A violent crackdown on LGBT people in the Russian region of Chechnya has resulted in the arrest and torture of dozens of people so far. Advocates, attorneys, and activists say that the Trump administration’s assault on the asylum system—exacerbated by the recent federal government shutdown—is complicating efforts to save others from a similar fate.
“If you are from Chechnya, the horrible things that are happening in that area of Russia warrant a pretty strong asylum claim,” said Aaron Morris, executive director of Immigration Equality, a nonprofit that advocates for LGBT people in the immigration system where one in four clients is from Central Asia. “But they’re changing how hard it is to get your day in court.”
In the two years since the anti-gay purges began there, not a single LGBT Chechen has received asylum in the United States.
Last week, the Department of State released a statement in response to reports of increasing violence against LGBT Chechens, calling on the Kremlin “to live up to its international obligations and commitments and its own constitution, and launch an immediate investigation into these human rights abuses.”
Asked to specify what pressure the United States has placed on the Kremlin to investigate the purges, a State Department spokesperson did not return requests for comment. The office of Heather Nauert, President Donald Trump’s nominee to serve as the next United Nations ambassador, did not respond to requests for comment on whether any formal plans are being made to push for such an investigation, or the release of those who are illegally detained.
President Donald Trump’s oft-stated desire for a closer relationship between the United States and Russia, as well as his open admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has some worried that the Chechen government feels emboldened to continue the purges without concern of international interference.
“The Trump administration trying to ease Russian sanctions just reinforces the ‘impunity’ impression for thugs behind the Chechen terror,” said Maxim Eristavi, a Ukrainian journalist and nonresident research fellow at the Atlantic Council who has covered the crackdown.
Beginning in December, security forces in the nominally autonomous Russian republic renewed the anti-gay purges that had first begun in 2017, when dozens of suspected LGBT Chechens were rounded up in makeshift jails that advocates likened to concentration camps. This recent campaign is even more brutal, activists told The Daily Beast, resulting in the “disappearing” of at least 40 Chechens suspected of being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
“Of those, two people are dead—they were murdered,” said Yuri Guaiana, senior campaigns manager of the international LGBT advocacy organization All Out, who told The Daily Beast that both died after being tortured in government custody. “The crackdown is worse than the one in 2017… There are reports of people who were raped with electric cattle prods.”
The Daily Beast has reported that families in Chechnya are being ordered to kill their LGBT relatives, and that security forces are extorting others to pay ransom in exchange for their detained loved ones.
Alvi Karimov, a spokesperson for the virulently anti-gay Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, told reporters earlier this week that the reports are “complete lies and don’t have an ounce of truth in them,” and that “no arrests based on sexual orientation took place.”
For LGBT individuals in the region who don’t have the money or connections to leave, Morris said, every day without meaningful international intervention on their behalf could be a death sentence.
“Unless you can afford a ticket, you can’t get out,” Morris said. “There’s a socioeconomic reality of people fleeing persecution. Generally, those who are people of means can elect to get out quickly… There are people who are every bit as deserving, who must make the decision of what is sometimes a life-threatening journey to freedom, who can’t because of the financial cost.”
While international pressure on Putin is critical to containing his regional ally’s anti-gay impulses, Guaiana said, the delay means that getting LGBT Chechens to safe havens is even more critical in the meantime. Partner organizations in the region have told All Out that state security forces are even destroying passports and travel documents as part of the purge, rendering their escape nearly impossible.
“Authorities are destroying the documents of the people that they are arresting, or who they try to arrest, and that makes it much more difficult for them to leave Chechnya,” said Guaiana, who was arrested in Russia in 2017 while trying to push the Kremlin into investigating human rights abuses in Chechnya. “New documents have to be created, and that takes a huge amount of time and money.”
All Out has begun a campaign to raise funds to pay for those new travel documents, but immigration attorneys specializing in LGBT asylum cases told The Daily Beast that even for the lucky few who are able to escape the region, the U.S. immigration system presents its own dangers.
“Since the Trump administration came into power, there’s been a definite increase in aggressiveness in the tone and harshness of asylum hearings,” said Geoff Kagan-Trenchard, a staff attorney with the New York City Anti-Violence Project, a nonprofit that provides free legal services to LGBT clients. Calling the process of seeking asylum in the United States “much more adversarial” under the current administration, Kagan-Trenchard told The Daily Beast that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has developed a reputation as “really an arm of the deportation system” among his clients.
One new policy, which schedules asylum hearings for those who come to the United States on a visa—as most Russian asylum seekers do—within three weeks of their entry into the country, makes proving the validity of an asylum claim particularly difficult, Kagan-Trenchard said.
“You have three weeks to prepare a dossier on the worst things that have ever happened to you, and learn how to present this case in a cogent, coherent and compelling manner,” Kagan-Trenchard said. “This is quite a lift to ask of people.”
That tight time limit makes confidently issuing a sound decision on an asylum case extremely difficult for immigration judges.
“It’s not like a car accident, where you’re weighing the credibility of two different stories,” said Judge Dana Leigh Marks, president emeritus of the National Association of Immigration Judges and a full-time immigration judge in San Francisco since 1987. “Immigration judges have to hear these cases through the lens of a foreign culture, a foreign language… and that takes time to put [those cases] together.”
For LGBT asylum seekers in particular, hostility during hastily scheduled interviews meant to prove one’s eligibility for asylum can exacerbate what is already an enormously traumatic experience.
“I have never had a client that wasn’t sexually assaulted as a child or as an adult,” Kagan-Trenchard said. “The amount of trauma that all of my clients are dealing with takes time to process, and takes time to disclose... Because of this new system, they have to come out to a lot of new people, very, very quickly, to get help.”
Despite the temporary conclusion of a federal government shutdown that halted most immigration court proceedings in their tracks, even LGBT Russians with ironclad asylum cases remain left in legal limbo.
“We have had a Russian client who was scheduled for a hearing, and he was trial-ready—his testimony prepped, his lawyers were all ready, and his trial just didn’t happen,” said Morris. “He was waiting three years for his hearing. He is super likely to win, but it is also likely that, when the government reopens, he will be relocated to the back of the line.”
President Trump’s perceived hostility towards immigrants and LGBT people has done little to assuage nervous asylum seekers that the United States will be a safe place to seek refuge from the purges, according to attorneys whose LGBT clients have compared the U.S. government to the regimes that they’re trying to flee.
“It’s not as though LGBT asylum seekers are only watching the news for immigration issues,” said Kagan-Trenchard. “We have an explicitly and enthusiastically homophobic government at this point—there’s a daily assault on transgender folks on multiple axes, all the time, throughout our media echo chamber, and our LGBT clients are very cognizant of that.”
Some LGBT asylum seekers are so intimidated by recent Trump administration actions, such as the ban on transgender people in the military, Morris said, that they keep their sexual orientation or gender identity hidden—even though it may be a critical factor in proving that they have a credible fear of persecution in their native country.
“They are afraid even to go forward,” Morris said. “Any time the president of the United States says something horrendously disparaging about transgender identity, it’s a struggle to convince individuals that you have a fundamental right—a human right—to be who you are, no matter what this president says.”