The current refugee crisis is the worst one since World War II, with over 65 million people forcibly displaced and over 22 million refugees worldwide. Many states have taken more refugees than their capacity allows, thus putting a strain on their countries. This is certainly the case in Germany, which has received over a million of asylum seekers. In 2016 alone, there were 745,545 asylum applications in Germany, and over 890,000 in 2015. Despite the generosity of Germany and other states, the demand for safe havens for those fleeing war zones is much greater and very difficult to be satisfied.
The refugee crisis concerns people from multiple countries, most notably Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Eritrea, Nigeria, Iran, and Ukraine. The refugees represent many ethnic and religious groups. The only thing they have in common is that they found themselves in conflict zones and had to flee for their lives. Depending on the circumstances, some groups of refugees may face extra obstacles that prevent them from accessing the necessary services available to refugees.
A new report from the Heritage Foundation suggests that Christian refugees from Syria find themselves in a worse situation than other refugees. The authors indicate that Syrian Christians do not wish to register with UN agencies, which would trigger the resettlement process. The reasons given are that Syrian Christians may be reluctant to go to camps out of fear of persecution, and the UN staff is unwilling to register Christian Syrians. The report cites the statistics:
In Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt—the registration rate for Syrian Christians is 1.5 percent, 0.2 percent, 0.3 percent, and 0.1 percent, respectively, of all registered refugees. Yet over 16 percent of registered Iraqi refugees in the Middle East and North Africa region are Christians, and Christians constituted almost 29 percent of all Iraqis resettled to the U.S. from FY 2011 to FY 2016.
However, the statistics may portray a different situation. Despite the fact that Syria and Iraq have been struggling with humanitarian crises, the reality of Christian minorities in both countries may be worlds apart.
The situation for Christians in Iraq has been dire much longer than it has been in Syria. Iraqi Christians started facing great difficulty around 2003, having its climax when Daesh (another term for the Islamic State or ISIS) established the so-called caliphate in many regions of Iraq and began its genocidal campaign against religious minorities (aiming to destroy religious pluralism in the region and establishing a purely Islamic state). Christians here are split between those who want to stay in the area, live as internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Kurdistan, and do not see any future in Iraq so hope to resettle in different countries, living as refugees across the region, predominately in Jordan and Lebanon.
During my trips to the Middle East in September and November 2016, I interviewed numerous Iraqi Christians living as IDPs in Kurdistan and living as “refugees” in Jordan. From my interviews, it became apparent that many of the IDPs who stayed in the camps in Erbil, Kurdistan still hope they would be able to return to their homes once Daesh leaves. Many of the predominately Christian towns were freed in the second half of 2016, but returning will take time because Daesh destroyed the villages and towns. While visiting the Nineveh Plains near Mosul, I saw many volunteers clearing rubble and ash from places like Qaraqosh. Qaraqosh is being rebuilt, although very slowly, and over 430 Christian families have also returned to Teleskof. A lot of work needs to be done before the remaining IDPs will be able to return home.
Meanwhile, the majority of Iraqi Christians I met in Jordan were reluctant to return. As they said, Daesh was not the only problem. Discrimination and persecution of Christians had occurred for years, and Daesh was the climax that pushed them to leave. Once Daesh is defeated, there is no guarantee Christians would be safe in the region. This insecurity makes many of them leave the cradle of Christianity and seek new (but also uncertain) beginnings abroad.
The situation in Syria is different. Indeed, with no end in sight, the civil war has been ongoing since 2011, and UN agencies assess the death toll from the last six years is over 400,000. However, the main difference is that many Syrian Christians believe they have a future in Syria and under Assad. Assad is perceived as the defender of Christian minorities in Syria, as Saddam Hussein was similarly perceived in Iraq. Many Syrian Christians worry that once Assad is gone they will face the same fate as Iraqi Christians suffered after Saddam Hussein’s fall.
Differences between Iraqi and Syrian Christians’ perception over their future in the Middle East cannot be neglected in any analysis of their willingness to resettle or to register with relevant UN agencies.
However, as correctly identified in the Heritage Foundation’s report, some Christians are indeed afraid to go to refugee camps. This is the case not only in the Middle East but also across Europe. A report released by the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians in Europe from 2015, indicates that many Christian refugees came all the way to Europe and were discriminated against or persecuted in refugee camps because of their faith. Similarly, Christian minorities from the region are reluctant to register out of fear of bias experienced from the interpreters or the UN staff. These are serious concerns and need to be addressed urgently.
What can the US do to help?
The Trump Administration has promised to prioritize Christian victims of Daesh atrocities. In January 2017, shortly after taking office, President Trump signed the so-called “Trump Ban”, an executive order banning citizens of some predominately Muslim countries (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, and Yemen) from entering the United States. The Trump Ban promised to prioritize religious minorities persecuted in their countries of origin for resettlement. This meant Christian and Yazidi victims of Daesh genocide could have been prioritized to resettle to the US. The travel ban was ultimately lifted, however, on March 6, 2017, and a revised executive order followed (“Trump Ban 2.0”). The revised order still bans citizens of the same countries as per the original executive order, with an exception of Iraq. However, contrary to the original executive order, the revised order does not prioritize persecuted religious minorities.
Victims of Daesh genocide require urgent help. This includes ensuring people who wish to leave affected areas are prioritized for resettlement. However, individuals who decide to stay in the area require assistance with adequate arrangements to stay. The decision whether to leave or stay should be left for the people and never imposed.
Ewelina U. Ochab is a human rights advocate and author of the book Never Again: Legal Responses to a Broken Promise in the Middle East. Ochab works on the persecution of minorities around the world, with main projects including Daesh genocide in Syria and Iraq, Boko Haram atrocities in West Africa, and the situation of religious minorities in South Asia. Ochab has written over 30 UN topical reports (including Universal Periodic Review reports) and has made oral and written submissions at the Human Rights Council sessions and the UN Forum on Minority Issues. Ochab is currently working on her Ph.D. in international law, human rights and medical ethics.
Photo Credit: Hassan Shan camp in northern Iraq on March 31, 2017. The camp was opened by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in November 2016 to help accommodate people displaced from Mosul since the start of the offensive to retake Iraq’s second city from ISIL the previous month. UN Photo by Sarmad Al-Safy.