The Canadian government, working with a Toronto-based nonprofit, has quietly allowed gay men and lesbians from the Chechnya Republic in Russia to seek safety in Canada over the past three months.
The program, first made public by the nonprofit, the Rainbow Railroad, on Facebook on Friday, was prompted by an antigay purge in Chechnya that started earlier this year, when law enforcement and security officials arrested gay and bisexual men and beat and tortured them.
The executive director of Rainbow Railroad, Kimahli Powell, said his organization had joined with the Canadian government to create a program to expedite the safe passage to Canada of 22 gay men and lesbians. They have been deemed government-assisted refugees.
The first among them arrived from a safe house in Russia in June. Another nine are expected to arrive in the coming week, and the program is ongoing, with more expected to arrive.
“The vast majority of the people we’ve helped are men,” Mr. Powell said. “It’s harder for women to escape Chechnya.”
He said Canada’s response to the Chechen crisis showed that its government was serious about its commitment to gay rights internationally. “We hope that, in demonstrating Canada can do something, other countries take the lead as well,” he said.
While the government refused to speak publicly about the program, a source in the government with knowledge of it confirmed its existence and the number of Chechens who have been granted asylum so far.
The program is another example of Canada increasingly positioning itself as global champion of human rights and a welcoming place for refugees, in a world that is increasingly shutting its doors.
In May, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau openly denounced the “reprehensible reports of violations of the human rights of gay and bisexual men in Chechnya.”
“We call for the protection of all people in Chechnya whose sexual orientation makes them a target for persecution,” he said.
But unlike when Mr. Trudeau decided decision to greet Syrian refugees at the Toronto airport in front of television cameras and to march in various Gay Pride Parades across the country, his office has remained tight-lipped about the Chechen program, perhaps because of the diplomatic ramifications.
Before running for Parliament, Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, was a journalist who spent time in Moscow and covered the war in Chechnya war. In 2014, the Russian government banned her from entering the country.
“Canada appears to be the only country that has done this on a such a massive scale,” Tanya Lokshina, the Russia program director for Human Rights Watch, said over the phone from Moscow, referring to the asylum program. “It’s certainly exceptional. Canada clearly has done the right thing here. Every extra day they stay in this country is an extra day of dire risk.”
Beginning in February, militia and government forces in Chechnya rounded up more than 100 people perceived to be gay or bisexual and tortured them in unofficial detention centers in the capital of Grozny and nearby Argun. At least three died, according to Human Rights Watch.
The Chechnyan government has repeatedly denied that the pogrom happened. In July, the Chechnyan leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, said in an HBO interview that gay people did not exist in his country. “If there are, take them to Canada,” he said. “To purify our blood if there are any here, take them.”
Ms. Lokshina participated on a panel in April in Arizona discussing human rights in Russia. Also on the panel was Ms. Freeland. Ms. Lokshina said she used the chance meeting as an opportunity to press sanctuary for the Chechen men, many of whom had escaped to Russian safe houses.
“She was very open, she wanted it to happen,” Ms. Lokshina said about the foreign minister. “It was great synergy.”
Around the same time, Mr. Powell announced that Rainbow Railroad, which he said helped 81 people escape persecution in their home countries for being gay in 2016, would focus its energies on secreting gay people out of Chechnya to safety, and he called on the Canadian government to issue emergency visas to them.
He said he hoped the emergency program would mark a long-term change in Canada, smoothing the emergency entrance for other people facing sexual and gender persecution. Traditionally, he said, few of the people helped by the Rainbow Railroad settle in Canada, because of difficulty getting visas long waiting lists with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees
While the purge stopped in April, gay men and women remain at risk in the traditional, conservative Muslim republic, Ms. Lokshina said.
“Homophobia is very rampant and it’s been inflamed,” she said. “These days, people are on the look out for gays,” she said.
Source: NY Times