UK government seeks ‘assurances’ from Russia over safety of gay fans at World Cup

The UK government has been accused of “being complacent” towards the risk that gay fans may face at the World Cup in Russia.

The build-up to this summer’s tournament has been overshadowed by fears that foreign supporters will face discrimination from violent anti-gay factions in Russia.

Gay fans have been warned that even holding hands in public would be a dangerous act.

Foreign Office minister Harriett Baldwin was quizzed about the UK’s preparations for the contest by Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday (May 9).

A general view of the Luzhniki stadium on August 29, 2017 in Moscow, Russia. (Lars Baron/Getty)

Labour’s Mike Gapes questioned the government on why potential threats to LGBT fans were “not mentioned” in the UK’s special advice hub set up for the World Cup, Be on the Ball.

He said: “If I’m a football fan and I’m going to Russia for the World Cup, I’d go on the ‘Be on the Ball’ website, and don’t get the advice [on LGBT issues] which is probably quite important. Why is it not on the main site?

“Given the level of homophobia in Russia, I’m a bit surprised it’s not given more prominence, because there may be people making a decision on going to Russia who may not be aware of some of the problems they might experience.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks prior to the start of the Final Draw for the 2018 FIFA World Cup football tournament (MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty)

Baldwin responded that there is a section on LGBT rights in the UK’s standard travel advice for Russia, which was linked to via the Be on the Ball website.

She added that the government would “look at” making advice for LGBT fans more prominent.

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Committee chair Tom Tugendhat said: “Some of the evidence we’ve heard has left me concerned that not enough thought is being given to types of travellers going to this football tournament such as homosexual couples and black and ethnic minority football supporters.

“Are you confident that we are not being complacent and are understanding the different cultural risks, style of policing and difficulties we’re having with [Russia]?”

Baldwin said the Foreign Office had been “working closely with Russia over the past two years over the safety and security of fans travelling to the World Cup.”

She said: “In terms of the work we’ve been doing over the past two years, there have been regular meetings with specific groups where we have been able to relay concerns.

“The UK obviously has a particular approach in terms of our respect to everyone’s individual choices, different countries around the world have different approaches. The purpose of the travel advice is to highlight those differences.

“We’ve met with Stonewall, Kick It Out, and Pride. We listened to all of those issues and taken specific points they wanted to make, to share that in terms of the extensive cooperation over this policing area we’ve been preparing for two years.”

Baldwin confirmed that the UK had sought assurances from Russia around security for LGBT fans, adding: “We, in our engagement with the authorities, have regularly raised these points… around the safety and security of people from the LGBT [community].

“They share our objective to have a safe event and in terms of the specific points, the 11 host cities have consistently assured us that fans of all backgrounds will be welcome and have given assurances in terms of their safety and security. That is something that FIFA will also be paying close attention to.”

President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin speaks to the media after winning the 2018 bid during the FIFA World Cup 2018 & 2022 Host Countries Announcement at the Messe Conference Centre on December 2, 2010 in Zurich, Switzerland. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty)

Labour’s Chris Bryant questioned whether the government was being “naive” by “relying on assurances from the Russian Federation.”

Asked if the UK government was suggesting gay couples at the contest avoid sharing a room or eating together, Baldwin responded: “We’re not making recommendations about accommodation, but we’re saying public displays of affection may attract negative attention. That’s one of the specific points we make in our travel advice.

“We’re dealing with a country where they’ve been trying to put on a Moscow Pride march for many years and it’s not succeeded.”

Tugendhat cut in: “It’s worth being clear why it’s not succeeded. Because the police have brutalised gay campaigners, torn flags from their hands, locked them up for many years on charges against civil rights activism.

“There isn’t on one side a group of campaigners who are in favour of traditional values, there is the state oppressing civil rights activists. These are the people we are relying on to keep our fans safe. The same policemen.”

A man pushes a stroller past a FIFA World Cup 2018 emblem placed in front of the Nizhny Novgorod’s Kremlin (MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty)

Baldwin said: “We have been raising these issues in our engagement with the Russian state. They have given assurances to FIFA in terms of hosting this that they will make it a safe and secure tournament for everybody.”

The committee chair added: “Policemen in Moscow only days ago have been tearing rainbow flags out of the hands of protesters. We’re now asking those same policemen to give us an assurance that England fans who may be gay will enjoy protections we would expect.

“This is a big ask… we are not talking about fans being a little bit cautious, we’re talking about fans realising that the police force there may not be on their side.

“Law enforcement authorities may actually be working against them and that the state that they would expect to turn to in terms of protection may be the organisation that is going to repress them the harshest.”

Baldwin then said: “I accept everything that you’re saying. I know there have been assurances given to FIFA, there have been assurances given to us in terms of our engagement… things around being fine to carry a rainbow flag, for example.”

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