It’s been nearly two years since the UK government pledged to evacuate Afghan nationals who aided British forces and those most at risk of persecution following the Taliban’s invasion of Kabul.
But while the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme has relocated more than 24,000 refugees since the rise of the Taliban in August 2021, many of the most vulnerable, including thousands of LGBTQ+ Afghans, have been left behind.
Last year, Freedom of Information figures obtained from the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) by Metro.co.uk revealed just 97 LGBTQ+ Afghans had been relocated to the UK, out of the 21,450 refugees already resettled.
For Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat’s spokesperson for foreign affairs and international development, the UK must ramp up its efforts.
‘The government doesn’t seem to want to talk about this, but there are minorities in Afghanistan who are actively persecuted by the Taliban and the LGBTQ+ community is one of the worst affected,’ she tells Metro.co.uk.’ I would urge the government to make good on its basic promises to evacuate those most at risk.’
While increased Taliban brutality has forced much of Afghanistan’s LGBTQ+ population underground, there’s no doubt the current situation has also brought them together, with friendships blossoming out of a desperate bid to survive.
Thankfully, with the help of Roshaniya, a non-profit organisation that helps persecuted LGBTQ+ Afghans escape, 205 people have been rescued and are slowly rebuilding their lives in the West – but this doesn’t stop them from fearing the welfare of those left behind.
‘LGBTQ+ Afghans are more emboldened and united than ever to resist the Taliban,’ Nemat Sadat, Executive Director of Royshaniya tells Metro.co.uk. ‘When you see death on the horizon and realise that you have nothing to lose, it makes sense to unite.’
To give an insight into how life has changed for those who managed to escape and the strength of Afghanistan’s sexual minorities who still live in the shadow of Taliban persecution, Metro.co.uk spoke to five LGBTQ+ Afghans.
‘We can’t rest until we’re all saved’
Ozlam, 25, is a trans woman who managed to escape and is now safely residing in Canada.
‘The first year of Taliban occupation was unbearable. Even going outside for short periods was dangerous and I had to make a lot of changes to my appearance to hide my gender identity, including dressing up and wearing a waistcoat to hide my physique.
My fiancé and I knew we weren’t safe and paid a lot of money to get a visa and fake documents from a private hospital that said I had cancer. We managed to escape across the border into Pakistan, and eventually made our way to a safehouse organised by Roshaniya. I know without going to these lengths, we wouldn’t have been able to escape.
Although life in Paksitan was slightly better for us and I could wear the clothes I wanted, the country was still anti-LGBTQ+, and had connections to the Taliban. I couldn’t risk being public with the fact I’m trans.
Luckily, I’ve since made it to Canada. Life is much better here and I can at last begin studying. However, I’ve also discovered that my mother and friends of mine had died, and I don’t know why. This loss reminds me of the constant danger in Afghanistan. We can’t rest until we’re all saved from the Taliban, because so many are alone.’
I’m devastated by my mother’s loss – it was her wish for me to leave Afghanistan – but I feel some closure. She came to me in a dream one night and told me she was happy I’d escaped and that I must continue pursuing my dreams. After that night, I regained my senses and I’m now trying to live my life.’
‘I feel guilty I couldn’t rescue everyone’
Escaping Kabul by travelling halfway across the globe, Abdul, a 34-year-old bisexual man, is now rebuilding his life in the US.
‘I walked for almost one day from my hometown to the border to escape the Taliban, but police captured and interrogated me before returning me to Afghanistan. I considered going to to the airport and see if I could find a flight, but a friend of mine was killed in a suicide attack outside. I couldn’t risk my safety.
As the months passed, I felt completely lost. All that I’d experienced in the past decade; democracy, culture and freedom had been lost in one night. From my professional career as a pharmacist to my personal life, the Taliban had taken everything.
I hid in a relative’s house to avoid detection, however, the Taliban eventually caught up with me and took me to a torture house. They tied me up, called me names and threw hot water all over my body. It was only when a village elder bribed the soldiers who had attacked me that I was released.
I was lucky. I discovered after making it to Iran that my brother had been killed while I was in captivity, and that they also tortured my uncle for 28 days simply because of his relation to me – I couldn’t believe the Taliban’s brutality against innocent members of my family.
Before leaving for Iran, I deleted all my phone contacts and disguised myself in more traditional clothing. I spent another day walking through the mountains to reach the border and I only managed to flee because my family and I bought visas for $3,000 dollars each.
When I reached the safehouse in Iran I began working 18-hour shifts so that I could afford another visa and plane tickets to start my journey to Brazil, then onto California after months of travelling. There, I finally felt hope for the first time.
Even so, I’m currently homeless and immigration officers force me to wear a GPS tag on my ankle which is painful. Although I’m safe, I can’t help but feel guilty that I could not bring the rest of Afghanistan’s LGBTQ+ people with me.
For now, I’m helping those still there to learn English via Zoom and WhatsApp so that they are equipped when it comes to trying to escape. It’s a good feeling to know I can give something back.
Everyone still trapped and persecuted by the Taliban deserves a better life in a safer place.’
‘We will never forget who we are’
Tariq, is a 24-year-old trans woman who is forced to hide away within her family home in Kabul for fear of being detected.
‘Even though I’m trapped, I can’t just stand by and do nothing. Many of my community in the province are young and innocent – they need as much support as I do. So, I’ve started to learn the behaviours of Taliban soldiers and teach others in the community how to avoid being detected until they could be evacuated.
It doesn’t help that I also have to hide my identity from my family who don’t know I’m trans. They hate LGBTQ+ people and would throw me out if they found out. I’m unable to work because I’d be asked about my sexuality, so I have to rely on them for money.
I’ve ended up changing my appearance – I’ve grown a beard and wear traditional clothes and have become unrecognisable to reduce my risk of being caught.
It’s hard for us to embrace who we are now that the Taliban are in power. They have spies everywhere; in the street, in the mosque, in schools and restaurants. If we don’t dress traditionally, they will arrest us. They’re trying to force us to become like them.
But we are human with our own identity and if we start to hide our behaviours we’ll just become someone who acts like a robot with no heart or no soul. That is no life for our community. When I’m forced to hide my identity it’s though I’m a walking corpse – I don’t feel alive.
Some of my friends have been arrested by the Taliban and I know that if I continue to go outside I will be captured if not killed for my activities, especially as soldiers are hunting us down.
I believe that we can all be saved from this situation and it’s important not to lose our confidence. It’s hard to feel hopeful, but we have the right to live as ourselves.’
‘We have the right to choose who we love’
Nilofar, 27, is among a growing number of LGBTQ+ individuals forced to give up their employment for fear their sexuality will be revealed and reported.
‘Before the Taliban, I was working as a woman’s hairdresser in the busy town square, and would often go out to meet friends. Now I don’t speak to anyone in case my location is exposed.
Although I live with my family, they do not know that I’m a lesbian and would reject me if they found out. Life for LGBTQ+ people was difficult even before the Taliban, but now it’s a matter of life and death.
I try not to hide my sexual orientation by making sure I cover my face if I ever have to go outside, but it’s becoming more and more challenging as I’m worried our house will be searched without warning.
Soldiers come without any legal order and search the houses of anyone they suspect is LGBTQ+. They’ll climb over the wall to look and enter without permission. I fear one day this could happen to me, so I try to take shelter in neighbouring locations to avoid being spotted.
I have to escape Afghanistan before the Taliban discover my sexuality and stone me to death, but I feel completely trapped. Like my community, there is no way to save myself and as a girl I don’t even have the right to study or work.
I cannot show my activities and fight for our because if the Taliban found out, they would certainly kill me. We have the right to choose who we love and to be accepted without persecution, but this is becoming harder.’
‘I fear for my friends still trapped’
Qadamshah, 34, is a former spy for Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security residing in Iran.
‘As soon as allied forces withdrew and the Taliban made their way into Kabul, I knew I would need protection because of my status as a spy. The fact I’m also a gay man added another layer of risk, so I had to escape.
I went to the airport five times and tried accessing flights to Canada, the UK and US, but was turned away by soldiers. I even pleaded with troops at the gate of the British embassy, but I was still denied entry.
It was this that made me realise just how much danger I was in. Soon after the invasion I lost my job, freedom and I no longer have an income to purchase items such as clothes. I’d worked as a spy for the former Afghan government for 10 years. Now, instead of being able to work, I have to rely on my family who aren’t aware of my sexuality. If they knew I was gay, they would have thrown me out.
Having witnessed the extent of the Taliban’s brutality during a surveillance operation in Ghazni, I knew that if they captured me I would be killed.
They used explosives as part of what my bosses described as the fiercest attack launched by the group. I remember feeling so scared and fearful of what would happen to me if they captured me and realised I was gay.
Still, I was desperate to fight for the rights of my community and eventually discovered Roshaniya on social media. With the help of Nemat Sadat, I decided to organise a protest which we held in January this year.
I had contacts with other protestors beforehand and as we all shared the view that western nations needed to recognise our suffering, we organised placards and printed signs with the slogans #LetUsLive and #WeAreAfghanLGBTQ to help us spread our message.
We took a huge risk organising a protest of this size in Kabul, especially as the Taliban had ramped up the number of houses they were searching, but we felt we had no other option.
Thanks to Roshaniya, we were able to plan our evacuation before the protest to ensure we had everything we needed. They raised money on our behalf and transferred it so I could buy plane tickets and visas ready for when we travelled to Kabul airport.
Even though we’d managed to complete the protest without being detected, we still worried about checks at the airport – our lives depended on being able to make it past the security checkpoints to get to the plane that would take us to our safe house.
Thankfully, my LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters made it with me to Iran where some have managed to escape to other countries away from the threat of the Taliban. Unfortunately, due to complications with my visa, I have to stay here.
I’m both optimistic and worried about the future – I hope that I will one day be evacuated to a safe western country along with my LGBTQ+ family. But, it saddens me that my friends are still trapped in Afghanistan. The community is my family and I cannot rest until everyone is safe.’
A FCDO spokesperson says:
‘The UK is committed to upholding LGBT+ rights in the UK and internationally, and was one of the first countries to facilitate a safe relocation route for a specific group of at-risk LGBT+ Afghans after the fall of Kabul. Many are in the UK, while some have been relocated to other safe countries.
‘We are continuing to work hard to resettle people from Afghanistan and to date the UK has brought around 24,500 eligible people to safety, including Afghans identified as particularly at risk such as campaigners for women’s rights, human rights defenders, Chevening scholars, journalists, judges and members of the LGBT+ community.’
Visit Roshaniya’s fundraising page for more information on the heroic efforts being made to evacuate LGBTQ+ Afghans still trapped in the country.