“Russia is the last place I wanted to end up,” says Ahmet, 25. “But I don’t have a choice – it is either this or death.” Ahmet, originally from Gaza, was never supposed to have ended up in Russia. Now he is stuck here.
Ahmet’s dream was to pursue a medical career in the US – he wanted it as much for the chance to “be himself” as for the education. It was his dad who wanted him in Russia, to be near his uncle if things went wrong. The matter was settled by his dad’s unexpected death. He wanted to fulfil his elder’s last wish in life. So instead of New York, Ahmet found himself studying medicine in Ivanovo, a sleepy town 170 miles northeast of Moscow.
When Ahmet first arrived in the Russian backwaters, he tried to keep himself to himself. He tried, he says, to control the “fire” burning inside him – “imagine no sex at 21?!” – but one day he made a profile on a gay dating site. It changed everything. He met people. He fell in love. And then his world collapsed.
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Ahmet had not spotted his uncle in the theatre, seated a few rows back, when he turned to embrace his boyfriend. By the time he did, the photographic evidence had already been sent back to Gaza. The next morning he received an angry call from his shocked mother. She demanded he “change his ways”. He said he couldn’t. So his mother reported him to the police authorities.
Hamas has “no grey area” when it comes to its policy on LGBT+ people, Ahmet tells The Independent. He personally witnessed two horrific executions of gay men in Gaza; one victim was thrown off the tallest building in the city twice after the first time failed to kill him outright. But Ahmet was trapped in Russia too. After his family cut off funding, he had no money to continue his studies. That meant nowhere to live. No legal status. No right to work. His only chance was to apply for asylum in Russia – a country that has never granted it on LGBT+ grounds.
Ahmet, little did he know at the time, had joined a long queue. Officially, two dozen LGBT+ people are in the process of applying for asylum in Russia – or, more usually, appealing their rejection. Unofficially, many more are hiding in the margins. The men and women come from countries with some of the most repressive regimes in the world: Afghanistan, the Congo, Cameroon, Nigeria, Sudan, Palestine, Uzbekistan. For them, Russia was rarely a destination of choice. Between systemic homophobia and outright criminality, it was the lesser of two evils.
A large proportion of Russia’s LGBT+ asylum seekers arrived last summer during the World Cup. Then, Russia’s relaxed visa policy allowed visitors to enter with only a match ticket and fan ID. For some, it was an unexpected and rare shot at freedom. This was how Michael (not his real name), a 36-year-old Nigerian man, ended up talking to The Independent, staring wistfully at the grey skyline of Moscow’s northern suburbs.
Just a few weeks before walking out at the arrivals hall of Moscow Domodedovo airport last June, Michael’s comfortable small-city Nigerian life was destroyed. It was all down to a sleepover that went wrong, he says. His friend touched a stranger who turned out not to be gay. Michael was outed. Homosexuality is criminal in Nigeria, and jail terms are not unusual, but it was what his closest friends and family would do that worried him most. His mother died soon after finding out: her blood pressure shot up, she fainted and later passed away in hospital. His politician father said he would kill him if he ever saw him again.
Michael left town for Lagos. There he stayed with activist friends for a while. They were the ones who suggested Russia. The plan appeared too simple to be true. He bought a match ticket and flew to Moscow. He never saw the football. One year on, he isn’t sure he made the right decision. He knows nothing about Russia, has few friends and no idea about the language. He couldn’t imagine life would be so difficult. Or that people would care so little.
“I can’t work, I can’t go out, this is no life,” he says. “I’ve been talking to everyone, trying every avenue. But whoever I ask, they tell me the same thing. That they can’t help. And the authorities? Denied. Denied. Denied.”
Legal experts say there is little prospect Russia will change its position on LGBT+ asylum any time soon. It would, after all, be surprising were judges’ decisions to go against the grain of domestic discriminatory laws and homophobic rhetoric. Up until now, courts have rejected applications out of hand. Usually they do so on the premise that threats are “unproven” or that LGBT+ is not a “social group” and therefore cannot be discriminated against.
“The phrase we keep hearing is that ‘sexual orientation alone isn’t enough to grant asylum’,” says Anton Ryzhkov, senior lawyer for Stimul, a Moscow-based advocacy group that has represented several LGBT+ asylum seekers. On Monday Ryzhkov brings five new cases to court, but he knows they are unlikely to herald any real breakthrough.
“We do it to extend the maximum legal time people can spend in Russia,” he says. “You can’t deport while cases are still being heard, and appeals and the like extend things out to two years.”
That two-year window represents a lifeline during which it is possible to conduct negotiations with sympathetic foreign embassies. The process is never straightforward, and has been made more complicated by the UN withdrawing its logistical presence from the country. But activists say there have been four cases where LGBT+ asylum seekers have found a way out via third countries. None have involved the UK.
One of the most publicised cases was that of Ali Feruz, an Uzbek national and journalist at Russia’s liberal Novaya Gazeta newspaper. Feruz was at one point served deportation papers and spent six months in custody. Being not only gay but a critic of the Uzbek regime, his friends and colleagues feared for his prospects if sent to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan; Feruz himself said he would rather die than be sent there. At the last minute, following a spirited campaign by friends and colleagues, he was granted a reprieve. Germany had offered him asylum.
Compatriate Nikolai Yuldashev says Feruz’s unexpected success had given hope to many of those looking for a way out of Russia. Yuldashev’s own case shares some similarities with Feruz – though he doubts he is “famous enough” to open the same doors.
Yuldashev was forced to leaves Uzbekistan six years ago. Things went smoothly at the start, he says, and he secured a major breakthrough when he was registered as an asylum seeker by the UN’s office in Kyrgyzstan. But Yuldashev made a fatal error in leaving for Russia. After falling foul of migration rules, his passport was confiscated and he fell into legal limbo. Since then he has lived a life hidden in Moscow’s shadows – without documents and in constant fear of arrest. “I’m in a kind of psychosis,” he says. “I’m looking over my shoulder all the time. I pray for the day I wake up in Europe and can turn to police to protect me.”
Invisible and unwanted, Russia’s LGBT+ asylum seekers say they have fewer and fewer places they can turn to. They say they encounter casual homophobia from the state and even from officials in international organisations whose job it is to help them.
Those non-governmental organisations working in the area are overstretched, and their operations made more complicated by a hostile legal environment – not least because of a controversial law requiring any “political” organisation receiving international funding to register as a “foreign agent”.
For a time, Nikolai, Ahmet and Michael were housed together with four others in an LGBT+ shelter apartment funded by Stimul. But life inside the apartment was rarely harmonious, and the project was beset by organisational and financial difficulties. Last month, after yet another homophobic landlord gave the tenants a two-week eviction notice, Stimul abandoned their shelter project. Not everyone has been rehoused.
Ahmet tells The Independent he fears his time is running out. With the equivalent of £15 in his pocket, multiple defeats in court behind him, and the very real prospect of homelessness, there is little to be optimistic about. He says he knows of at least three men in a similar situation who are now dead. Two killed themselves, he says, and a third, an Egyptian man, was killed “under strange circumstances”.
“I’ve given myself six months,” he says. “I will wait until New Year’s Eve but if nothing changes – and I’m sure it won’t – I’ll kill myself. I’ve never been surer.”