LGBTQ+ Afghan Refugees

– in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 21st September 2021.

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Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon 4:30 pm, 21st September 2021

We have at least seven Back-Bench speeches, so no one should be thinking about speaking for more than three minutes from the Back Benches in this debate, which will last for 60 minutes, not 90 minutes.

May I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission? Please give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the Chamber.

Photo of Kate Osborne Kate Osborne Labour, Jarrow

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered LGBTQ+ Afghan refugees.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and I thank hon. Members for being here today. May I start by paying tribute to our armed forces and diplomatic staff for their courage and professionalism during the evacuation operation in Afghanistan?

There is a long history of LGBTQ+ people in Afghanistan being disproportionately targeted and subjected to homophobic, biphobic and transphobic sexual violence, forced marriages, honour killings, conversion practices and execution. In the former Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the death penalty was imposed for consensual same-sex conduct under the Afghan penal code of 2017. Even before the Taliban took control last month, there were no known LGBTQ+ advocacy organisations or networks in Afghanistan, and the Taliban takeover has now sent many LGBTQ+ people into hiding out of fear. Under the rule of the Taliban, simply being LGBTQ+ will result in extra-judicial executions and the death penalty, which is sanctioned by the Government. Clearly, it is not safe for LGBTQ+ people to remain in Afghanistan, but it needs to be noted that the majority of LGBTQ+ Afghans will stay in the country.

The Taliban’s stance on the death penalty for same-sex relationships is clear. In an interview with the German newspaper Bild in July, a Taliban judge, Gul Rahim, stated:

“For homosexuals, there can only be two punishments: either stoning or he must stand behind a wall that will fall down on him. The wall must be 2.5 to 3 metres high.”

Even LGBTQ+ Afghans who have escaped to neighbouring countries are still at huge risk. Neighbouring countries, such as Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, are not safe for LGBTQ+ people.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Industries of the Future and Blockchain Technologies), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (PPS to the Westminster Leader)

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for securing the debate. On the issue of fleeing Afghanistan to other countries, I am keenly aware of the point that they make. Do they agree that doing transfers of LGBTQ Afghans into such countries must be done extremely sensitively if they are accessing the Afghan relocations and assistance scheme launched by the Government or fleeing to those countries through any other system?

Photo of Kate Osborne Kate Osborne Labour, Jarrow

I thank the hon. Member and agree with him. I will touch on that a little later in my contribution.

Many LGBTQ+ Afghans will not be safe to come forward and identify themselves because their families and communities can also be the source of their persecution, and officials in host countries may also be a danger. Will the Government call on and hold accountable those in neighbouring states to ensure that their borders are open, that they do not ill-treat people in need of protection, and that emergency humanitarian support is delivered to those in need at all stages of their migration? That has become even more critical, as a briefing I was at just this afternoon told us how large numbers of humanitarian services are still suspended in Afghanistan.

The UK is rightly one of many countries offering resettlement to Afghan refugees. I would also like to see the UK take a leadership role in ensuring that in every settlement programme LGBTQ+ people are prioritised and their needs met. To do this, the UK Government should immediately bring together partnering Governments, refugee organisations and LGBTQ+ civil society organisations to ensure the inclusion and safety of LGBTQ+ Afghans throughout their resettlement processes.

Will the Minister work with our partner countries around the world to name LGBTQ+ people as a priority in all Afghan resettlement programmes and to commit to pathways tailored to LGBTQ+ Afghans, including legal status, humanitarian protection and a commitment to their permanent residence?

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development Team Member)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on introducing a debate on such an important issue. Would she agree that this Government have to acknowledge the individual cases that Members have raised? I raised the case of one human rights defenders organisation that supports LGBTQ+ people in Afghanistan and did not even receive the courtesy of a response that included the name of the organisation. I had a blanket response. This Government need to do better and properly tailor their support for LGBTQ+ Afghan refugees.

Photo of Kate Osborne Kate Osborne Labour, Jarrow

I agree with the hon. Lady that the response, if there has been one, from the Government has often fallen well short of being anywhere near good enough.

Fundamentally, we want the Home Office to consider the needs and risks of LGBTQ+ Afghan people. The Government must also immediately provide assurance that no LGBTQ+ Afghan refugees are currently being assessed to be removed from the UK back to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

My hon. Friend is making a very good speech. Does she share my worries that in 2017 the Home Office published guidance that demonstrated that they were prepared to return LGBTQ+ people to Afghanistan and regarded that as safe for them, as long as they did not do anything to “attract…public outrage”?

Photo of Kate Osborne Kate Osborne Labour, Jarrow

I share my hon. Friend’s concerns. I believe that guidance may have been changed in 2020, but perhaps the Minister can help with that in her response. Ultimately, we should not, under any circumstances, contemplate sending LGBTQ+ people back to Afghanistan.

Following on from that point, I want to focus on the resettlement of LGBTQ+ refugees in the UK. The Government’s vulnerable persons resettlement scheme for refugees from Syria was highly praised for its focus on the most vulnerable people. When the scheme was launched, the Government committed to accepting LGBTQ+ refugees, but no data was made available by the Government or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to confirm whether or how many LGBTQ+ refugees were resettled to the UK. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government will ensure that LGBTQ+ people are included in the UNHCR’s prioritisation profile for the resettlement of refugees from Afghanistan and with a defined, accountable process for this community to access protection and resettlement that meets their needs?

I welcome the prioritisation of vulnerable people under the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme and the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people once again. However, will the Government ensure that family reunification applications are responsive to all family configurations, including those of LGBTQ+ families, for example recognising that Afghans with same-sex partners will not have had access to legal recognition for their relationships.

Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. As she says, the Government have talked about a new settlement scheme for Afghans who are most at risk, and it is welcome that LGBTQ+ people are included, but does she share my concern that those that are still trapped, both in Afghanistan and in neighbouring countries, there is very little information and advice that we can give them on how they can access that scheme or when it will be available?

Photo of Kate Osborne Kate Osborne Labour, Jarrow

Yes, I do share those concerns. Again, I ask the Minister to address that point in her response.

The Nationality and Borders Bill plays into the situation. While the support for LGBTQ+ Afghan refugees from the UK Government is welcome, the provisions in the Nationality and Borders Bill will create significant dangers and obstacles to asylum and permanent residence for LGBTQ+ people facing similar levels of persecution. Many people who have been welcomed into this country’s LGBTQ+ community would not be here under this potential law and would not have had the chance to rebuild their lives free from homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. Enacting the Bill as it stands would undermine the UK Government’s commitment to being a global leader in advancing the rights and dignity of LGBTQ+ people. The UK is convening a global LGBTQ+ summit in 2022 and co-chairing the international Equal Rights Coalition of 42 states.

The inherent contradiction in the Bill is that those arriving by their own means are treated differently. They are penalised for making their own way here. Can the Minister confirm that LGBTQ+ people who travel via third countries will not be subject to different treatment, as set out in the Nationality and Borders Bill? The Bill also introduces provisions for accommodation centres outside the UK while people’s applications for asylum are assessed or, before that, while it is being decided whether their asylum claims are admissible in the UK.

Photo of Liz Saville-Roberts Liz Saville-Roberts Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Women and Equalities) , Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Attorney General)

I congratulate Kate Osborne on securing this debate. I am sure she will agree with me that there is great concern about the way in which the Bill paves the way for processing refugee applications from abroad, which will make it much more difficult for LGBTQ+ people to provide the evidence in the environment of the camps in which they are likely to find themselves. They may find abuse and threats to their person in those camps as well.

Photo of Kate Osborne Kate Osborne Labour, Jarrow

I thank the right hon. Lady for her contribution. These types of accommodation centres pose risks to LGBTQ+ people seeking asylum, such as those from Afghanistan. The isolation of offshore processing would also make it more difficult for LGBTQ+ people to prove their sexual orientation or gender identity, as required to be granted asylum. They would find themselves in an impossible situation—being compelled to hide their sexual orientation or gender identity from those around them, while at the same time being expected to provide evidence of it to the Home Office. Will the Minister work with Government colleagues to remove plans to put people in offshore accommodation centres, given the risk of violence and abuse towards LGBTQ+ people?

I will end by reiterating that the UK Government need to do all they can to help LGBTQ+ Afghan refugees to survive, resettle and thrive. It is crucial that the UK Government‘s policies are stress-tested against LGBTQ+ people’s safety in the evacuation and resettlement efforts.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

We have eight speakers and 32 minutes. Two speakers have not submitted a written request to speak, but I am going to include them, although the tradition is to write to the Speaker in advance to ask to speak in these debates. I will call Angela Eagle first, and then we will move from party to party.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey 4:43 pm, 21st September 2021

I will not take up my full time. I will share it out so that colleagues who are dealing with this important issue will have time to contribute. I hope the Minister is going to give us some answers. We have had access to Ministers about Afghan resettlement generally, but we have had no real details, and very few of us have managed to get the people we tried to get out of Afghanistan during the airlift out.

We see here with LGBTQ+ Afghan refugees, who are at mortal risk, that it is very difficult for them to get out of the country in a safe way or to exist in the country in a safe way. The Prime Minister said we should judge the Taliban by their actions. The death penalty for those who are LGBT, particularly gay men, has been confirmed. What are the Government going to do to rescue those who are in peril in Afghanistan because of their sexual orientation? Will the Minister confirm that no one currently in the UK as an asylum seeker will be sent back to that perilous situation? Will she give us details of how Afghan LGBTQ people are going to be rescued from the perilous situation in which they find themselves after the Taliban takeover?

Photo of John Nicolson John Nicolson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 4:45 pm, 21st September 2021

I congratulate Kate Osborne on securing the debate. Our hasty, chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan has left the country in despair. Most in danger are women, minorities and, in particular, LGBT people. Often in this place, we consider decisions that we have made in the abstract, without dwelling on the consequences. Today, I would like to report the experiences of one young gay man. He is a teacher in Kabul, and of course I will keep his identity secret. I am grateful to Openly, the LGBT+ news website for the introduction. He says:

The Taliban are everywhere, all holding guns. I have spent all my savings. I am trying to keep a little in reserve for bribes—I have sold my laptop. I received a call from one of my foreign friends who told me that a bus for LGBT+ people was leaving for the airport. When we reached the main gate…we waited for seven hours. The heat was appalling, and we only had sips of water to drink.”

His long wait was in vain. He could not get into the airport. The bus of desperate gay people fleeing for their lives had to abandon its mission. The young teacher reports his fear that the sexual orientation of everyone on board the bus had become known, exposing them to even greater danger. He continues:

“When I got home from the airport, I felt humiliated and devastated. I had lost all the future plans I had worked so hard for. But I did receive a message from my beloved boyfriend. He said he was trying to get into the airport with his family, as they had a special emigration visa. I have never felt lonelier in my entire life. He means the world to me. We have always considered our bond inseparable.”

Within days, the situation had deteriorated. We all saw it on our TV screens. Imagine the horror of being there. My contact continues:

“The evacuation of Afghan people has come to an end. Afghan LGBT+ people have been abandoned by every foreign country. The Taliban has taken control of Hamid Karzai International Airport. Kabul seems empty. There are no women and girls on the streets going to work, school or university…My boyfriend has been in contact. He is now safe in a refugee camp in Qatar. But we cannot communicate easily. I have no idea where he is going and when. I may never see him again…All I want now is to escape to a country where I can be safe and free with my boyfriend, continue my studies and be the best version of myself.”

The next day he writes:

“I woke to hear of a gay man raped and beaten by the Taliban. The stress is eating me up.”

That is the last entry I have. It is truly heartbreaking testimony, the story of a young gay man, a teacher in Kabul, just one of many who failed to make it out as we abandoned Afghanistan. I hope the Minister will carry his story with her back to the Home Office and dwell on it while considering the Nationality and Borders Bill. We owe people like the young teacher renewed hope and sanctuary.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Conservative, Reigate 4:49 pm, 21st September 2021

I join the congratulations to Kate Osborne on securing the debate. I follow an extremely moving account from John Nicolson about the personal circumstances of the people we are trying to assist. I have a couple of points to make, briefly and hopefully well within the time allocated.

The hon. Member for Jarrow made clear a number of issues about finding and establishing people’s credentials and the difficulty associated with that for LGBT people in societies such as Afghanistan. I welcome the statement on Afghanistan last week by my hon. Friend Victoria Atkins, then a Minister at the Home Office, when she undertook to give us a point of entry, in order to get advice from officials in the Home Office who have to make these difficult decisions. It is incredibly important that there is a dialogue between people who are supporting LGBT people trying to make these asylum claims, so that they can be assisted to assist the Border Force to make the judgments necessary, in order to ensure that our country is kept safe while these individuals are enabled to be safe.

I welcome that undertaking; it is incredibly important. We failed to achieve it during the conduct of Operation Pitting. I am interested to know how many Afghan citizens got out, courtesy of the United Kingdom evacuation operation. I can understand to a degree why it may be the case that there were no LGBT people who were evacuated under that third group of people at risk, not least because we had not identified them as a cohort. They have now been so identified by the Prime Minister in his statement, which was a point reiterated by my hon. Friend, whom I congratulate on her appointment as Minister for Prisons and Probation. There are some old boys kicking around who have had that title before and would be happy to give advice, if sought.

I am also very pleased that she appears, from the list of Government responsibilities, to have kept responsibility for Afghan resettlement. It is a credit to her that, having held that responsibility for only a month, she is in a new role and different Department, but is being invited to continue because she has got across her brief so well. There are enormous hopes invested in my hon. Friend that this issue will be dealt with sensitively and effectively.

Photo of Bell Ribeiro-Addy Bell Ribeiro-Addy Labour, Streatham 4:52 pm, 21st September 2021

I congratulate my hon. Friend Kate Osborne on securing this important debate. In this tragic chapter of warfare displacement and human suffering, it is our duty as one of the main occupying powers in Afghanistan to act responsibly and honour our humanitarian obligations.

LGBTQ+ Afghans are among the most vulnerable. They bear the brunt, not just in the aftermath of the conflict, but in the ongoing persecution that stems from the former Afghan Government, the current Taliban regime, the unsafe resettlement camps, the hostile neighbouring third countries and, perhaps most saddening, at times from their own families and communities.

The multiple threats to LGBTQ+ Afghans’ lives show that they have been disproportionately targeted. We have heard horrific stories of people being humiliated publicly on the streets, forced into marriage and tortured. As if that were not cruel enough, we have heard today both former and current regimes in the country advocating the death penalty. They suffer indignity and persecution just for loving someone of the same sex.

In the aftermath of war there will be an inevitable rise in the number of refugees and asylum seekers. That is why I support all the calls made today by Stonewall, Rainbow Migration and others for LGBTQ+ Afghan refugees to be given safe haven in the UK. Although I welcome the Government’s recent commitments to take in those refugees as part of the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme, it is hard to put faith in a Government who have deported 15,000 Afghans from the UK over the past decade. I understand that this particular circumstance has changed, but it is worth mentioning that, as recently as 2017, the Home Office stated that

“a practising gay man who would not attract or seek to cause public outrage would not face a real risk of persecution”.

Photo of Bell Ribeiro-Addy Bell Ribeiro-Addy Labour, Streatham

Absolutely. I am hoping for that explanation at the end of the debate, because it is a disgrace that the Government, having said that, would give themselves credit for the inadequate support they continue to give to LGBTQ+ Afghans.

To make matters worse, the Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill will drastically limit the ability of those facing persecution to apply for asylum in the UK. It will only guarantee temporary protection for refugees travelling via a third country. Inhumane offshore accommodation conditions; raising the standard required for someone to prove they are LGBTQ+; not allowing adequate time for vulnerable LGBTQ+ applicants to present themselves to immigration officials: all of that is in this damning Bill, which is another indictment of the Government’s cruel and inhumane immigration system.

I want to highlight a letter to the Prime Minister from my local borough of Lambeth which states that

“the environment for LGBTQ+ people in Afghanistan is harsher at present than almost anywhere else in the world.”

It goes on to say:

“The actions you take to secure the human rights—and indeed the lives—of LGBTQ+ Afghans will speak volumes…I call on your Government to act quickly to protect the lives of all LGBTQ+ people in—and displaced from—Afghanistan.”

Photo of Florence Eshalomi Florence Eshalomi Labour/Co-operative, Vauxhall

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the work that is taking place in Lambeth. I am her constituency neighbour, and only yesterday we opened the first LGBT+ retirement home in my Lambeth constituency. Can the Minister explain how we will continue to support LGBT people in this country and people who want to seek safe haven here?

Photo of Bell Ribeiro-Addy Bell Ribeiro-Addy Labour, Streatham

I thank my constituency neighbour for her intervention, and I am sure she joins me in fully supporting the calls of the local council in our neighbouring constituencies to secure the protection of LGBTQ+ Afghans. What is left for this Government to do is heed that message of compassionate leadership and act quickly, act responsibly, and above all honour this country’s moral and legal obligations to some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

Photo of Navendu Mishra Navendu Mishra Labour, Stockport 4:56 pm, 21st September 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Gary, and I thank my hon. Friend Kate Osborne for having secured this important and timely debate. I am also grateful to our armed forces, diplomatic staff, and NGO workers for all their efforts with the evacuation programme.

We all know what Taliban control of Afghanistan means: the oppression of women and girls, the suppression of minorities—including the Hazara people, Sikhs, and Hindus—and not least, the persecution of LGBTQI+ people. LGBTQI+ people are living in fear for their lives, at risk of the death penalty for their sexuality, and across this House, we should all be very concerned and alarmed. My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow quoted a Taliban judge, and I will repeat those shocking words:

“For homosexuals, there can only be two punishments: either stoning, or he must stand behind a wall that will fall down on him. The wall must be two-and-a-half to three meters high”.

There are countless more stories of LGBTQI+ people in Afghanistan being disproportionately targeted and subjected to homophobic, biphobic and transphobic sexual violence, forced marriages, honour killings, conversion practices, and execution.

In the face of this oppression, we must hear from the Minister today that this Government will commit to supporting those who are fleeing it, in the face of the most unimaginable threats. That means committing to things that actually protect those LGBTQI+ Afghans, not just preaching empty promises and hollow words. I hope we will hear that the Government will heed the advice of Stonewall and Rainbow Migration, who are calling for a meeting that brings together resettlement countries, resettlement agencies, civil society groups from the LGBTQI+ community, and experts to ensure that robust processes are developed for the assessment, protection and resettlement of those refugees. Additionally, the Government must urgently give permanent residence to LGBTQI+ Afghans, so that once they have arrived in this country, they will not be at risk of being deported to the conditions I have described. I believe the figure of 15,000 was quoted with regard to this Government’s record on deporting people back to Afghanistan. That is a shameful record.

In this country, although we cannot pretend that the struggle for LGBTQI+ rights has been entirely won, we know that conditions are safer and that people will be welcomed with open arms, not least by organisations such as Stockport Pride in my own constituency. Its work celebrating the LGBTQI+ community in the Stockport borough is a sign of hope that progress and change can be made. If we want to be a country that is outward-facing and principled, I hope that the Minister will listen to what Members of this House are describing today, and pledge to immediately address this crisis.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington 4:59 pm, 21st September 2021

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and I congratulate Kate Osborne on securing this debate. We were all shocked at the speed with which the Taliban overthrew the Government of Afghanistan last month. The fall of Kabul was a worrying reminder of the fragility of that country—how easily 20 years of progress could be undone in just a few short weeks.

Under the Taliban and their repressive, archaic laws, being LGBT+ is a huge risk. There have already been reports of abhorrent acts of persecution and criminalisation of the LGBT+ community in Afghanistan, as we heard in other powerful speeches. It is no surprise that members of the LGBT+ community in Afghanistan have gone into hiding and are isolated from their families and friends—often their only source of support—for fear of exposure and the consequences it brings.

I am proud that the UK has played a leading role in supporting members of the LGBT community escape from Afghanistan. Under the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme, those at risk of persecution will be relocated to the UK, and among those deemed to be the most vulnerable are Afghan members of the LGBT community. It is important that those who escape to neighbouring countries and arrive at offshore processing centres are protected, as neighbouring countries such as Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan all persecute LGBT+ people. It is unsurprising that members of our community are concerned for their safety.

I hope that members of the LGBT+ community who wish to leave will be supported to do so as swiftly as possible and will not be left stranded. It is, however, important that we remember that not all members of the LGBT+ community will want to leave Afghanistan. More must be done to continue to hold the Taliban Government to account on human rights grounds.

I am proud of the steps we have already taken to support refugees from Afghanistan, and I look forward to hearing the Minister outline her commitment to continuing to support those who are still in Afghanistan.

Photo of Olivia Blake Olivia Blake Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 5:01 pm, 21st September 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Streeter. I thank my hon. Friend Kate Osborne for proposing this incredibly important debate. Many in this Chamber will struggle to describe some of the things that have been said. I have a huge amount of respect for the work of the diplomats and the armed forces in this challenging time.

Like all crises, what is unravelling in Afghanistan today will fall hardest on the most vulnerable in Afghan society, and certainly on LGBTQ+ people. Afghans have been living in a state of protracted crisis. Before withdrawal, 18.4 million people, nearly half of the population, required humanitarian aid, 30.5 million people, more than three quarters of the population, required some form of assistance from the state or non-governmental organisations, and 19.1 million people, nearly half the population, lived below the poverty line. A humanitarian crisis is a human rights crisis, and we cannot partition it off from LGBTQ+ rights. Many LGBTQ+ people are living in fear and joining the stream of people who have left Afghanistan over the past 20 years.

I am sad to say that, despite the human rights situation on the ground, those refugees have not necessarily received a warm welcome in the UK. In 2010, before US and British troop withdrawal, Germany welcomed just under 148,000 Afghan refugees. The UK took only 9,351. For LGBTQ+ people, the story is worse. Human Rights Watch provides insight into how LGBTQ+ refugees have been treated. It quotes an annexe from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s guidance on Afghanistan from 2017, which says:

“the only option for a homosexual individual…would be to conceal their sexual orientation to avoid punishment.”

At the same time, we have heard about the immigration office guidance, which says:

“it may be a safe and viable option for a gay man to relocate to Kabul.”

Those conflicting departmental statements show that the Government did not have LGBTQ+ people at heart. Notably, the UN advises that asylum seekers

“cannot be denied refugee status based on a requirement that they change or conceal their identity, opinions or characteristics in order to avoid persecution.”

I tried looking for the documents quoted in the Human Rights Watch article, but thankfully they appear to have been deleted. At least, the links are broken. I hope that the Minister can clarify what the Department’s official position was at the time, either in her response or in a note after the debate. Suffice it to say that the Government do not appear to have a very good record on delivering support to LGBTQ+ asylum seekers. I am glad that they have said that the resettlement scheme will include LGBTQ+ people, but I will be watching its implementation carefully. We also know that transphobia, homophobia and biphobia exist in the UK. What training will relevant staff receive on this issue, particularly about the situation on the ground in neighbouring countries?

The problems that LGBTQ+ asylum seekers face in claiming asylum are well documented. I have heard numerous shocking stories of how asylum seekers have had to prove their sexuality, and the offensive way their testimony has been dismissed. Without safe routes, LGBTQ+ asylum seekers fear for their lives and do not know how to get to safety. The Government’s new Nationality and Borders Bill will only make that situation worse. Can the Minister give her assurance that refugees coming here on the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme will not be subject to the same intrusive and, frankly, abusive lines of questioning? The Government have so far failed in their obligations to LGBTQ+ asylum seekers. Rather than baking those failures into Afghan resettlement schemes, Ministers must ensure that the system treats applicants with the human decency that they deserve.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 5:05 pm, 21st September 2021

Thank you, Sir Gary, for calling me in today’s debate. I thank my hon. Friend Kate Osborne for calling today’s debate and the many organisations such as Stonewall and Rainbow Migration which have provided excellent briefings.

I have serious concerns for the LGBTQ+ community in Afghanistan and in third countries in the same way that I do for religious minorities. I believe the systems are insufficient to provide the necessary security and confidentiality to ensure that people can make a safe journey to a place of sanctuary and I call on Government to look at this. To make any declaration could be a death sentence. While many are waiting for the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme to be announced, the detail is important in order that people can make the right choices about their future right now and in future.

With many countries absent in advancing the concerns of the LGBTQ+ community, it is important that the UK takes the lead. I urge the Minister to do so in her role. While we all ask significant questions, how will anyone now leave Afghanistan safely if their reason for leaving is because they are LGBTQ+? If there is no safe way of stating this, they will be placed with others wanting to flee.

Last night, I heard how sting operations are being undertaken in Afghanistan to out people who are LGBTQ+. This is really disturbing. If people are able to flee, we know that neighbouring countries such as Iran and Pakistan are unsafe for them to go to. How does the Minister propose to address that in her discussions with colleagues at this time?

Perhaps most worrying of all, I understand that the UNHCR process for refugees uses local agencies. While the principle may be positive, there is serious risk that some of these agencies will be homophobic, biphobic or transphobic. Rather than advancing an application under the UNHCR, they could end up putting that person at risk. Will the Minister look at this specific issue and raise it with the UNHCR? In these countries, where people have to conceal their identity, how do the UK Government plan to prioritise these people in practice under the ACRS? We have not had the detail we need. It would be helpful if the Minister could share some more detail today, because people need to know how to plan their passage to safety.

Finally, I want to raise the issue of alternative routes to safety. In view of these extensive risks, many people may make their own passage to the UK. Why the UK? Because we have a proud history of upholding human rights; because it is one of the safest countries to be in; and because there are so many good local organisations, such as Time To Be Out in my constituency. We are the only human rights city in the country. This organisation, Time To Be Out, supports LGBT refugees and asylum seekers specifically in resettlement. Will the Minister amend the Nationality and Borders Bill to ensure that these Afghan refugees and so many besides are given a really warm welcome to the UK rather than criminalised and discriminated against, let us face it, because of their sexuality?

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Thank you for keeping to time. In fact, most of you have spoken for less than four minutes, so we have made up a few moments. I am sure that the Minister will want to take advantage of that. We now move to our Front-Bench speeches.

Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice and Home Affairs) 5:09 pm, 21st September 2021

I congratulate Kate Osborne on securing this important debate. We have heard a number of hon. Members speak movingly of the terrible plight faced by LGBTQI+ people in Afghanistan, which is now back under the Taliban. We have heard some important questions for the Minister to answer, but before I turn to those questions, I would like to say something particularly about the plight of lesbians and bisexual women in Afghanistan, who are discriminated against twice over, both for their sex and for their sexuality.

We all know that women face particular oppression under the Taliban. As we heard in briefings from Stonewall and Rainbow Migration last night, being a woman considerably decreases someone’s ability to move or to act to protect themselves in Afghanistan. Lesbians are even less likely to come forward to UNHCR or other humanitarian agencies if they reach a third country, because as women they are even more likely to experience persecution within their homes and from family members, and to have less mobility and fewer resources open to them. If they make it to the United Kingdom, it is often hard for them to prove their sexuality, because they have led such hidden lives and have often been in forced marriages.

Perhaps the plight of lesbians and bisexual women underlines in particular why some aspects of the Nationality and Borders Bill are so problematic for LGBTQI+ people. The requests made of the Minister by hon. Members today can be summarised under three headings: support for LGBTQI+ people who make it to a neighbouring host country—some of those countries will not be particularly sympathetic environments—co-ordination of the international response and a willingness to create safe routes to the United Kingdom and then to treat people humanely once they get here.

In relation to neighbouring host countries, I ask the Minister to focus on questions about what efforts the United Kingdom Government can engage in, in partnership with organisations on the ground, to ensure that the needs of this vulnerable community are met if people make it to one of the neighbouring countries, and to ensure that there is expert support and expert legal advice and assistance relevant to their identity and their expression of how they live their lives.

Will the Government ensure that LGBTQI+ people are considered a priority and that the particular risks they face in their ongoing passage into a safe place are taken into account? Will the Government keep a close eye on those neighbouring states, through their international channels of diplomacy, to ensure that people who manage to get out are treated appropriately?

Looking at the international response, will the Minister hold an urgent cross-agency meeting to bring together resettlement countries, resettlement agencies and those in the LGBTQI+ community in civil society, to ensure that there is a robust process? Will she also ensure that LGBTQI+ people who are fleeing Afghanistan do not find themselves in detention facilities that could exacerbate existing trauma and put them at further risk?

One very important question for the Minister, which a number of hon. Members have asked, is whether she can confirm that all current deportations or removals of Afghanis have been halted in the light of the Taliban takeover? If not, can she confirm how many Afghans are facing a current risk of deportation or removal from the United Kingdom?

We have heard repeatedly how important it is that safe legal routes are created for people to come to the United Kingdom, that people are not treated as criminals on arrival and that they are treated humanely when they get here. Can the Minister please address specifically the issues raised by hon. Members in relation to the Nationality and Borders Bill, and aspects of the Bill that will be particularly problematic for LGBTQI+ people, such as the burden of proof? We have heard that many gay people in Afghanistan are living lives where their sexuality is not at all open, and that will be the same for transgendered people. Can the burden of proof please take that into account? Likewise, can the Government please look again at the unreasonable deadlines in clauses 16, 17 and 23 of the Bill?

Finally, can the Minister give us a guarantee that if LGBTQI+ people manage to make it to the shores of this country, they will not be hived off to be detained in some hostile environment pending the outcome of their application for asylum?

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development) 5:14 pm, 21st September 2021

It is a particular pleasure, Sir Gary, to serve under your chairpersonship today. I thank my hon. Friend Kate Osborne for securing such a crucial and timely debate and I add to her tribute to all the diplomats, officials and members of the armed forces who worked on Operation Pitting.

I must set out at the outset that this debate is personal for me—and, I suspect, for many Members—not just as an openly gay man but as someone of faith, as someone who has worked on issues relating to Afghanistan, both inside and outside government, in the last decade, and as someone who has visited the country in person. I have also witnessed in person the difficulties for LGBT+ asylum seekers in our immigration system, including at detention centres, and the often dehumanising processes that they face on top of the traumas they have already suffered in fleeing from persecution and, in many cases, violence and threats of death.

I also have a strong and proud Afghan community in my constituency of Cardiff South and Penarth, and like many Members in Westminster Hall today I have taken up cases on behalf of many individuals; I think that I am dealing with more than 300 individual cases, including those of LGBT+ individuals trapped in the chaos of Afghanistan in recent weeks. Although I can say that there were some successes, I am sorry to say that there are many people who we have tragically failed. I think in particular of one LGBT+ individual who is highly at risk and whose case I raised multiple times with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Home Office. I had my hopes up after I received a call from a Home Office official, but sadly I believe that that individual is still in Afghanistan and that their life is at risk. I hope that I can take up their case directly with the Minister after the debate.

I thank all colleagues for their incredibly powerful and in some cases heartbreaking speeches. I also thank all those organisations and individuals involved with this issue, particularly the all-party parliamentary group on global lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights; Stonewall; Rainbow Migration; the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association; Rainbow Railroad; and other organisations, such as Kaleidoscope Trust. These organisations have not only spoken up but—better still—acted in recent weeks to assist our LGBT+ fellow humans in Afghanistan. They also do so much week in and week out for those around the world facing persecution because of their sexuality or gender identity. Much of that work is unseen and unheard, not least because of the obvious risks for those who they are trying to assist.

I also pay fair tribute to some of the junior Ministers—they know who they are—who have met me and others in recent weeks to discuss what more the UK Government can do to assist urgently to save lives, and I hope that in the future the Minister who is here today can be part of the conversations that we agreed to continue to try to assist people practically.

The facts relating to Afghanistan are stark and grim, as we have heard from so many speakers already. Of course, the situation before the Taliban takeover was already incredibly serious, as highlighted by ILGA, but it is no surprise that with the Taliban takeover many LGBT+ people in Afghanistan are literally fleeing for their lives. We heard that terrible comment from the Taliban judge, Gul Rahim, who said:

“For homosexuals, there can only be two punishments: either stoning, or he must stand behind a wall that will fall down on him.”

There is no more horrific comment than that, but that is the reality for so many people in Afghanistan today.

I also share the fears expressed about what systems are in place for those fleeing to neighbouring countries that also have repressive regimes—countries such as Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. In fact, consensual sexual acts between same-sex adults are criminalised in 72 UN member states today and only 50 countries recognise trans people’s rights to have their gender identity legally recognised. Of course, this is not just an issue relating to Afghanistan.

I am sorry to say that many reports have highlighted how the Home Office’s asylum system is failing LGBT+ refugees and often leaving them worse off. I am also sorry to say that I concur with much of the evidence from the organisations that have contacted us that many LGBT+ refugees feel like they are treated like criminals, are particularly badly treated when they are in detention and even put at risk.

I have two quotes from the report by Stonewall and the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group:

“Trans asylum seekers face particular threats of violence in detention. One trans interviewee reports being placed in multiple male detention centres, even though she made it known that she identifies as a woman.”

The report also said:

“LGBT asylum seekers find it difficult to settle back into society after their experiences” elsewhere in the immigration system. I can think of a case that I have dealt with only in the last week of an LGBT+ asylum seeker in my own constituency. When I contacted the Home Office, it did not even know that that person was living in my constituency, yet they had been moved away from the support networks that had grown up for them. I am glad to say that that decision has now been reversed, but if that is the sort of thing that is going on, we have a very long way to go.

We have to ensure a warm welcome for all those arriving in this country, regardless of their sexuality or gender identity, and that specific resources, training and support are put in place to ensure that people are treated with the dignity they deserve. I praise the Welsh Government, which I know has been working with the Home Office on the support that we can provide to the Afghan resettlement scheme, including in my constituency.

I have a few key questions for the Minister. How many LGBT+ individuals were evacuated under the various evacuation routes, including those for UK nationals and residents, the Afghan relocations and assistance policy, and those for special cases? How many of those individuals are now being counted under the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme? Is there an allocation for places under the ACRS for LGBT+ people? How will those people be identified and supported? How will these schemes work with organisations such as the UNHCR and ILGA Asia to ensure that people are properly identified in-region? Is there work going on with other likeminded countries? I think of the US, Canada, Australia and European Union partners. Many of them will want to do the same. Is there formal co-ordination? Are there discussions going on at the UN General Assembly session in New York this week? What is being done about the risks in the region? Finally, I wholly concur with the questions raised about the Nationality and Borders Bill—questions about evidence and of delay in process. The system is already difficult enough; should we be making it even harder for LGBT+ asylum seekers? Surely not. I hope that the Minister will have some answers.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Minister, please leave one minute after your response for Kate Osborne to respond.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement 5:20 pm, 21st September 2021

Of course, Sir Gary. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship and to be back in Westminster Hall. I join all hon. Members who have thanked our military, our forces, our Border Force officials, our civil servants and our diplomats who worked against all odds to evacuate 15,000 people under Operation Pitting. That evacuation exceeded the expectations of those who were involved with it.

I put that on record, because I know that hon. Members will have corresponded with the Home Office and others about people still in-country. We will, of course, continue to discuss those cases. That is very important. However, we should put on record the fact that that evacuation helped to rescue 15,000 people from Afghanistan in incredibly difficult circumstances.

I congratulate Kate Osborne on bringing this debate, and on passionately setting out her concerns about the fate of LGBT+ people who remain in Afghanistan, and indeed for those in other countries in the region. I thank all hon. Members who have spoken in this debate. I know that, as the shadow Minister, Stephen Doughty, said, many speak for particularly personal reasons. I hope that he and others will understand that we all share their very real concerns about the safety of LGBT+ people, not just in Afghanistan, but across the world, as we contemplate some of the harsh regimes that still exist, sadly, in this century.

We have heard, only too clearly, the horrifying reports of the experiences of people who are left behind. The words of the Taliban, as quoted by the shadow Minister, are indeed very chilling. I hope that I can reassure hon. Members that both the Foreign Office and the Home Office are working with Stonewall, Rainbow Railroad and other specialist charities to help LGBT+ people known to be at risk.

The hon Members for Jarrow and for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle), as well as Joanna Cherry, asked about what more we are doing internationally. We are seeking to increase multilateral co-operation on this important issue. Indeed, this afternoon, the UK is hosting a special meeting of the Equal Rights Coalition, which we co-chair with Argentina, to discuss the situation in Afghanistan and ensure that the specific requirements of LGBT+ people are considered as part of the humanitarian response.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I will just finish this point. I am mindful of time, as there is a lot to get through.

We very much hope that by continuing to work together, including through the coalition, that we will improve international co-operation to help people known to be at risk. We are also working with the international community to ensure a co-ordinated approach to Afghanistan, including helping to deliver the UN Security Council resolution setting out expectations for safe passage for all who wish to leave, urgent humanitarian access, and respect for human rights and the prevention of terrorism.

In addition to that, our wider international human rights work includes our network of over 280 diplomatic missions, which monitor and raise human rights in their host countries. Sadly, of course, we currently have no support in Afghanistan because of the perilous security situation there. However, those diplomatic efforts continue around the region, and our UK missions are very much working, I am told, to promote human rights.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Industries of the Future and Blockchain Technologies), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (PPS to the Westminster Leader)

How can the Minister square those comments with sending Afghan LGBTQ asylum seekers back to Afghanistan two weeks prior to the fall, as long as they did not create “outrage” in the local community?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I am not familiar with the cases that the hon. Gentleman has raised. I hope he will bear with me. I appear here as the Minister responsible for Afghan resettlement, but if he wants to raise those cases with the Minister responsible for immigration, my hon. Friend Kevin Foster, I know that he will want to deal with them. As I say, I do not have knowledge of those cases.

Many Members understandably asked what more we can do to support LGBT+ people from the region, who we welcome and will welcome. One of my constant pleas to colleagues across the House is to encourage local councils to play their part in offering permanent accommodation to our new Afghan friends. We have new offers of accommodation since I addressed the House last week, which is pleasing, but we need to encourage every single council to play its part.

In relation to Operation Pitting, we were able to call forward a number of people outside the established ARAP scheme. Some of those who arrived in the UK and who are in accommodation will form part of the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme. The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth asked me for numbers, and I regret that I cannot provide those numbers at the moment. Again, I hope that he and others will understand that we are using a trauma-informed approach in our conversations with the people we have welcomed. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that people may not feel able to share their personal circumstances related to the topic of this debate at this stage. We are being very careful in the way that we deal with them and that is part of our commitment. Through our work so far, with the policy statement issued last week and my statement to the House, we have been clear that LGBT+ people are part of the vulnerable cohort that we are carefully considering for the future.

A number of colleagues asked about documents. As I said in my statement last week, we will be taking a concessionary approach for Afghans similar to that which we took for Syrian nationals in 2015, because we understand that many people will have fled without documentation or have had to destroy it. Again, I ask Members to please look at the policy statement we issued.

As part of our warm welcome, we have announced that people who arrived under ARAP or who form part of the citizens’ scheme will have indefinite leave to remain. This is significant progress for those people because it will mean that they can live, work, contribute and settle into our community. We are working with international partners, and I have already met the UNHCR to discuss how we can work together. There is a great deal of work going on with other international organisations, because we want to ensure that as and when the security situation changes—I hope improves—with the Taliban, that we are able to reach the very people about whom we are all so concerned.

I hope that in this short time I have been able to give hon. Members the direction of travel for the Government. I remain, as always, happy to discuss this and other policies with hon. Members.

Photo of Kate Osborne Kate Osborne Labour, Jarrow 5:29 pm, 21st September 2021

Thank you, Sir Gary, and I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their powerful and important contributions. We can be in no doubt as to the plight that LGBTQ+ Afghan people face right now.

I thank the Minister for her response. I ask her to consider and adopt the following: that LGBTQ+ Afghan refugees must be given permanent residence in the UK as otherwise they will have to hide their identity while living here for fear of persecution should they one day be removed; an assurance that LGBTQ+ people are included in the UNHCR’s prioritisation profile for the resettlement of refugees from Afghanistan; and finally, assurance that no LGBTQ+ Afghan refugees who are currently being assessed will be removed from the UK back to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No.10(14)).