Last week, the Russian government, in a continuation of its decade-long effort to demonize the LGBTQ+ community, submitted a petition to the Russian Supreme Court, accusing the “international LGBT public movement” of inciting “social and religious discord”, and asking for permission to label it “extremist.” In a matter of weeks, the Russian Supreme Court accepted the submission, and formally instituted a “ban on its activities on the territory of Russia.” Gay bars have already been raided by Russian authorities. One possible consequence of these moves is an exodus of LGBTQ+ Russians, seeking asylum elsewhere – raising both moral and practical questions around the fair distribution of increasingly scarce asylum spaces.
The most recent targeting of LGBTQ+ Russians was preceded by an expansion of its 2013 anti-gay propaganda law, in November 2022. The original 2013 anti-gay propaganda law made it illegal to distribute information about gay rights, to treat gay and straight relations as equivalently good, and to convey “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to children. Its 2022 modifications expanded the range of illegal activities, to ban any reference to gay relations as “normal” and to increase penalties for those convicted of encouraging “non-traditional” relationships or preferences. The ban applies to all forms of public material, including on the internet, and including literary, cultural and educational spaces.
The hostility directed against the LGBTQ+ community began in 2013 but has ramped up considerably over the course of the war in Ukraine: likely, one reason that Putin’s government has proceeded to marginalize the LGBTQ+ community further is to curry favour with a majority, in conditions where its legitimacy is threatened. As one scholar writes, “Whenever governments try to spread hate towards an already marginalised section of the population, they are actually involved in a political struggle for the majority’s love and support.”
Shortly before Russia announced its 2022 intention to expand its anti-gay propaganda law, Russian president Vladimir Putin excoriated Western moves to protect LGBTQ+ rights, saying it was “moving towards open Satanism.” Russia’s speaker of the Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, referred to LGBTQ+ “values” as a form of “darkness” spread by the west. Last year, Putin explained that allowing children to believe that “a boy can become a girl and vice versa” is possible, and even welcome in some cases, is “on the verge of a crime against humanity.” Statements like these would be funny, if they weren’t so cruel, contributing to an environment in which violence and discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals in Russia are celebrated rather than prosecuted.
International organizations and leaders of western governments criticized the moves, on multiple grounds. The US Secretary of State criticized the November 2022 changes, noting that they were acting to suppress freedom of speech. Executive director of UNAIDS Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, Winnie Byanyima, worried that rates of HIV transmission will increase, since members of the LGBTQ+ community will find it increasingly difficult to get treatment.
Perhaps the most dangerous consequence of the attempt to erase traces of LGBTQ+ life from the Russian public, and the explicit statement that LGBTQ+ life is abnormal and undesirable, is the implicit statement that Russian citizens may exact violence on LGBTQ+ individuals with impunity. Evidence following the adoption of the 2013 anti-gay law highlighted the increase in violence directed at LGBTQ+ people in Russia. Moreover, the newest proposed legal amendments, just as with the earlier anti-gay legislation, are vague – enabling police forces, and other legal authorities, to apply it in arbitrary ways.
A side effect of these changes, beyond the implicit permission to exact violence against LGBTQ+ citizens, is that while some LGBTQ+ citizens will respond by going underground, hiding their identities as best they can, and seeking partnership quietly, others, with means, may well choose to exit Russia, seeking asylum in safer spaces. These laws, moreover, may well make it more likely that their claims for protected status will be granted – the more vigorously a state criminalizes LGBTQ+ life, and the more it enforces these laws, and the more it permits homophobic violence to permeate society, without sanction, the better the case for asylum.
Russia’s laws target propaganda, and not gay life specifically – it is not, for example, illegal to engage in same-sex sexual activity in Russia, as it is for example in Morocco, Iran, Jamaica, and many other countries. But, Russian LGBTQ+ citizens need only to look at the 2017 anti-gay campaign in Chechnya, part of the Russian Federation but with considerable regional autonomy, to surmise one possible future they may be facing. In 2017, reports emerged of Chechnya’s aggressive rounding up and detaining of hundreds of gay men, who were then tortured, many of whom were killed. In the same year, local initiatives together with LGBTQ+ organizations around the world – including for example Rainbow Railroad – worked collectively and with willing resettlement states to enable the fleeing and resetting of persecuted gay Chechens. “Lucky” for gay Chechens, many resettlement states (including Canada and Norway) prioritize LGBTQ+ individuals for resettlement.
When only the tiniest fraction of those in severe need of resettlement spots are likely to access them, [...] it is not clear what value there is debating the merits of prioritizing some for admission over others.
But it is news to no one that, globally, the asylum and refugee system is overloaded – the number of asylum seekers and refugees continues to increase at a significance pace, for example from 27 million in 2021 to over 35 million in 2022. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), in order to deal with this outflow of individuals in need of safety, prioritizes some among others for scarce resettlement spots, a number which is increasing rapidly as well: currently, the UNHCR is projecting a need for 2.4 million resettlement spots in 2024, which is an increase of 20% over 2023. However, hardly any of these individuals will find resettlement spaces: in 2022, and in spite of lobbying by the UNHCR, so-called resettlement states were willing to accept only 60 000 individuals for resettlement. The lack of available resettlement spots is a symptom of a larger problem: while in principle and indeed as a matter of international law, states are obligated to collaborate to support refugees in need – with respect to offering asylum, temporarily or permanently – in practice, the organizations that are responsible for carrying out this work remain chronically underfunded. So, most refugees will languish in host states – sometimes in refugee camps and sometimes in urban centres – on a supposedly “temporary basis,” but in fact for months and years, in many cases with limited rights, and sometimes, in effect, illegally.
These dire statistics have encouraged many philosophers of refugees to consider the merits of “prioritizing” claims, for example when it is fair for states to prioritize LGBTQ+ individuals, as well as family members, the elderly and medically challenged, and even specific racial or religious groups. These conversations highlight that some refugees are more likely to suffer in their temporary countries of refuge, which is the case for those with medical needs and LGBTQ+ individuals, or that some may be able to integrate more efficiently, or that some may benefit more from resettlement than others. When only the tiniest fraction of those in severe need of resettlement spots are likely to access them, though, it is not clear what value there is debating the merits of prioritizing some for admission over others. Indeed, Sarah Fine makes a variation of this point, arguing that philosophers ought not to engage the prioritizing question at all, since doing so implies that it is permissible that some refugees go without safety, when it is so clearly not.
[T]o what extent should we prioritize refugees with acute needs as distinct from those with long-term needs?
The likely exit of at least some LGBTQ+ Russians raises at least two additional and distinct moral challenges for those (of us) who have engaged in questions of prioritization among those in desperate need. First, to what extent should we prioritize refugees with acute needs as distinct from those with long-term needs? The world welcomed millions of Ukrainians fleeing Russian attacks, in some cases because they believed that the war would be short and therefore that the refuge being offered was only for the short-term: few expected the war to continue beyond a few weeks when it began. Some worried that the global enthusiasm for welcoming Ukrainians demonstrated a racist bias in favour of white refugees; but the enthusiasm may well have been just because they were not expected to stay and therefore were not expect to generate much “work” for hosting states.
[A]dvocacy organizations do essential work to highlight the challenges that certain people face, but [...] there is no reason to think that the claims of those who have global advocates are stronger than those who do not.
Second, to what extent should philosophers of refugees welcome the mobilization by solidarity groups in refugee crisis moments, who serve as advocates for specific refugees to gain access to scarce resettlement spots? On the one hand, advocacy organizations do essential work to highlight the challenges that certain people face, but which may not otherwise come to the attention of (in this case) the western audiences that offer most of the resettlement spots. On the other, there is no reason to think that the claims of those who have global advocates are stronger than those who do not. So, while it may be the case that Russian LGBTQ+ asylum seekers’ best hope is that LGBTQ+ organizations worldwide take up their cause, for those of us concerned with the morality of these questions, the focus must remain simply on who most “merits” resettlement spots, and more than that, on how “merit” is best identified in this case.
[O]ur only goal right now – in the face of such severe needs – is to focus on generating enthusiasm for resettlement, in whatever way we can; if that means accepting a would-be resettlement state’s otherwise impermissible preferences, we ought to do that, right away.
I do not have answers to these questions, and given the dramatic need for resettlement spots, it almost does not matter. Those of us who dabble in refugee advocacy must focus on the larger question, of how to get more states to resettle refugees, and how to get well-established resettlement states to offer more spots than they do. The intensity of the need has pressed me to focus on whether it is permissible to prioritize resettlement, if the resettlement state prioritizes refugees with skills and education, for example, or even if they signal racial and ethnic priorities that many might argue should be ignored. What if a country refused to admit LGBTQ+ refugees, for example, on homo- or trans-phobic grounds? What if a country refused to admit specific religious or racial groups? If these countries remain willing to accept other refugees, then my view for now is that we should accept their offer. All refugees qua refugees are entitled to safety, none more than others, and the more spaces we can find – even if it means compromising some of our moral commitments – the better. In my view, our only goal right now – in the face of such severe needs – is to focus on generating enthusiasm for resettlement, in whatever way we can; if that means accepting a would-be resettlement state’s otherwise impermissible preferences, we ought to do that, right away. Lives depend on our making these normative sacrifices.
Patti Tamara Lenard is Professor of Ethics in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa. She is active in the fields of political theory of multiculturalism, migration, counter-terrorism, and democratic theory more generally. In Ottawa, she runs a small organization called Rainbow Haven, which sponsors, settles and advocates for LGBTQ refugees.
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