Government reveals secret program in place since April
By Alyssa Parking, Contributor
Canada is currently in the midst of welcoming some 30 Russian refugees suffering from hate crimes thrust upon them by the Chechen Republic. Chechnya, a predominately Muslim state in south Russia, is home to 1.39 million people.
In February and April of 2017 authorities in Chechnya, Russia began ‘rounding up’ suspected homosexual men from their homes and workplaces, taking them to their local police station, interrogating and torturing them based on their sexual orientation. Once arriving at the police station, survivors report being kicked and beaten while interrogated for information about other homosexual men. The total number of people affected is not known, however a total of 75 people have called a hotline the Russian LGBT Network has set up, including 52 people who report being detained and tortured. A man who spoke to the Globe and Mail under the pseudonym Hamzat, recounted his experience being detained at work, handcuffed, thrown into the trunk of a car and taken to police headquarters. He recalls being beaten, kicked, and later subjected to electric shock torture after being identified by a previous partner who suffered similar treatment. LGBT men and women have been seeking refuge in safe houses in larger city centers.
Homosexuality in private was decriminalized in Russia in 1993, however there are currently no laws in place protecting homosexual and trans gender individuals from discrimination based on their sexual orientation. Homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness in 1999 and homosexual individuals are officially allowed to serve in the military under a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. Gay rights have been steadily declining since Putin came into power, particularly since 2012 when propaganda promoting LGBT positivity was officially banned. The legal treatment of LGBT people in Russia has been regarded as the worst human rights violation in Russia in the post-Soviet Union era. Honour killings of homosexual men and women in Russia are generally unpunished in Chechnya and recently have been encouraged by Chechen authorities. The current pogrom in Chechnya has been likened to a “homosexual purge.”
In April 2017, the Liberal government in Canada condemned the persecution of homosexuals in Russia, however Canadian laws prohibited accepting refugees currently residing in their home country.
On April 21st, 2017, Tanya Lokshina of the Human Rights Watch attended the Sedona Forum hosted by Arizona senator John McCain, where she had the opportunity to speak candidly with Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland about bringing the Chechen victims to Canada both for their own safety and to serve as an example to other governments. Freeland, with the support of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Immigration minister Ahmed Hussen, and Canadian Global Affairs, began to work on a program to rescue as many people as possible from safe houses around Russia. With the support of Rainbow Road, an LGBT activist group with the focus of bringing persecuted LGBT individuals to Canada, a plan was in place to create an underground railroad to bring people to safety and to provide support once they arrived.
In June 2017, the first of the refugees began to arrive after a number of security and background checks before entering the country. Upon their arrival, the refugees have been granted permanent residency and citizenship. Currently 22 out of 30 total refugees have arrived safely in Canada. The program has been kept secret for the safety of refugees and for those aiding the cause. As the refugees began to arrive the need for secrecy has decreased, while the need for support has increased. Refugees still need support to help smooth their transition into a new country.
It is currently unknown if Russia is aware of the refugees in Canada, however when government official Ramzan Kadyrov, was questioned by the Globe and Mail, he insisted, after forcefully denying the presence of homosexual people in Chechnya: “If there are any, take them to Canada… Take them far from us so we don’t have them at home. To purify our blood, if there are any here, take them.”
Although Canada is currently the only country with a methodical program for bringing Russian refugees to safety, both France and Germany have accepted at least one refugee and Lithuania has accepted two. Several refugees have reportedly travelled to European Union countries on travel visas and have applied for refugee status there. It is unknown if Canada will adopt this Underground Railroad system for emergencies in the future, however it has not been denied.