Transgender refugees fear ‘Death March’ to Afghanistan

PESHAWAR, December 3, 2023: Amidst the forced mass exodus of Afghan migrants, the most vulnerable of Afghans are hoping against all hope that the interim Government of Pakistan will not have them march straight to the gallows awaiting them in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. At least that is the fate that Manahil, a transwoman seeking refuge in Peshawar, believes Pakistan is condemning her and others like her too.

When the Taliban first took over her homeland, Manahil did not dare venture outside her home. But after months of being forced to stare at dark walls, suffocating in self-imposed confinement, she had to step out. And the moment she did, it was as if the police had been staking out her house this entire time, waiting for the opportunity to pounce on her.

“When the Taliban arrested me, they threatened to put me away for good or shoot me dead,” she recalled. Manahil’s identity was not accepted in Afghanistan even in the days of the Republic, however through a supportive network of fellow sisters and allies, and steady work as a performer, she was able to at least secure her survival. For the Taliban, however, her work and her existence are cardinal sins worthy of death.

“Neither do our families accept us, nor do the Taliban allow us to live. If we are sent back to Afghanistan, the Taliban have a slew of options for how to kill us, including stoning or setting us on fire.”

Many Afghans, especially those belonging to the LGBTQ community who arrived in Pakistan after August 15, 2021, are without documents. As an oppressed minority, transgender Afghans were never able to acquire identity cards or visas, and so had to illegally cross over into Pakistan. Were these documents available to them, they would have in some part been able to stave off the threat of deportation for a time.

Like Manahil, Sameena too went underground for three months after the fall of Kabul, and was detained as soon as she surfaced.

“They pulled me out of my car at a check post and objected to the clothes I was wearing. They asked me, ‘what are you dressed in?’. I was also forced to grow a beard,” she said. “I was frightened, so I came to Pakistan. I was scared of living there, as the Taliban would always flag me down at check posts to threaten me.”

Farzana Riaz, a transgender rights activist based in Peshawar, said that there are at least 50 trans new Afghan migrants in the city at the moment. So far, around 200 transgender women have been successfully relocated from Pakistan to other countries.

“Khwaja Siras are being murdered everyday in a country where we claim that we have nothing to fear, that we are free. Afghan Khwaja Siras on the other hand cannot even return to their country of origin because neither their families accept their gender and neither does the government, who do not let them function in any way,” Riaz explained, adding that the Taliban demand that they either live as men or face consequences. “But Allah intended them to be born this way. We cannot live like men. I know [the Taliban] can do anything with them. Cutting off their hair is common practice, but what I fear is that [the Taliban] will cut their throats.”

The Mafkoora Research and Development Centre in Peshawar, a human rights organization with a keen focus on art and cultural education, is currently engaged with Riaz as well as several LGBTQ+ Afghan migrants to move the courts against their forced repatriation. Mafkoora’s CEO, Hayat Roghani, told that kicking trans women out of Pakistan back to Afghanistan is nothing less than a death sentence.

“If they are sent back, they will be thrown to the wolves. And those wolves can do anything to them, they are not bound to any law,” he pleaded. “They do not care what the world thinks of them. All they have is their own interpretation of religion which they are enforcing, and meting out punishments like chopping off limbs or beheading people. It will be a great injustice [to deport transgender Afghans].

Despite their dire circumstances and the prejudice they have been forced to contend with since birth, many LGBTQ+ Afghans are at least aware of their rights. Through Mafkoora and the support of the trans community in Peshawar, they are hoping their petitions to the court that the Pakistani government honor the Tripartite Agreement with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Afghanistan will secure their stay in Pakistan.

This article is supported by the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives.


By Arshad Mohmand

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