A Russian LGBT advocacy group says conversations with the US embassy have led it to believe that visas to the United States are out of reach for gay Chechens fleeing a wave of kidnappings, torture, and disappearances in the semi-autonomous Russian region.
A group of around 40 Chechens are now in hiding in other parts of Russia, said a spokesperson for the Russia LGBT Network, one of the primary groups supporting fleeing Chechens. Though they have escaped their region, they are having difficulty securing visas that would allow them to flee the country.
After initial publication of this story, the Russia LGBT Network spokesperson clarified that the US had not yet formally denied any visa applications. But the group was not facilitating applications to the United States because it was so discouraged by their conversations with the US embassy.
"We were informed there was no political will,” said the spokesperson, who asked her name be withheld because of security concerns. “They’re not going to provide visas. They’re going to support us in other ways, but not with visas."
Since the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta first reported the abuse of dozens of gay Chechens in April, just two have managed to secure visas to safe countries, despite the European Union and the United States expressing concern about the allegations, the spokesperson said. A handful of gay Chechens have fled without visas because they believed the danger of staying in Russia was too great.
The gay men seeking visas continue to fear for their lives in Russia. The strongman who rules Chechnya with near impunity, Ramzan Kadyrov, is accused of having his critics hunted down both in other parts of Russia and outside Russia's borders.
A US State Department spokesperson said on background that all visa applications are considered on a case-by-case basis and the Chechens are eligible to apply. But US law does not have a visa category that allows someone to come directly to the US because of threats in their home country. Unless their situation fell into an unrelated category — like if they had a job offer in the US or were being reunited with a family member — they would only be eligible for tourist visas that would require them to prove they would return to Russia.
“Nonimmigrant visa classifications and qualifications are set by U.S. law, as passed by Congress,” the spokesperson said. “There is no visa classification designated specifically for humanitarian relief.”
The Chechens are not eligible to apply to come to the US as refugees because they are still inside their native country — someone fleeing persecution generally can only be considered a refugee once they’ve left their country of origin. A Russia LGBT Network official said US diplomats recommended Chechens try applying to the US after leaving Russia, but he worried that this could jeopardize their ability to ultimately reach a safe country legally if that route failed. There is also a risk they could be returned to Russia on trumped up charges. Many of the foreign fighters who have joined groups like ISIS have come from Chechnya, leading to concerns about Chechen asylum seekers.
“They need refuge,” he said. “Not once did officials offer any specific solutions.”
The Council for Global Equality, which advocates for LGBT rights in US foreign policy, said in a statement to BuzzFeed News that the organization was still hopeful an avenue could be found for the Chechens to come to the US despite the fact that the “Russian LGBT Network has been discouraged by their interactions with U.S. officials.”
“We believe there are still options available in extreme cases like this and we are in contact with Russian LGBT activists and US government officials to continue to explore those options,” the statement said. “We hope there is political will on the Hill and within the Administration to provide a safe haven in the United States for carefully vetted claims. As advocates, it's our job to try to make that case here in Washington.”
Kadyrov has responded to the Novaya Gazeta reports — which have since been confirmed by human rights organizations and international news outlets — by denying such a crackdown could have taken place because Chechnya "does not have this phenomenon called non-traditional sexual orientation." Several of the reporters involved in breaking the story left Russia in fear for their safety after a Kadyrov adviser called them "enemies of our faith and of our country" in a televised rally in April.
The Russia LGBT Network spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that "negotiations have been difficult" with representatives of countries that could provide safe refuge for survivors of the violence. She would not name the countries the organization was still trying to secure visas from because this could put any Chechens whose applications ultimately succeeded in danger.
The US State Department called on Russian authorities to investigate the allegations after they were first reported, including a statement from the US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, who said, “If true, this violation of human rights cannot be ignored."
"The United States continues to be concerned about the situation in the Republic of Chechnya, where credible reports indicate at least 100 men have been detained on the basis of their sexual orientation," the State Department spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
Under mounting international pressure, Vladimir Putin agreed earlier this month to back an investigation, but a letter to Israel's Haaretz newspaper last week by the Russian Embassy to Israel suggested that investigation was concluded almost immediately and found "there are no victims of persecution, threats or violence.”
Jane Lytvynenko contributed to this report.
The Russia LGBT Network asked the spokesperson's name be removed from a previous version of this story due to security concerns.
This story has been updated with new information from the Russia LGBT Network clarifying no visa requests had been formally rejected by the United States.