Religious Persecution and the US Refugee Program under the Trump Administration
May 11, 2018
Omar al-Muqdad – a prominent journalist, documentary filmmaker, and former Syrian refugee – writes a bi-monthly blog for CMS titled, “Dispatches from the Global Crisis in Refugee Protection.” This series covers the Syrian Civil War, the experiences of Syria’s immense and far-flung refugee population, the global crisis in refugee protection, religious persecution, and US refugee and immigration policies. Mr. al-Muqdad’s work has been featured by the BBC, CNN, and in many other media outlets. CMS will be featuring this work in its weekly Migration Update and on its website.
As the heart-wrenching Syrian war has illustrated, bullets do not distinguish between race, religion, gender or color. They cannot tell the good from the bad, the Christian from the Muslim. But unlike bullets, nations can and do discriminate between refugees.
In the United States, some have claimed that Christians are the most persecuted persons in Syria and need to be admitted as refugees in the same numbers as the larger Muslim population. In fact, there has been intense persecution of Christians in the Middle-East, and very few Syrian Christians have been admitted to the United States as refugees. However, fewer Christian Syrians have been victimized compared to other Syrians or, for that matter, Iraqi Christians in that conflict. Most Syrian Christians did not rebel against the Syrian regime, and most live in regime-controlled areas. Therefore, far fewer Christians have sought resettlement. In Syria, the majority Sunni population supports the rebels and opposes President Bashar al-Assad. As a result, this population produces the largest percentage of Syrian refugees.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that Syrian Christians are registered as refugees at very low rates. UNHCR prioritizes refugees for resettlement based on “basic human needs,” regardless of religion or race. According to UNHCR, 1.5 percent of the 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon are Christians; 0.2 percent of the 655,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan; 0.3 percent of the 228,000 Syrians refugees in Iraq; and 0.1 percent of the 115,000 Syrian refugees in Egypt. Turkey, which hosts 2.7 million Syrian refugees, does not record the religion of refugees.
So how did the claim of discrimination arise? President Donald Trump declared at the outset of his presidency that Syrian Christian refugees were “horribly treated” by the US refugee program and it was “almost impossible” for them to gain refugee status and enter the United States. But the president did not provide any evidence to support this claim. The same day, he signed an executive order that prioritizes “refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality,” like Christianity in Syria.
Yet since President Trump took office, refugee admissions have fallen sharply. Through the first seven months of fiscal year 2018, the United States admitted only 10,548 refugees, including less than 50 Syrians. Protecting religious minorities, it seems, was never the administration’s real intention. It seems far more intent on decimating US protection programs, including the refugee resettlement, political asylum, and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) programs. If so, it has skillfully used the religious persecution issue as a smokescreen. In any event, Syrian Muslims and Christians both face immense difficulties in securing protection in the United States.
The administration also seems committed to dismantling the networks that have resettled refugees over many years. US religious communities and charities take the greatest responsibility in helping refugees, regardless of their ethnicity or religious backgrounds. This commitment reflects the religious values of many of these agencies, which help others because of their own faith, not based on the faith of refugees. Due to the administration’s debunked rhetoric and random claims, faith-based and other resettlement networks have had their funding slashed and their work attacked. The Muslim ban and the president’s religious-based claims have made it more difficult for them to address the massive crisis in refugee protection. Given the president’s denigrating views of Haiti, African countries, Mexicans, Muslims, and others, it seems that race matters far more to him than whether a refugee is a Muslim or Christian. This is a tragic development for a nation that has always led the free world in welcoming migrants and refugees, and it is an even greater tragedy for the world’s refugees.