Iraqi Christians: The Forgotten Refugees
In recent years, the protection of refugees and forced migrants has been a growing issue on international society’s agenda. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in 2016 more than 65 million people around the world were displaced from their homes. Of these, over 20 million are refugees, and approximately 40 million are internally displaced.
The main causes of these displacements are civil strife and political instability in countries of the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia. About 55 percent of all refugees in the world come from Syria (5.5 million), Afghanistan (2.5 million), and South Sudan (1.4 million). These numbers are quite significant, and it is not without reason that they have drawn so much attention from the international community, especially after the great flow of Syrians and Afghans seeking asylum in European countries. It is estimated that since 2015, 35,000 unaccompanied children, mostly from these two nations, sought refuge in Germany. However, even though this is a very urgent situation, especially concerning the victims of the Syrian Civil War, international leaders must not ignore the complete picture of the humanitarian crisis facing the world today, including the plight of persecuted religious minorities such as Christians.
According to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, religious persecution is among the reasons that can make someone eligible for refugee status. Anyone who is forced to flee their country of origin because of a well-founded fear of persecution based on their religion may apply for international protection as a refugee. Although this is a principle of international law, in practice it has been largely neglected. This is what has happened with many Iraqi Christians. Despite the fact they are among the nearly 65 million forcibly displaced in the twenty-first century, their stories and their suffering remains forgotten and neglected by the international society.
As previously highlighted by Baroness Caroline Cox and Ewelina U. Ochab in the Summer 2017 issue of Providence’s print edition, with the emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq in 2014, Christians have had little choice but to convert to Islam, be killed, or flee. Most chose the last option and, as a result, became internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan or fled to neighboring countries such as Jordan and Lebanon. These countries, however, are not signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol and therefore are not internationally required to recognize these Christians as refugees. As a result, many of them, especially those in Lebanon, began to live as irregular migrants without access to several fundamental civil rights.
In the fall of 2016, I visited some of the Christians in Beirut who left Mosul in 2014. With the support of the UN, they originally fled to Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan. There, they could have remained as IDPs or go to a neighboring country and seek asylum in the West through the UNHCR resettlement program. Nevertheless, this process could take years. Even so, the living conditions in Erbil were becoming increasingly precarious because of the great increase in the number of IDPs fleeing ISIS. They therefore preferred to move to Lebanon and from there seek asylum in Western countries.
Two years later, however, these Christians still had no prospect of receiving asylum. Holding kneaded UNHCR forms and with tears in their eyes, they told me how difficult it was to be a Christian refugee in Lebanon. They were unable to work legally and were taking informal jobs to survive, even though they received half the salary paid to a Lebanese. Their children could not attend school, and medical care was a luxury that they could not afford. Thus, despite all they had suffered in Iraq, life in Lebanon was not very promising.
Faced with this situation, they wondered if the UN or Western countries could do anything more for them. Some even complained that countries like Canada and the US were receiving more Syrian Muslim refugees than Christians who were victims of religious persecution. Their biggest disappointment, however, was the fact that they felt abandoned by Western Christians.
Last summer, I could hear similar complaints from other Iraqi Christians. This time in Amman, Jordan. There, things were a little bit different. Although the government guaranteed the refugees some rights, the country was overcrowded with Syrians and because of this could not offer any help to Christians. The situation was hampered by the fact that the aid offered by UNHCR was directed mainly towards refugees living in camps. This option, however, was not available to Christians, who didn’t live in camps because of the fear of further religious persecution by the Muslim majority who lived there, as mentioned by Faith McDonnell in an article at Providence’s website.
These facts clearly demonstrate the need for international society to rethink its policies regarding the protection of refugees and other forced migrants, especially concerning the religious minorities. As Alexander Betts and Paul Collier argue in their book Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System, the UNHCR should modify its strategies. At the same time, Western countries must develop new forms of regional governance in refugee protection in regions such as the Middle East, where most countries have not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol.
Finally, it is imperative that Christians in the West remember their brothers around the world and be willing to help them. Many of these Iraqi Christians want to be resettled as refugees in Western countries. Others, however, want to stay where they are and keep the Middle Eastern Christian traditions alive. Many of those who had become internally displaced are starting to return to their cities after the territorial losses ISIS has suffered. To accomplish this, however, in addition to prayers they also need political action and financial resources. The UNHCR and the international leaders may even neglect these Christians due to the many other humanitarian needs around the world. But we as Christians are called to remember that “if one member suffers, all suffer together.” We cannot forget these refugees.
Igor Sabino is the Executive Secretary of ANAJURE Refugees, holds a B.A. in International Relations from State University of Paraíba (UEPB) in Brazil, and is currently an M.A. student of International Relations there. Follow him on Twitter here: @igorhsabino.
Photo Credit: Evening falls, and temperatures drop in Za’atari refugee camp, Jordan, on November 21, 2012. By UNHCR’s Brian Sokol, via UK Department for International Development on Flickr.