Gays in Russia could find warmer welcome in Canada, minister says



Police detain a gay rights activist during a protest outside the lower house of Russia's parliament, the State Duma, in Moscow on Jan. 25, 2013.



KELOWNA, British Columbia — While Canada's Immigration Minister appeared to take a proactive step aimed at countering Russia's so-called gay propaganda laws this week, refugee advocates say they need clarity from Chris Alexander.

At a citizenship ceremony near Vancouver on Monday, Alexander said Russia is taking the wrong approach when it comes to civil rights, and Canada's immigration system would "seriously" look at claims from gay Russians seeking refuge.

“This is a rights issue and Canadian values … require us to speak up when those rights are violated in gross ways,” he told local media. “We are going to speak out about Russia’s inappropriate actions in this area until the situation improves.”

Claims "related to this particular issue will of course be looked at very seriously by our very generous system," he said, according to The Globe and Mail.

However well-intentioned, Alexander might be speaking out of turn, the Canadian Council for Refugees told GlobalPost.

Janet Dench, executive director for the advocacy group, said Alexander can't influence how the Immigration and Refugee Board hears refugee claims.

"The minister has no authority to direct the IRB to hear claims in a different way, so I would assume that he was simply expressing the general principle that the IRB looks 'seriously' at all claims that appear before them," Dench wrote in an emailed statement.

Instead, she said, the minister should consider how Canada's immigration system is making the claims process more difficult.

Canada's Conservative government has faced backlash from critics over changes to the refugee claims process.

"The CCR is concerned that recent changes to the refugee determination process in Canada are particularly damaging for some refugees claiming on the basis of their sexuality, because of the extremely short timelines to prepare for a hearing and gather evidence (which may be difficult for LGBT refugees)," Dench told GlobalPost.

If the minister is truly concerned (and the CCR's critique proves accurate), changes might be needed to accommodate what some predict will be an increase in claimants from Russia.

More from GlobalPost: Stephen Fry says Russia treats gays like Hitler did Jews

Canada processed 166 refugee claims from Russia last year, accepting nearly 60 percent, reported.

That could spike dramatically for the first time in decades, a Canadian professor told the website.

"Now we see there's a complete roll back on gay and lesbian rights," University of Ottawa law professor Nicole Laviolette said. "I do think we could see an increase in people having to flee. ... We could see an increase in claims again."

While Russia decriminalized homosexuality after the Iron Curtain fell in the early 1990s, violence against homosexuals continues.

Furthermore, Russia passed laws earlier this year that prohibit "homosexual propaganda," meaning fines or jail for anything from demonstrations to pride parades to holding hands in public.

The action, lawmakers say, is to protect children; opponents suggest it's an attack on civil liberties.

International opposition has latched onto the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, with many public figures calling for a boycott or for the IOC to move the Games.

Politicians from Germany, France, Great Britain, the United States and Canada have also spoken out publicly against the laws.

Canada, especially, has had a positive reputation among the international lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

About 100 Iranian refugees each year apply for safe haven in Canada based on sexual discrimination, Saghi Ghahraman of the Iranian Queer Organization said.

"They prefer Canada over other countries, when they leave Iran," Ghahraman told Agence France-Presse.

It's a "friendly and supportive society, and with great social services which are utterly crucial for most gay, lesbian, and transsexual Iranians who need all the support when they arrive in a new country."

More from GlobalPost: This chart shows just how anti-gay Russia is