The LGBTQ people who fled Azerbaijan’s brutal crackdown last year are struggling to find safe asylum.
At least two queer people are currently trapped in Tbilisi without the resources they need to start a new life, local advocates tell INTO. One queer refugee who found safe passage to the Georgian capital after LGBTQ people were rounded up, imprisoned, and beaten in a series of 2017 raids requires emergency medical care to survive.
Activists who have been assisting with his case believe “Yusif” (not his real name) has severe tuberculosis, for which he is currently being treated at a local medical center.
But Samad Ismayilov, the founder of Minority Azerbaijan, says Yusif’s condition requires more than the doctors in Georgia can give him. Ismayilov claims the refugee can barely move, stand up, or take more than 10 steps without collapsing. The LGBTQ advocate fears he will not survive.
“I don’t know what we can do,” he claims in an exclusive interview. “In that condition, no one will give him a visa to fly somewhere for medical treatment.”
Yusif’s case highlights the ongoing struggles faced by LGBTQ people attempting to escape persecution following a year in which they were constantly under attack. More than 100 people were arrested in Azerbaijan last year during what officials referred to as a clampdown on “offenses to public morality.”
Beginning in September 2017, queer and trans people were detained for weeks on end by Azerbaijani police, who tortured them until they gave up the names of other members of the local LGBTQ community.
Authorities would even shave the heads of transgender women locked up during the raids.
In an extreme case, one survivor of the anti-gay purge told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFERL) he was “anally and orally” raped after police picked him up while walking home from work. “Niko” claims law enforcement officials sexually assaulted him with a police truncheon and “forced [him] to swallow their sperm.”
The 27-year-old would allegedly be targeted four more times by local authorities, who blackmailed him and threatened to expose him to his family if Niko didn’t perform oral sex on them.
Azerbaijani officials defended the violent siege on its LGBTQ population, claiming the harsh treatment was necessary to stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in the majority Muslim country. Justice Party Deputy Chairman Ayaz Efendiyev called queer and trans people “sources of immorality [and] dangerous diseases… who have been cursed by God.”
Ismayilov says the arrests have ceased months after the purge began, but that doesn’t mean the community isn’t still dealing with the fallout.
“Zahra,” the other refugee currently trapped in Tbilisi, can’t return to Azerbaijan in fear that her family would kill her the moment she stepped foot across the border. Before she escaped her home in the middle of the night and made it to the bus station, Zahra was locked up by her relativeswhere she was imprisoned, starved, and repeatedly abused.
An out lesbian with a boyish appearance, her family began the weeks-long torture after she refused to wear lipstick and a dress. “It’s not her style,” Ismayilov explains. “If even she had long hair, she would still look masculine.”
He describes the brutality Zahra experienced as “the worst thing you can imagine.”
“They beat her really bad,” Ismayilov tells INTO over the phone. “I have pictures of her face. It’s all bloody. Her brothers smoke cigarettes and they burned her; she has the burn marks on her hands. They verbally attacked her, saying that she should kill herself because they didn’t want to have to do it themselves. They were trying to make her commit suicide.”
Exile in Tbilisi, though, has presented its own set of challenges, which severely jeopardize her future and her safety.
Zahra’s passport expires at the end of March. In order to renew it, she would have to return to Azerbaijan, where advocates worry she would be immediately apprehended by police and sent back to the custody of her family. Although homosexuality was decriminalized in 2000, local activists believe her relatives have lied to the police and accused her of a crime (e.g., stealing from the house) to ensure her arrest.
Advocates have vowed to accompany her to the Azerbaijani capital of Baku and ensure her safe passage, but Ismayilov says Zahra “won’t be able to handle it.” She faces extreme depression as a result of the trauma she experienced and has contemplated ending her own life.
Zahra could apply for a tourist visa to travel to the embassy of a more accepting European country to lobby for asylum, but there’s a high probability she will be denied. As queer refugees seeking asylum from Honduras and Syria have found, “proving” one’s sexuality to foreign immigration officials can be an insurmountable task.
Ismayilov calls that option “risky.”
“The main problem at the moment is that we don’t really know what to do,” he claims. “I wish European countries would provide these people with visas so they can fly. There aren’t hundreds of people who want to escape Azerbaijan. There are 20 or 30 people.”
“Many of the people who were tortured in Baku in September and October, they don’t want to leave,” he continues. “They still want to stay there.”
LGBTQ activists in Azerbaijan are calling on Europe to provide greater resources to ailing refugees, who Ismayilov claims have received little direct assistance from outside nations. The Netherlands and Canada ensured dozens of Chechen asylum seekers were resettled following the Russian republic’s horrific anti-gay extermination campaign.
“European countries helped those people who needed to escape, giving them visas, and starting their application for immigration,” Ismayilov says. “But in our case, there’s no support.”
Even if advocates are able to get the emergency medical care Yusif needs to survive and a passport to help Zahra escape her family, it still doesn’t fix the long-term issue: Georgia is far from a safe haven for members of the LGBTQ community.
The World Values Survey has ranked the former Soviet republic as the world’s third-most homophobic nation.
For instance, transgender people experience hate crimes at an extremely high rate. At least 20 trans individuals were attacked, beaten, and even stabbed in 2016, despite the country’s relatively small population of 3.7 million people. If Georgia had a citizenry the size of the United States, that figure would equate to 1,759 cases of violence.
Ismayilov says allies must step up to ensure Azerbaijan’s LGBTQ people can finally find a space where they are safe from constant harassment, violence, and persecution.
“The countries we’re sending people to aren’t safe,” Ismayilov says. “And then after that, they’re stuck there because they have no choice. European countries must take care of these people who are being persecuted and tortured because of being gay.”