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Taliban fighters at checkpoint in Kabul, Afghanistan

Interview: Helping LGBT People Flee Afghanistan

Rainbow Railroad Operates in Secret to Bring People to Safety

Taliban fighters guard a checkpoint in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 2021. © 2021 AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

The human rights and humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan threatens everyone there, but lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, and other sexual and gender minorities, face an acute threat of violence and even death from the Taliban authorities. These people find hope in Rainbow Railroad, a nongovernmental organization that helps LGBT people flee across borders to safety.

Rainbow Railroad provided invaluable support and advice to Human Rights Watch and OutRight Action International for our new report, “Even If You Go to the Skies, We’ll Find You”: LGBT People in Afghanistan After the Taliban Takeover.  Heather Barr, associate women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch, interviewed Kimahli Powell, Rainbow Railroad’s executive director, about how governments can better protect LGBT people during armed conflict and crisis situations.

What does Rainbow Railroad do?

Rainbow Railroad has a mandate to help LGBTQI+ persons facing persecution find pathways to safety. We've been doing this work since 2006. We're based in Canada and the United States, and we have been successful in helping nearly 2,000 people.

How did you find yourself in this line of work?

I've been invested in social justice for most of my career. But my own background gives me an affinity for Rainbow Railroad. Although I'm a cisgendered gay male who was born in Canada, my parents were from Jamaica, a country that criminalizes same-sex intimacy. I both understand the privilege that comes with being born in Canada, as well as the risks that are associated with being in a country that criminalizes same-sex relationships. So that, and a real desire to tackle the challenges that we face globally, is why I really invested in Rainbow Railroad.

When was the moment when you thought, “Oh no, we need to work on Afghanistan…”?

Even though we’ve been around since 2006, we really built up ourselves as an organization over the past six years during my tenure as executive director. Up until that point, we focused on helping individuals at risk on a case-by-case basis. But since then, we’ve become more grounded in our work, expanded our international partnerships and networks, and built our capacity. We have worked on multiple crises in Chechnya, Egypt, and other countries.  

However, up until this point we’ve never dealt with a full-blown geopolitical crisis that was affecting our community. With Afghanistan, we didn't initially really realize we'd be working on this issue so intensely, until governments started to identify the LGBTQI+ community as people of concern. And while it’s a sign of progress that governments did proactively label this community as at-risk, it also put expectations on us to intervene. Since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban last August, requests for help just spiked.

Could you share a story or two about some of the people from Afghanistan that Rainbow Railroad helped?

I always find telling a story challenging because so many stories are… hard. They're hard to listen to, and they really demonstrate the risky situations people are in. We had one individual describe what it was like to run from the Taliban when they took over. This person was identified as LGBTQI+ and went into hiding when the city was taken over, only to find themself under open gunfire because their whereabouts were discovered. This person escaped by running away. That story crystallized for me why this community is particularly vulnerable, and why evacuation was a necessity because of the immediate threat to life.

How does the work on Afghanistan compare to other countries Rainbow Railroad has worked on?

This was a major instance of when the persecution of LGBTQI+ persons intersected with geopolitical issues like conflict. A unique challenge was that governments did not have, and still do not have, diplomatic relations with the Taliban. This meant that civil society had to really take the lead on evacuation efforts and be on the ground and innovative, using approaches we've never done before. There are a couple key lessons from that. I think one is that we recognize now that state-sponsored crackdowns are always going to exist, but as we engage more with conflict, or climate issues, or humanitarian issues, the intersection between those and sexual orientation and gender identity is going to be acute. As an LGBTQI+ organization doing this work, we have unique expertise on this population, in order to be of assistance to those at risk.

How are governments doing at assisting LGBTQI+ Afghans who feel like they have no choice but to flee? Anything you would like them to do differently?

Governments have been slow to act. They don’t have the tools to act quickly. That's been the biggest challenge that we've had: they're not acting fast enough even though they're saying they are committed to supporting Afghans, and particularly LGBTQI+ Afghans. Rainbow Railroad and civil society partners have been on the ground, doing this work in Afghanistan, for nearly six months. For any intervention to be successful during a crisis, governments need to allow us to refer cases for immediate resettlement into those countries.

Rainbow Railroad in particular, before the crisis began, was sounding the alarm. We were saying governments need to have proactive crisis response plans in place with nimble corridors to protect LGBTQI+ persons at risk. We already know from experience that when crackdowns happen, people are displaced immediately and need very quick solutions. Our plea to governments is: Let's not wait for another crisis to occur, let’s think of proactive solutions now. And the thing that gives me hope, that I think governments should appreciate, is that civil society is equipped to be an active partner.

What do you think is going to happen in the next year or two in Afghanistan for LGBTQI+ people?

The Taliban are trying to signal that they’re not going to target women and girls, the LGBTQI+ community, etc. But we already know that won’t be the case. My fear is a humanitarian crisis where even more LGBTQI+ persons will be targets of violence, especially if there are not tools to provide international development assistance to people at risk, to help us build civil society on the ground, and to relocate people. If we don't intervene, we could see much more targeted violence and potentially the deaths of LGBTQI+ persons, which we really want to avoid.

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