“Even If You Go to the Skies, We’ll Find You”
Afghanistan was a dangerous place for LGBT people well before the Taliban recaptured Kabul in 2021. In 2018, the government of President Ashraf Ghani passed a law that explicitly criminalized same-sex sexual relations, and the previous penal code included vague language widely interpreted as making same-sex relations a criminal offense. LGBT people interviewed had experienced many abuses because of their sexual orientation or gender identity prior to the Taliban’s return to power, including sexual violence, child and forced marriage, physical violence from their families and others, expulsion from schools, blackmail, and being outed. Many were forced to conceal key aspects of their identity from society and from family, friends, and colleagues. However, when the Taliban, which had been in power from 1996 to late 2001, regained control of the country in August 2021, the situation dramatically worsened.
The Taliban have echoed the previous government’s support for the criminalization of same-sex relations, with some of their leaders vowing to take a hard line against the rights of LGBT people. A Taliban spokesperson told Reuters in October, “LGBT... That's against our Sharia [Islamic] law.” A Taliban judge told the German tabloid Bild shortly before the fall of Kabul, “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’s Ministry of Vice and Virtue in 2020 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.
Despite making repeated pledges to respect human rights, the Taliban have engaged in widespread rights abuses since retaking control of the country, including revenge killings, systematic discrimination against women and girls, severe restrictions on freedom of expression and the media, and land grabbing. The danger now facing LGBT people in Afghanistan—in an environment devoid of legal protections, under authorities that have explicitly pledged not to tolerate LGBT people—is grave.
Most interviewees believed their only path to safety was to relocate to a country with greater protections for the rights of LGBT people, but so far very few LGBT Afghans escaping Afghanistan are known to have reached a safe country. Only the United Kingdom has publicly announced thus far that it has resettled a small number of LGBT Afghans. Organizations assisting LGBT Afghans say they have been contacted by hundreds of individuals seeking resettlement. Even if the option to resettle internationally were more widely available, LGBT people in Afghanistan face unique barriers to relocation. Gender nonconforming individuals said they were afraid to go to the country’s passport office or even pass through routine checkpoints on public roads for fear of being spotted by Taliban officials. The Taliban prohibits women from traveling without male relatives, so lesbians and bisexual women cannot escape on their own. Many LGBT Afghans have conformed to social expectations that they marry a different-sex partner and have children, and they do not want to abandon or uproot their families.
Those who have fled to nearby countries remain in a tenuous situation. Most of the countries with which Afghanistan shares major borders, including Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, also criminalize same-sex relations, as do some other countries in the region; in Iran same-sex sexual acts can be punished by death. Most interviewees in nearby countries are on expired or short-term visas or arrived without visas, have no realistic prospect of extending their stays legally, and cannot settle permanently where they are.
The evacuation of people at extreme risk in Afghanistan is nowhere near over. All governments have an obligation to promptly and fairly process asylum claims, including those from LGBT Afghans who fear persecution under the Taliban. Whether LGBT people are seeking to flee directly from Afghanistan or from a nearby country, nations supporting the human rights of LGBT people should create safe and legal pathways for entry and assist in resettlement. Nations that sent military forces to Afghanistan over the last 20 years have a particular responsibility to prevent people who face the risk of persecution from becoming stranded.
But evacuation will not be an option for most LGBT Afghans: it is challenging for Afghans who face persecution on any grounds to obtain the documentation and financial resources needed to leave the country, and LGBT people face additional barriers. For those who cannot or choose not to leave the country, it is urgent that their rights be protected within Afghanistan. The Taliban should end abuses against LGBT people and revise laws and regulations to ensure their equal rights. United Nations bodies and concerned governments should use whatever diplomatic leverage they have with the Taliban to do so. Social media platforms should urgently assist LGBT Afghans who are being targeted via their platforms. International donors and aid agencies should make delivering services that assist and protect LGBT people a priority, even when Taliban abuses complicate doing so.