The Refugee Crisis: “What caused them to flee in the first place?”

On World Refugee Day, CSW explores one of the major root causes of the refugee crisis.

Syrian refugees cross from Turkey to land on a beach on the Greek island of Lesvos. Image shot 06/2015. Exact date unknown.

Syrian refugees cross from Turkey to land on a beach on the Greek island of Lesvos.

The current refugee crisis has become a major news story with much of the focus placed on asking, “Where will they go?”

A seeming backlash against the unprecedented influx into Europe in particular has led some to respond: “Anywhere but here”, and has unleashed what UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has termed  “widespread anti-migrant rhetoric”, which in turn has fostered “a climate of divisiveness, xenophobia and even… vigilante violence.”

Yet very few people have asked, “What caused them to flee in the first place, and how can we best address this?”

One key reason is the increase in violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) around the world. *Persecution and violence targeting religious communities is resulting in exceptionally high levels of population displacement, contributing to the worldwide refugee crisis.

“Persecution and violence targeting religious communities is resulting in exceptionally high levels of population displacement, contributing to the worldwide refugee crisis.”

These violations often take place in societies where other human rights are being abused and in situations generally characterised by an absence of rule of law, corruption, economic disparity and authoritarian rule.

Issues of race, ethnicity, political opinion and gender usually intersect with religious persecution; consequently, religion-based asylum claims often include other grounds as well.

Religious persecution takes many forms

FoRB violations can take many different forms, including forced conversion, violence, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, abduction, murder, torture, rape or forced marriage.

The subject often brings to mind oppressive authorities clamping down on religious beliefs that are not approved of by a state.  While this undoubtedly accounts for a large proportion of circumstances, it is by no means always the case. Religious persecution can also be committed by non-state actors, and religious majority communities may experience religious persecution too.

Persecution can also occur amongst members of the same religion, for example when some members of a faith community do not conform to the denomination of the majority or of a powerful minority. The severe mistreatment of the Sunni majority by the Alawite minority is one of many factors behind the Syrian civil war.  In January 2016 in Tuxpan de Bolaños, Mexico, 20 Protestant families were expelled from their village when they refused to convert to Roman Catholicism, viewed as ‘the traditional faith’.

Women and girls may experience religious persecution differently and disproportionately, and can be targeted because of their religious beliefs and also because of their gender, caste or ethnicity.

In Bangladesh and Pakistan, Hindu and Christian girls are particularly vulnerable to forced marriage and conversion by Muslim men. A 13 year old Hindu girl, Pooja was abducted near her home in Sindh, Pakistan in March this year.  Her parents know the abductors, but their pleas for justice have been ignored even by local authorities. Such cases are very common and because of the environment of impunity abductors are rarely punished.

In Nigeria, young Christian women from the shari’a states of northern Nigeria are similarly vulnerable to abduction, forced marriage and forced conversion. Pleas by their families for justice are generally ignored, allowing abductors to behave with impunity. Additionally, many of those abducted are minors of Igbo ethnicity.

Verifying asylum claims based on religious persecution

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) guidelines on religion-based refugee claims acknowledge that claims to refugee status based on religion can be among the most complex.  For example, a recent report  by the Asylum Advocacy Group and the All-Party Parliamentary Group International Freedom of Religion or Belief stated that UK immigration officials test claims of conversion to Christianity by using a ‘bible trivia’ quiz.

“The UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) guidelines on religion-based refugee claims acknowledge that claims to refugee status based on religion can be among the most complex.”

However, as former Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Asma Jahangir has highlighted, persecution is not necessarily dependent on a person’s knowledge of religion. This means that refugees can be at risk of persecution even if they do not have extensive understanding or knowledge of their religion.

In addition, when assessing religion-based refugee claims, it is also important to acknowledge that individuals may genuinely convert to another religion after leaving their country of origin, and that this may also render them vulnerable to persecution if returned to their country.

The threat of being sent back

The principle of non-refoulement is considered to be part of customary international law and is central to refugee legislation.  It means that countries should not  force refugees to return to areas where their lives or freedom could be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. However, various countries continue to violate this by returning refugees to the very countries they fled.

For instance, China continues to repatriate North Korean refugees who are desperate to escape the ongoing atrocities and crimes against humanity taking place in their country.

Violations of non-refoulement also occur in Western countries. For example, some European countries have returned Eritrean refugees who had escaped one of the most repressive governments in the world.

In some instances countries offer no form of assistance whatsoever. In May 2015 the governments of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia refused to accept Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees stranded in boats on the Andaman Sea. All three nations are party to the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, which is not legally binding, but which recognises the right to seek asylum.

According to the UNHCR, developing countries currently host over 86% of the world’s refugees.  It is crucial for more nations to share this responsibility, as the increasing numbers of people forced to flee their homes require concerted global and regional solutions.

In his latest speech to the Human Rights Council the High Commissioner stressed that “the only sustainable way to resolve today’s movements of people will be to improve rights in countries of origin.”

Addressing religious persecution is one way of reducing the suffering of tens of thousands worldwide, while also tackling one root cause of the current refugee crisis. You can find out more on how to do this in our latest campaign, Real Change for Refugees.

By Dave Mance, CSW’s Campaign Manager

*”Persecution” means the intentional and severe deprivation of fundamental rights contrary to international law by reason of the identity of the group or collectivity.” Article 7 (g), Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Click here to view the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) video, “We stand #withrefugees”.

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