Since the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) in June 2014, refugee protection has become a very divisive political issue in the West, especially in the US. During the 2016 presidential campaign, one of then-candidate Trump’s main promises was to adopt a more restrictive immigration policy and reduce the number of refugees, especially Syrian and Muslim, admitted yearly. In his first weeks at the White House, the president promptly fulfilled his word and passed an executive order that suspended the US refugee resettlement program for about six months and banned the entry of nationals from seven countries, which are mostly situated in the Middle East and have an extensive Muslim population.
The aim of this policy was to protect American citizens from “foreign nationals who intend to commit terrorist attacks in the United States.” At the same time, however, the document also made clear the Trump administration’s desire to prioritize refugee admission based on religious persecution. The Supreme Court upheld the executive order in June this year. But since the time it was issued, it has stirred up controversy, especially among Christians. Although many prominent conservative Christian leaders expressed concern over the policy, a significant number of churchgoers who voted for Trump favored the travel ban.
According to the survey Religious Trump Voters, conducted by Cato Institute’s Emily Ekins for the Voter Study Group, in 2016 Trump voters who attended church were more likely than secular Trump voters to have warm feelings toward Muslims. Nevertheless, in 2017 this trend changed, and religious Trump voters increasingly supported the restrictive policy (58 percent reported that they “strongly favor” the travel ban, compared to 67 percent of secular Trump voters).
The survey suggests that anti-immigration and anti-refugee policies are a growing trend among conservatives, even among those who are Christians. This phenomenon, however, is not restricted to just the US but is on the rise in Europe and even in some South American countries, such as Brazil. The reason for this may be valid concerns about national security and a legitimate reaction to liberal multicultural policies. Nonetheless, conservative Christians’ reluctance to get involved with refugee protection may harm one of their most important agendas: international religious freedom.
Since October 1 last year, 21,561 refugees were resettled in the United States, according to the State Department Refugee Processing Center Data. Among them, 15,278 (70.8 percent) are Christians and 3,333 (15.4 percent) are Muslims. The percentage of Christian refugees accepted during the 2018 fiscal year clearly contrasts with 2016, during the Obama administration, when 44.5 percent of the 84,994 admitted refugees were Christians and 45.7 were Muslims. That was the first fiscal year in a decade in which Muslim refugees outnumbered Christians. Conservative Christians, however, should perceive these numbers with caution.
Although Trump has kept his word about prioritizing Christians and other religious monitories by reducing the number of refugee admissions, he may actually be harming those he promised to protect. During three decades, the US admitted around 70,000 refugees every year. This year, however, the number decreased to 45,000. And next year the program will suffer another cut. A maximum of just 30,000 refugees will be accepted, less than a half of the number of previous years. This reduction directly affects the persecuted Christians, especially those from the Middle East.
During the two first years of the Trump administration, the number of Christian refugees resettled in the US has dropped by more than 40 percent, a decline of 11,000 people. In 2018, the US admitted just 70 Middle Eastern Christians: 26 from Iraq, 23 from Iran, and 20 from Syria, a decline of almost 100 percent in comparison to the 2017 fiscal year. These reductions happened despite the fact that the US government has recognized the genocide threats against Christians and Yazidis in Iraq and has been advised by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom about the harsh conditions of Christians in Iran and Syria. Unfortunately, a similar pattern is also occurring in other Western countries like the United Kingdom, as Ewelina Ochab reports in an article for Forbes.
These obstacles Middle Eastern Christians face in their attempts to come to the West alienate them even more from their Christian brothers in the West, especially from conservative American evangelicals. Many Middle Eastern Christians feel as if those who claim to profess the same faith have betrayed them. In light of this, conservative Christians should recognize how international refugee protection promotes religious freedom around the world.
According to the main sources of refugee international law, such as the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, a refugee is someone who flees from his or her country of origin due to some kind of persecution, including religious persecution. Because of this persecution, a refugee cannot return to his or her country and needs protection from other countries or from international organizations, such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
By resettling and protecting these people, especially those who have fled tyrannical regimes or genocide attempts, the US can make a remarkable case before the international society about the importance of religious freedom and the terrible consequences of suppressing civil liberties. To admit refugees from Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela, for example, is to highlight the inability of these countries to grant their citizens some basic civil rights necessary for existence.
Many other presidents have recognized the importance of refugee protection as a way both to promote humanitarian actions and achieve the country’s interests. This was more evident during the Cold War years when the US developed special refugee resettlement programs focused on people fleeing countries of the Soviet Bloc. A similar strategy could be proposed now, especially toward religious minorities, as Trump has suggested. But doing so would require increasing the number of refugee admissions, instead of decreasing it as the president has done.
We are living in unprecedented times. There are almost 68 million displaced people around the world, according to the UNHCR. Many of them are Christians and other religious minorities who had to leave their homes just because of their faith. It is time for conservative Christians who care about religious freedom to seriously engage with refugee protection. The refugee issue is much more than just an ideological item of the current liberal agenda in the West. Rather, it is a very important tool that can be used to stand for those who suffer around the world just for professing the Christian faith.
Conservative Christians have a long tradition of caring for refugees, and it is necessary to recover it as soon as possible. It is possible to guarantee the national security and also exercise compassion for those who are in danger in places like Africa and the Middle East.
Igor Sabino is the executive secretary of ANAJURE Refugees, the refugee program of the Brazilian National Association of Evangelical Jurists. He holds a BA and an MA in international relations, both from the State University of Paraíba in his homeland of Brazil. Igor is also a Philos Leadership Institute alumnus and researches international relations and religion in the Middle East, with a special focus on the plight of the religious minorities persecuted by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Follow him on Twitter: @igorhsabino.
Photo Credit: By Tobias Mrzyk, via Unsplash