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18th Nov 2018

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Lithuania helps gay Chechens flee Russia

  • (Photo: Marco Fieber)

Lithuania has helped two gay Chechens to escape Russia and said an international effort was underway to protect others.

Linas Linkevicius, the foreign minister of Lithuania, first announced on Wednesday (17 May), the international day against homophobia, that his country had issued visas to two Chechens who had been persecuted on the basis of their sexual orientation.

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He told EUobserver on Friday that governments, EU institutions and other international bodies were currently looking for further ways to help, and were discussing how to coordinate their efforts.

"We are just one of many countries [involved],” he said.

Details of the talks and national operations are being kept secret for security reasons.

But Rainbow Railroad, a Canadian human rights organisation, has previously announced it was working with Russian LGBTI groups to help people at risk to escape.

One source close to the Lithuanian government told EUobserver that Canada was one of the countries working with Lithuania.

The US, on the other hand, has denied visas to roughly 40 gay Chechens, according to a Buzzfeed report.

Journalists from the independent Russian paper Novaya Gazeta last month reported that over 100 gay men had been rounded up and sent to clandestine camps in the Chechen republic.

At least three were said to have died.

The European Parliament on Thursday passed a resolution telling Chechen authorities they must end the persecution of gay men and allow international human rights organisations to conduct an investigation into the alleged crimes.

The issue was raised at the request of Latvia at a meeting of EU foreign ministers on Monday, where Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, and Germany also took the floor on the subject.

Meanwhile, German chancellor Angela Merkel likewise asked Russian president Vladimir Putin “to protect the rights of minorities” at a meeting earlier in May.

Welcoming LGBTI refugees

EU countries rarely use their right to issue visas for humanitarian reasons, making it difficult for people at risk of persecution to find refuge in Europe.

But Linkevicius said it was "not that unusual" for Lithuania to offer such visas and that it had been issuing them for many years.

When asked if other countries would follow in Lithuania's footsteps, he said he could not speak for other countries, but said he "believed" more countries would help.

"It's not sufficient to make statements," he said.

It is not known if the two gay men mentioned by Linkevicius will stay in Lithuania or travel on to other countries at a safer distance from Russia.

Idahot forum

The situation of gay Chechens was a recurring topic at the Idahot forum, an annual summit marking the international day against homophobia, which was held in Brussels this year.

Portugal's state secretary for citizenship and equality, Catarina Marcelino, told EUobserver she would raise the issue with her government upon her return.

"I am bringing the concerns raised at this conference back home with me," she said.

The Portuguese parliament also passed a resolution on the topic on Friday.

"We are, in general, very open to refugees, and we are already showing solidarity with Germany over Syrian refugees," Marcelino said.

"But there are many technical details we need to examine," Marcelino said. She named the Dublin principle as one example, which says that asylum seekers must lodge their claim in the country via which they first enter the EU.

Denmark's minister of equal opportunities, Karen Ellemann, said her government was putting pressure on Russia.

The Danish foreign minister Anders Samuelsen raised the topic with his Russian colleague, Sergey Lavrov, in a bilateral meeting during the Arctic Council last week.

Zuhal Demir, Belgian federal state secretary for opportunities, said the government was also discussing the situation.

Mia Sundelin, a Swedish politician and president of Rainbow Rose, the LGBTI network of the Party of European Socialists, said talks on Chechnya were ongoing within Sweden's ruling Social Democratic country.

"Of course I would like Sweden to help those people, and all other LGBTI refugees as well," Sundelin said, but added it was complicated.

"We have to offer these people such safety that they can rebuild their lives. Finding the right legal way takes time," she said, noting that Sweden recently tightened its migration laws, swapping permanent asylum for temporary protection permits and making family reunification difficult.

The Swedish politician said that countries with big Chechen diasporas, such as Austria, had to analyse whether it was safe to bring in gay Chechens.

"We don't know whether this would put them in further danger," she said.

Chechen authorities have dismissed claims they persecuted gay people, saying that homosexuality does not exist in Chechen society.

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