Editor’s Note: Amy Mackinnon is a senior editor for the crisis reporting site CodaStory.com. While based in Moscow, she oversaw Coda Story’s reporting on LGBT rights in Russia. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone.
Amy Mackinnon: Current asylum laws make it difficult for gay Chechens to seek refuge in the United States
Restrictions, such as expensive travel visas, must be eased so they can escape persecution, detention and torture
When the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta broke the news that gay men are being systematically abducted by security services and held in secret detention sites in the Russian republic of Chechnya, it shocked the world.
This story highlighted a fundamental flaw in international asylum practices: If one of these men were to knock on the door of the US Embassy in Moscow and ask for asylum, he would likely be turned away.
The men who have escaped have shared harrowing accounts of beatings, electrocution and humiliation. Their revelations have prompted condemnation from the United Nations, members of Congress and the State Department.
But in a private meeting with US officials, the Russian LGBT network, one of the country’s largest gay rights advocacy groups, says it was told that if any of the Chechen men were to apply for US visas, they would “most probably” be denied.
The men who have fled Chechnya face a Catch-22. While they have excellent grounds on which to claim asylum in the United States as persecuted members of a defined social group, they first need to secure a visa to travel to the USA or any country that recognizes persecution of LGBT people as grounds for asylum.
Even for a simple tourist visa, they need evidence they have enough money to support their trip as well as work and family ties that would ensure their return to Russia. For someone who has fled one of Russia’s poorest regions – fearing for his life – this can be difficult, if not impossible, to prove. Hundreds may be left stranded and at risk in Russia.
Over a month after reports first emerged of alleged abuse against gay men in Chechnya, Russian President Vladimir Putin backed an investigation into what he described as “rumors” about what was happening to Chechen men of “nontraditional orientation,” a Russian euphemism for gay people. Investigations are still underway.
The Russian LGBT Network says it is working with 80 Chechen men, 42 of whom have been evacuated from the republic to other parts of Russia. Having left Chechnya they are safe from the immediate threat of detention, but as long as they are still in Russia they risk being discovered by Chechnya’s tight-knit diaspora and tracked down by their families.
Sevetlana Zakharova, spokesperson for the Russian LGBT network, says the families of some of the men have already tried to find them. Chechen society is highly conservative, and LGBT people are at risk of “honor killings” at the hands of their own family.
Zakharova adds that almost all of the men are hoping to seek asylum abroad. However, to date, the Russian LGBT network reports only nine have been able to do so.
While the United States – and the 148 other countries that have signed international refugee conventions – is bound to assist those facing persecution, these conventions only apply to asylum seekers who have already reached American soil. There is no obligation to assist those who are trapped in their country of origin by the red tape of visa applications.
It is a problem that is by no means unique to the United States or the experience of LGBT Russians. It is why thousands of refugees have risked their lives to cross the Mediterranean in the hopes of making it to the shores of Europe, where they can claim asylum. Without a European visa, flying is simply not an option.
International refugee conventions were forged in the wake of the Second World War to deal with the thousands of displaced people within Europe, at a time when asylum seekers predominantly fled overland to neighboring countries.
But since then, the nature of conflicts and persecution have changed, as have immigration policies. Visa requirements offer a discreet way for countries to indirectly limit the number of asylum seekers they take in. The financial and familial evidence required to secure an initial visa mean that the system often discriminates against the most vulnerable.
It is a plight that I have seen firsthand. Between 2015 and 2016, I spent six months reporting on LGBT rights in Russia, and much of that time was spent following the story of Vika, a transsexual woman from Siberia.
Ostracized by her family and discriminated against by potential employers, Vika lives an isolated life in total poverty. “I am an alien here. To everyone and to the government as well,” she once told me.
Vika is desperate to leave Russia and claim asylum in Canada. If she was wealthy or had a job that enabled her to travel, getting a visa would be straightforward. But as a truck driver from Siberia, Vika is stranded.
Immigration and asylum policies are not immutable, and there are ways to offer safe passage to those fleeing persecution in Chechnya, if only there was the political will.
Western governments could offer humanitarian visas that enable people like Vika to travel legally and safely to another country where they can apply for asylum upon arrival. The Russian LGBT network says it has been in discussion with the embassies of three European countries who are considering expediting visas for men who have fled Chechnya.
There is also precedent for the United States to run in-country asylum processing programs, but their implementation is often dictated by political and diplomatic considerations.
“‘It’s not like we couldn’t do it, it’s that simply we have chosen not to,” says Aaron Morris, executive director of Immigration Equality, a US advocacy group which works with LGBT asylum seekers. Russians are their second largest client group.
When Russia began to clamp down on LGBT rights with the passage of the “gay propaganda” law, which makes it illegal to discuss LGBT issues around minors, Immigration Equality lobbied to have asylum applications of LGBT Russians processed in-country, but their appeals were denied.
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Even for those who make it out of Russia, their problems are far from over. In big American cities they may have to wait years for an asylum interview, while in the United Kingdom they can be subjected to humiliating and invasive questioning to “prove” their sexuality.
While asylum is not a panacea for the plight of LGBT Chechens, it’s the least we can do until the law and culture shift in Chechnya.