With increasing reports of atrocities being committed against suspected LGBTQ people in Chechnya, Canadian human-rights organization Rainbow Railroad is mobilizing emergency efforts to help get those at risk out of the region.
The Toronto-based charity, which works to provide legal assistance, visas, transportation and other necessities to LGBTQ people in jeopardy is making Chechnya priority number 1. "Since we first received initial reports of gay concentration camps being established in Chechnya, Rainbow Railroad immediately re-classified eastern Europe as a priority region," says executive director Kimahli Powell. "This means we're expanding our on-the-ground contacts as well as increasing our capacity to identify and assess new or alternative safe routes out of Chechnya."
As part of a fundraising and awareness-raising campaign, a rally in support of the Rainbow Railroad occurred on Saturday, April 22 beside the 519 Church Street Community Centre in Toronto. Among those invited to speak was Russian LGBTQ activist, Justin Romanov, who sought asylum in Canada three years ago, after living openly as a gay man in Russia cost him his schooling, employment and repeatedly threatened his life.
For Justin to receive a Canadian visa, his mother was forced to sell her apartment so he could meet the financial requirements of the application process. Now in Canada, he spoke of the situation overseas:
"It's getting worse and worse. In 2012, [the Russian government] created an anti-gay law, but they said OK, you can be gay, you can sleep with other men, but just hide your sexual orientation. Don't say you're gay on social media. Don't dress gay. Don't have long hair. Don't speak gay…Right now, they're arresting people and killing people who've hidden their orientation. One year ago, the Russian government and police weren't trying to arrest gay people who hid their sexual orientation. Right now, in the southern region of Russia they are."
"Today it's going on in Chechnya, tomorrow it's going to be somewhere else. And maybe one day it may come to Canada, this homophobia," said Romanov at the rally.
Rainbow Railroad is working closely with the Russian LGBT Network, an NGO that's been working to raise awareness about the crisis. The network will help identify those who need to be evacuated, and Rainbow Railroad will provide direct travel assistance. It's also calling on the Canadian government to provide emergency visas.
"The situation in Chechnya is part of a global pattern of ongoing state-enabled or state-sanctioned violence against LGBTQ people," Powell says, citing Indonesia, Bangladesh and Gambia as three other perpetrators. "This is why the number of people who reach out to us each year is growing."
Since its founding in 2006, Rainbow Railroad has helped more than 300 LGBTQ people reach safety, but the need always outweighs their resources -- in 2016 alone the group received 600 requests for assistance. The cost of a single case can run into the thousands, as legal fees, travel expenses, visas and more pile up.
You can make a donation to their efforts on the Rainbow Railroad website.
Text by Ryan C. Kerr. Photo series by Elizabeth Littlejohn.