Transgender Afghans escape Taliban persecution only to find "a worse situation" as refugees in Pakistan

Islamabad — Issues of gender and sexuality have long been taboo in ultra-conservative Afghanistan, and more so since the Taliban retook control of the country in 2021. For some members of the LGBTQ community, the Taliban’s comeback seemed too much of a risk, so they fled to neighboring Pakistan with countless other Afghan refugees.

In late 2023, Pakistan started a controversial program to expel Afghan refugees who lack documentation, fueling fears in particular for LGBTQ refugees like Laila Khan and Jannat, young transgender women who met with CBS News at a guesthouse where they’ve been living in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad.

Human rights groups say hundreds, if not thousands, of Afghan transgender refugees have sought safety in Pakistan, and about 50 have already approached courts in Peshawar seeking protection.

Laila and Jannat tell CBS News that life under the Taliban was unbearable, but circumstances in Pakistan haven’t been much better.

The Taliban’s “truly depressing” takeover

Jannat, who didn’t want to use her full name, said growing up in Afghanistan in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion, with a Western-backed government in power, she “was luckily able to complete my education until grade 12, despite being unwanted and unwelcome in Afghan society.”

Jannat, a transgender Afghan refugee, speaks with CBS News at her rental home in Islamabad, Pakistan, in mid-February 2024.

CBS News

Since the Taliban returned to power, however, Afghanistan’s transgender community has faced even harsher mistreatment. The Taliban regime does not recognize the existence of transgender people as a group, so there is no way for them to seek justice when they face gender-based abuse or discrimination.

“We were relatively safe in Afghanistan before the Taliban came, but after their victory and takeover, we could not even walk outside,” Khan told CBS News. “It is truly depressing.”

She told CBS News about a time she says she was chased home by Taliban security forces. 

“They reached my home and told my parents to ‘keep that piece of shame at home,” she said. They also warned her parents to prevent her from “corrupting others.”

“This is not my fault,” she said. “I didn’t choose this as God made me this way.”

“We are in a worse situation”

Jannat and Laila decided they were no longer safe in their country — though Jannat said she’d had serious concerns about seeking safety in Pakistan.

“I used to read about the violence against transgenders in Pakistan,” she said. “It made me scared, but I had no choice.”

They both crossed into Pakistan with help from a European organization dedicated to helping members of the Afghan transgender community. But they told CBS News that transgender Afghans face many of the same security concerns in Pakistan that they had in their own country.

“Being an Afghan refugee is not easy in Pakistan, it’s even harder to be a transgender refugee in a country that is not so welcoming to the LGBTQ community,” Khan said.

Khan said she’s faced discrimination since arriving in Pakistan, including by a landlord who refused to rent her a home when he saw that she was transgender.

“I had the money. I was able to afford it. The landlord had the paperwork ready, but once he saw us, his attitude changed and he declined the tenancy agreement,” she said.

Khan said she faced regular harassment and discrimination in Islamabad, including fellow passengers on a packed bus refusing to come near her, a taxi driver who verbally harassed her, and even police officers whom she said “tried to touch my private parts after I was stopped at a checkpoint, to find my sexual status, which was humiliating.”

“In Pakistan we are in a worse situation,” said Jannat, “because the hatred toward refugees is prominent here, but then when the authorities discover that we are transgender, they act even worse with us… I can’t even go to the doctor or to the shops.”

Rights granted, but not guaranteed?

“Pakistani citizens who are transgender or members of the third gender are a recognized minority group and are thus entitled to certain civil rights, but it is not always the case” for refugees, Khan told CBS News. Third gender refers to individuals who do not identify as either male or female.

Hayat Roghani, lawyer who has represented transgender Afghan refugees in cases at the high court in the northern Pakistani city of Peshawar, told CBS News that transgender people are a recognized minority group under Pakistani law, which entitles them to certain civil rights including, for Pakistani nationals, property ownership and voting. 

“Afghanistan has absolutely nothing for transgenders,” he said, adding that his advocacy organization is currently handling the cases of about 50 transgender Afghan refugees. He said some of them don’t have documentation permitting them to remain in Pakistan, so if they’re caught, he fears they’ll be deported back to Afghanistan.

“The lack of rights and safety for transgenders under Taliban rule is deeply concerning,” Farzana Riaz, president of the Peshawar-based rights group Trans Action Pakistan, told CBS News. “But unfortunately, even for the transgender Afghans who managed to cross into Pakistan, it does not mean an end to their problems, only a new chapter of problems.”

“I don’t think any of the transgender Afghans have been deported,” Peshawar police spokesperson Alam Khan said when asked about the accounts provided to CBS News. “As a law enforcement agency, we are fully committed to following up on all complaints made by anyone — regardless of whether they are Afghans or locals.”

Khan said the Peshawar police had held “a series of meetings with the transgender community to solve the community’s problems, based on its priorities,” adding that the department was using “all resources for the protection of the rights of transgenders.”

By 111 Tech

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