LGBTQ Afghans land in Britain as Taliban says no space for gay rights


LONDON - A group of LGBTQ Afghans who fled their home country have arrived in Britain, the first in a wave that London has said it will evacuate, as advocates warn they have received calls from hundreds more people who fear being persecuted for their sexual orientation and gender identity after the Taliban takeover.

The 29 people, including students and activists who spoke out about their rights in Afghanistan, are the first of many more vulnerable LGBTQ Afghans that will arrive "in the coming months," the Foreign Office said Saturday. It did not detail how they managed to leave.

The refugees landed Friday, just as a Taliban ministry official, appealing for the release of billions of dollars of central bank reserves, emphasized again that the Islamist militants did not recognize gay rights.

A spokesman for the finance ministry told Reuters that the Taliban would respect human rights and allow women to go to school within their harsh version of Islamic law, but added: "LGBT . . . That's against our Sharia law."

Afghanistan's new leaders, who seized control in August, want foreign governments to "just give us our money" as the country grapples with a battered economy and rising hunger, he said.

While some aid has trickled in, the United Nations warns the country is on the verge of a starvation crisis. Experts also say untangling terrorism sanctions on the militant group which limit aid, many enshrined in U.N. resolutions, will be tricky.

The United States and European nations have frozen key sources of funding, wary of Taliban promises that it has changed. During its last reign in power, from 1996 to 2001, those who broke the rules, not least women and gay men, faced execution.

In a massive military evacuation - marked by violence and harrowing images - U.S. troops, British forces and their allies airlifted more than 100,000 people, though they acknowledged that many other vulnerable Afghans did not make it out.

Afghans worried about reprisal for working with Western forces or for their human-rights work scrambled to escape as the evacuation ended with the withdrawal of U.S. forces after 20 years of war. Those left behind include people who identify as LGBT and said they went into hiding, fearing they could be killed in a country where some had already felt unwelcome.

Friday's new evacuees join 1,300 British and Afghan nationals whom the British government said it helped leave since the evacuation ended in late August.

Rainbow Railroad, a Canadian LGBTQ charity that helped organize the escape along with British rights group Stonewall, said it had fielded more than 700 requests for help and identified at least 200 people who need immediate rescue from Afghanistan. It also called on the Canadian and U.S. governments to step in to help airlift more people out.

"These 29 people faced grave and immediate threats to their lives because they are LGBTQI+ . . . They will begin to resettle and rebuild their lives in the country," it said. "However, it is only the beginning."