Canada’s Secret Mission to Save Gay People from Torture in Russia

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The Canadian government and a NGO called Rainbow Railroad has secretly given refuge to LGBTQ people from Chechnya.

For three months a Canadian NGO, Rainbow Railroad, has been working with the Canadian government to provide refuge for persecuted LGBTQ men and women from Chechnya, a republic (an autonomous province) in Russia.

The programme was only made public at the start of September because the first of the refugees had arrived in Canada, and the NGO now needs help to teach the refugees English, and help them find accommodation and jobs. Before then, due to the sensitive nature of the operation and for the sake of Canadian-Russian relations, it was kept quiet.

Around 40 people are expected to arrive from safe houses in Russia to different places around Canada. At present, around 22 have arrived. However, the numbers are not wholly clear. The Canadian government provided emergency visas for the refugees because of the urgency and gravity of the situation in Chechnya.

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Since last April there have been reports that the Chechen government, headed by a strongman called Ramzan Kadyrov, launched a pogrom against gay men. Gay men have been arrested, either lured somewhere by security agents on chatrooms or arrested in broad daylight. They have then been detained and their mobile phones searched for names. The men are consequently held for a day or a few weeks and tortured with electricity, starvation and beatings, so they reveal names of other gay men. Eventually they’re released to their families, who are told they’re gay and encouraged to perform an honour killing. Homosexuality in Chechnya is taboo, and the autonomous, very right-wing government, is trying to eradicate it by rounding up gay men, with the Russian government turning a blind eye to this abuse of human rights.

So far, one person is known to have died under torture and two others by honour killings. In total, 75 gay men have managed to contact the Russian LGBT Network who are working to help gays flee to safe locations in Chechnya, and then on to safe houses in Russia. According to the Russian LGBT Network, out of those 75 men, 52 had been tortured.

While the international community has raised an outcry at the horrific stories emerging from the region, the Russian government announced it had found no evidence that Chechen authorities had arrested gay men. The Chechen authorities go even further and deny that they are doing anything, because they say that homosexuality does not exist in Chechnya, therefore there can’t be a policy against it. Gay rights have been going downhill in Russia since they banned in 2012 ‘gay propaganda’, any piece of material that endorsed being gay. It was under this law that the new Beauty and the Beast film was banned because it had an openly gay character.

The Chechen government is given a lot of autonomy from Moscow because it’s successfully suppressing insurgencies in their volatile region. It’s a deeply conservative Muslim society where honour killings of homosexuals and women go unpunished, and now are actively encouraged.

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It’s thought that Canada’s programme to help homosexual Chechens is unique in the world. However, as Chechnya continues to persecute, imprison and torture gay men and women, perhaps other countries will follow Canada’s example.

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Spanish, Portuguese and European Studies student, on her year abroad in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

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