LONDON — A group of LGBTQ Afghans who fled their home country have arrived in Britain, the first in a wave that London says it will evacuate, as advocates warn they have received calls from hundreds more people who fear Taliban persecution.
The refugees landed Friday, just as a Taliban ministry official, appealing for the release of billions of dollars of central bank reserves, emphasized that the 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 get an education within its 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 own money,” he said as the country grapples with a battered economy and rising hunger.
While some aid has trickled in, the United Nations warns the country is on the verge of a starvation crisis, and experts say untangling terrorism sanctions on the militants that limit aid would be tricky.
The United States and European nations have frozen key sources of funding, wary of Taliban promises that it has changed its harsh ways. During its previous era in power, from 1996 until 2001, those who broke the rules, not least women and gay men, could face execution.
In a massive military operation — marked by violence and harrowing images — U.S. troops, British forces and their allies airlifted more than 100,000 people by late August, and have since helped others leave, though they acknowledge that many did not make it out.
Afghans worried about reprisal for working with Western forces or for their human rights work scrambled to flee as the evacuation ended with the withdrawal of U.S. forces after 20 years of war. Those who remained include people who identify as LGBTQ who fear punishment for their sexual orientation or gender identity in a country where some had already felt unwelcome.
Rainbow Railroad, a Canadian LGBTQ charity that helped Friday’s new evacuees 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 get 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.”