Michael, 36, managed to escape from the apartment where he lived with his parents and two brothers. With the fear in his body, he hid for hours. "When I returned the next day, my father told me I could not enter. That would kill me, "laments the man, smoothing his hair under his wool hat. Kiri Kasama (some 250,000 inhabitants) traveled to Lagos, where a contact advised him and helped him buy a ticket to leave the country. I would go to Russia where, thanks to the World Cup, I could enter without a visa and only with the so-called Fan ID (an ID required by the Russian authorities to attend football matches), with which many fans came to the country Eurasian to the parties last July.
He says that when he escaped from Nigeria he did not know he was running away towards one of the most homophobic countries. Russia is in the top 5 of the least safe places in Europe for LGBTI people, according to the index of the specialized NGO ILGA; It does not legally criminalize relations between people of the same sex, but they are a huge social taboo. And civil rights organizations denounce attacks and persecution. "But when you have to choose between jail and death or discrimination ... you choose the latter," says blunt Michael. He has sought asylum in Russia for his sexual orientation, a point that is reflected in the UN refugee conventions.
Like him, at least thirty men from countries in Africa or Arab States where homosexuality is a crime - it is criminalized in at least 72 countries yet - have sought asylum in the Eurasian giant. "I thought Russia was like another European country, in many you can be yourself openly or even get married," says Nigerian Michael (who chooses to use that name for security reasons). But with the doors of the EU almost closed after the 2015 migration crisis, those who flee seek other options. And in his case or that of the Cameroonian Stefan - who arrived in the same circumstances last July - the option of Russia arose. There is no official record that computes it, but the specialized organizations point out that some entered, like them, with a fan ID. Others, with student or tourist visas.
"I thought Russia was like another European country. In many you can be yourself openly or even get married, "says Michael
The Russian authorities have not accepted any of the petitions on grounds of sexual orientation, says Anton Ryzhov, a lawyer with the NGO Stimul (specializing in legal assistance to LGTBI people), which has several open appeals. It has also initiated various proceedings against the Administration for demanding "evidence" of the sexual orientation of asylum seekers. Russia is not the only country that asks protection claimants for details about their sex life or their emotional relationships, as proof of their sexual orientation (something the Council of Europe considers illegal). Stimul, founded in 2015, has in the Russian capital at least nine cases similar to that of Michael from Cameroon, Afghanistan, Palestine or Sudan.
They join other more numerous people - in their immense majority, men - who fled to large Russian cities, such as Moscow or St. Petersburg, from post-Soviet states such as Uzbekistan, where homosexuality is punishable by up to three years in prison. Or from Chechnya, where international organizations report cases of murder, imprisonment and brutal tortures of LGTBI people. The Government of Chechnya, in the hands of Ramzan Kadyrov, loyal ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has denied any attack alleging that in that State "there are no homosexuals."
"If I can not stay in Russia, I'll try somewhere else, but I can not return to Nigeria, "says Michael. Nervous, with a cup of hot tea in his hands, he explains that the men who tried to attack him that night in Kiri Kasema set a trap for him. Hours earlier I had contacted a man by the gay dating app Grindr who never showed up for the appointment they had agreed to. "I think they followed me and waited for the moment to attack," he says.
Michael has been in Moscow for seven months. He lives with six other companions in a flat managed by Stimul and that the NGO finances thanks to the donations that he receives from abroad. Among them is the Cameroonian Stefan, who until a few months ago had never seen snow. The Nigerian also says that the cold is bad. And the language. "I do not understand anything, I can not even read the posters, but at least I'm accompanied and for now," he says. He explains that he has been arrested twice. None of them was able to communicate with the police. Stimul's lawyers had to get him out of the dungeon.
Now he lives with the fear in the body to be stopped. He tries to ironise and says that with his "skin color" he can not "go unnoticed". Now that the Fan ID has expired, he fears that, despite judicial appeals, the day of his expulsion will arrive. His lawyers are looking for other countries where he can be received as an asylee. Michael does not care where: "I just want to find a safe place to live, a place where I will not be imprisoned or killed, where I can be myself without constantly being afraid."
Most of those who come to Russia, however, do so as a preliminary step to try to get asylum in countries of the European Union, Canada or the US. At the beginning of January, less than 600 people had refugee status in Russia, one of the lowest figures in the last decade. And some 125,500 had received temporary asylum - the vast majority coming from Ukraine (more than 123,400) or Syria (about 1,100) - according to the Federal Statistics Service. No case is detailed due to identity or sexual orientation.
And although the UN or other international organizations do not disaggregate the number of asylum-seekers or refugees on the grounds of sexual orientation, investigations such as that led by the expert Sabine Jansen have accounted for cases of people with Russian nationality who have sought asylum in other States. (Denmark, Finland, Germany) for that reason.
And although there are no official data, organizations specializing in asylum and sexual minorities say that the number of people who have left Russia for LGTBI-phobia has increased since 2013, when the government of Vladimir Putin approved the so-called "homosexual propaganda" law, that prohibits the dissemination to minors of materials that show "non-traditional" relationships. "That law has given wings to the homophobic speech Since then attacks and discrimination have increased, "says lawyer Ryzhov. In Russia, 37% of citizens believe that homosexuality is a disease that can be treated and 18% believe that it should be prosecuted legally, according to a survey by the Levada center. Only 5% of citizens are in favor of equal marriage, one of the lowest percentages in Europe, according to a study by Pew Research.