When Sohil finally fled Afghanistan, it had been months since the Taliban seized power.
From the moment Kabul fell, Sohil was a target – his western clothes set him apart from other Afghan men. Since August 2021, he has been burned and beaten by Taliban members, and later abducted and interrogated.
Like so many others, he applied for asylum in a western country, but he still hasn’t been given a final decision.
In a state of panic, he used all his money to get to Pakistan. He packed up his belongings and fled across the border – but LGBTQ+ people still can’t be free there, and he knows his time is running out. Soon, his four-month visa will expire. If he hasn’t received a decision on his asylum application, he will have to return to Afghanistan once more.
“I don’t want to go back into that hell. It’s better to die here, not there,” he tells PinkNews.
Sohil is just one of the many millions of asylum seekers across the world who have had to flee their homes in search of safety and security. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the number of forcibly displaced people reached 100 million for the first time ever in May following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Sohil was burned by a member of the Taliban. (Provided)
On 20 June, the United Nations marks World Refugee Day, an annual event that celebrates and honours asylum seekers across the world. It’s also a chance for human rights defenders to put the focus firmly back on the plight of refugees at a time in which empathy for those fleeing conflict seems to be at an all-time low. In the UK, the Home Office has started deporting refugees who arrive via the English Channel to Rwanda. Activists have condemned the plan, saying it will put refugees in danger.
The UK isn’t alone. Numerous other western governments are increasingly hostile to refugees. That’s why PinkNews launched the LGBTQ+ Refugees Welcome campaign, which is raising vital funds for OutRight International’s LGBTIQ Ukraine Emergency Fund and Micro Rainbow, a charity that works to create safe homes in the UK for refugees from Ukraine, Afghanistan and beyond.
As the months have rolled by, the crisis facing LGBTQ+ Afghans has slowly fallen off the radar. Most people appear to have moved on, but queer people in Afghanistan are still desperately trying to flee the country. Since the Taliban seized power, there have been reports of queer people being abducted, violently beaten, raped, and even murdered.
Sohil was arrested, beaten and interrogated by the Taliban
For months, Sohil lived a life of secrecy in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. After he was assaulted and burned by a Taliban member, he retreated to a friend’s basement and kept to himself in a bid to stay safe.
But in the end, he missed his family too much.
“They were always worrying about me. They knew I was burned. My mom called me one day and said she wanted to meet me. I waited until it got dark and I went to [their] house. I was there with my family for a few hours. I wanted to go back to my friend’s basement – when I went out, suddenly there was the Taliban in front of the house waiting for me. When I got out, they beat me and handcuffed me and took me prisoner. They brought me somewhere, I don’t know where. They kept me in jail and asked me, who are you? What are you doing?”
He believes his family’s neighbours might have turned him into the Taliban and told them about his LGBTQ+ activism.
“I was three days a prisoner in a dark room. They beat me a lot. They took my phone.”
Sohil was interrogated about his activism, and about his links with international advocacy groups, but he denied everything.
A Taliban fighter stands guard near a damaged car after multiple rockets were fired in Kabul on August 30, 2021. (WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty)
“After three days, they didn’t find anything against me,” he says. They let him go, but he quickly sank into depression as a result of the trauma he had experienced.
“I was scared to see people. I was scared to walk in the city. It was so hard for me,” he says.
Sohil spent the following months desperately trying to get a passport and a visa, but it cost him all the money he had. Activists abroad helped him by sending him funds, and eventually, he was able to get the money together to get out of Afghanistan.
He’s now in Pakistan and gradually, things are starting to improve. He now feels more comfortable going out than he did, but he still feels a bolt of fear every time he sees a man with a long beard – they remind him of the Taliban figures who brutalised him.
I just need a visa. I don’t want to stay in Pakistan anymore, it’s the same as Afghanistan.
Things might be better in Pakistan, but many of the issues that were there in Afghanistan still persist. Same-sex sexual relations are criminalised in Pakistan and LGBTQ+ people cannot live openly or freely. Because of this, Sohil is still desperate to get to a country where he can be himself without fear of persecution.
“I just need a visa. I don’t want to stay in Pakistan anymore, it’s the same as Afghanistan,” he says.
LGBTQ+ Afghans need help
Sohil is one of more than 1,000 LGBTQ+ Afghans Nemat Sadat has been working with ever since the Taliban seized power in August 2021. Nemat has kept close contact with many LGBTQ+ people who are desperately trying to get to safety, and he’s been working with a number of advocacy groups to make sure he can save as many lives as possible.
“Over the last couple of months, I’ve noticed that there’s been a significant uptick in violence, torture and killings of LGBTQ+ people [in Afghanistan],” Nemat says.
He believes the Taliban ramped up its persecution of LGBTQ+ people after reports started emerging about the plight of the community following the extremist group’s take-over in August 2021.
“They collectively started punishing LGBT people to stop them from talking,” he explains.
Nemat Sadat. (Provided)
Tragically, people like Sohil who flee to neighbouring countries are still not safe. Nemat knows a trans person who fled to Iran – they were sleeping in a park when they were violently beaten by a mob who asked them invasive questions about their gender.
Even worse is that there seems to be little international will to help LGBTQ+ Afghans.
“The magnitude of violence they’re facing is horrific, and there’s just no support. It’s terrible what’s happening,” Nemat says.
“I was in touch with LGBT Ireland, which is a phenomenal organisation, and they were telling me that hundreds of LGBT Ukrainians have been resettled to Ireland. But I’ve been waiting for people on my list to be evacuated – first they told me, last fall, we’re going to get your people out, then we went into winter, and then the first quarter of this year, and they said, only six people. So there’s racism here. I’ve had this problem with every single western government, it’s not just about pointing the finger at Ireland.”
There are of course individual people who want to help, but we need something on a massive scale here.
The problem is that LGBTQ+ Afghans are not simply living their lives in secrecy, they’re facing appalling brutality from the Taliban on a daily basis. In recent weeks, PinkNews has heard horror stories from LGBTQ+ Afghans. Some have friends who have been gang-raped by the Taliban because of their LGBTQ+ identity. Stories of abductions and killings are becoming increasingly common.
In the background, Nemat feels like he’s stuck in a tug-of-war. LGBTQ+ people in western countries appear to be largely disinterested in helping queer Afghans get to safety, but they’re happy to help others who are fleeing persecution.
“There are of course individual people who want to help, but we need something on a massive scale here.”
LGBTQ+ asylum seekers need your help. Please consider donating to PinkNews‘ LGBTQ+ Refugees Welcome campaign through GoFundMe, which benefits OutRight Action International’s LGBTIQ Ukraine Emergency Fund and Micro Rainbow.