A damaged church in Maaloula, a Christian town in Syria. Reuters/Omar Sanadiki
As hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees continue to flee their homeland, there is a tendency to view all Syrian refugees as a homogeneous entity. They are not. Many stories are being told, but many more remain untold – and that’s particularly true when it comes to refugees’ religious identity.
As in any crisis, numbers matter. According to the United Nations, more than 7m Syrians are internally displaced; another 4m have fled to neighbouring countries, while more than 348,000 have made the arduous journey further abroad as far as Europe and Australasia.
These numbers are staggering, but they don’t help us understand why the refugees are fleeing in the first place. And some have very different experiences than others.
Among the millions of refugees, there are Christian, Druze, Ismaili and other Muslim and non-Muslim minority religious people and families fleeing Syria, and persecution is following them.
Despite lofty humanitarian ideals of religious neutrality, these people are suffering extreme persecution including religious and ethnic cleansing. And that raises the question of whether they need a specific humanitarian response.
Sunni Muslims make up the vast majority of Syrian refugees, unsurprisingly since minority rights reports indicate only 6-10% of Syria’s population is made up of religious minority groups or atheists. Just how many people from these groups are among the refugee population, however, is unknown.
Recent reports on the situation of Syrian refugees show that religious minorities hesitate or refuse to register with UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies. Fearing for their safety, they often hide their identities to avoid reprisal attacks based on sectarian tensions. Their social, economic and physical conditions are also largely unknown.
Clustered together in religious buildings or isolated across private homes in rural and urban neighbourhoods, Syrian religious minorities are unable to access services and protection that would otherwise be available to them.
Identity and refugee status
The response to the minority question has been uneven. Some governments prioritise asylum claims based on religious identity, and have received some objection to it, while others ignore religious identity altogether, citing a humanitarian ideal that aid and assistance should be blind to religion.
Choosing how to give priority to asylum seekers is the responsibility of each host nation – and it’s a complex task. Despite Germany’s heartening promise to accept more than 800,000 refugees, it has recently reintroduced control over its borders. Faced with this challenge, a range of factors need to be considered together.
The problem arises when states classify refugees by religion not out of concern for the refugees’ interests, but according to their own nationally specific ideas about religious and cultural integration. That is discriminatory, and has nothing to do with the real challenge of processing asylum claims, which hinge on the assessment of vulnerability.
The impulse to get past religious distinctions is in one sense understandable. Given so much of the Western discourse on the refugee crisis is poisonously anti-Muslim, as other commentators point out, the language is unequivocally discriminatory. But it is not enough to say that in the name of common humanity, religion must be treated as irrelevant. Religious identity needs to be factored into how an individual or family receives assistance or protection – but not into the decision of whether they are entitled to it.
The limits of neutrality
Very few efforts to help refugees can be truly neutral to religion, even if they set out to be. Religious identity is so often at the root of persecution; to some extent it often determines how people flee and whether they can ever return to the place they fled from.
Indeed, the definition of a refugee specifically includes those fleeing persecution, not only war. Under the rule of Islamic State (IS), Christian Syrians face targeted persecution in many forms – from paying a Sharia-based tax to mass raids, kidnapping and killings. Entire Christian neighbourhoods are levelled or seized, Christian hostages of IS are beheaded and the Christian population of Syria is shrinking. These experiences are apportioned by religious identity. They cannot be treated as generic in the name of humanitarian neutrality.
Other factors obviously determine refugees’ needs and experiences: age, disability, ethnicity, economic status. But these regularly appear in public and government policy concerns relating to refugees, while religious identity often takes a back seat.
It is not uncommon for minorities to be overlooked, or their rights and concerns undermined. There is, after all, a force in numbers. All Syrian refugees are in need of assistance and protection – and they should all occupy our hearts, minds and policy concerns and responses.
But the polarised debate over the refugee crisis in general both isolates and obscures reality, raising more questions than it gives answers. Such complexity inevitably confers ambiguity – and with ambiguity comes discomfort and uncertainty. That raises the dangerous prospect that we are ignoring or overlooking a global crisis of religious freedom.
How to move forward is a tricky question of principle and is undoubtedly a challenge in practice. But the first step is to accept the reality of plurality and all the challenges that come with it, rather than sweeping all Syrian refugee identities with one brush.