynne Groulx, CEO, Native Women’s Association of Canada.
June 21 | Epimotew Tastawayik Niso Askiya – Walking in Two Worlds by Rachel Wuttunee.
June 21 | Industry, Police, and MMIWG2S in Wet’suwet’en Yintah by Jennifer Wickham.
June 29 | Queer/Muslim/Canadian by Momin Rahman.