Displacement due to adverse circumstances has existed for as long as humankind has walked the earth. Yet in a stark contrast to those fleeing the violence in Ukraine, others genuinely seeking refuge in Europe from dangerous situations today are increasingly dismissed as economic migrants on the grounds of their ethnicity or religious identity. What, or rather who deserves to find refuge and make a country their home is continually being contested.
Statistically speaking, the world is facing the largest displacement crisis since the Second World War, with close to three million people having fled the war in Ukraine in a matter of weeks. Other individuals and communities are fleeing from some of the most dangerous areas of the world in search of a new life – or to put it bluntly, life at all.
Western countries only host 14% of the world’s refugees
The vast majority of the world’s refugees flee to neighbouring countries, for example to Lebanon in the case of Syrians, or to Bangladesh in the case of Rohingyas from Myanmar/Burma. However, Western nations, where fears of ‘mass migration’ are exploited in populist ethnic and religion-laced politics and loom large on the media landscape, host just 14% of the world’s refugees.
In Europe, the refugee crisis is often portrayed as a dramatic intrusion or imposition from far-flung parts of the world, due to the nature of the risky journeys people take In search of a place of safety. In reality, these refugees constitute a small percentage of the worldwide total. European Union (EU) border policies, which also include outsourcing the restriction of the flow of refugees from some of the most brutal authorities on the African continent, factor in the increasingly perilous journeys undertaken by some refugees which, according to a 2021 the International Organization for Migration estimate, have resulted in the deaths in the Mediterranean of at least 22,748 people since 2014.
The UK is no different; increasing restrictions on avenues for making asylum applications have been cited as one of the drivers of riskier border crossing attempts. The end of 2021 brought the dangerous Channel crossings to the fore once more, as at least 28,431 people attempted to enter the UK – a triple increase from 2020. Despite this, for the first time in almost two decades, the current government has made no global commitment to resettle any number of refugees here in the UK.
The UK’s current efforts to assist Ukrainian refugees have contrasted poorly with those of other European nations, being marred by missteps, delays and other controversy. This could be directly attributable to longstanding immigrations policies that are predicated primarily on creating a hostile environment and restricting access, even to legitimate refugees, rather than on meeting the country’s obligations under international law.
An increased number of attempted Channel crossings has also resulted in an increased number of deaths, including and most notably on 24 November 2021, when a record 27 deaths were recorded.
One of these was Maryam Nuri Mohamed Amin from Iraq, just 24 years old and eagerly awaiting the promise of a better life. While Snapchatting concerns of the deflating dinghy to her fiancé, she lost her life that day. Her story is just one of the thousands who believe that the risk of crossing is safer than whatever circumstances they are living through – war and conflict, sexual violence, persecution, or dictatorships.
Any understanding of the refugee crisis must examine what the driving forces for fleeing are.
Without understanding and grappling with the root causes of injustice, including the injustices committed by regimes that Western governments support, assist and can therefore influence, we will struggle to provide a holistic response anchored in justice, due process and respect for both human dignity and our international commitments.
According to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees 1951, a refugee is an individual who “has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” Naturally, many refugees therefore also constitute members of religion or belief communities who face violations of their right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in countries in which they may not be the dominant belief group, or in the case of Syria, where members of a minority belief group maintain their grip on power through severe repression.
Case study: Afghanistan
The intersection between religion and refugee status was brought into stark relief once again last August in Afghanistan, when the nation fell back into the hands of the Taliban following the agreed but chaotic withdrawal of US troops. The country had already endured more than forty years of war and conflict, and, with this swift and conclusive takeover, it was thrown into further disarray.
The situation has remained unstable ever since, with reports indicating that less than 4% of Afghans have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Women and girls live in daily fear of attack as their access to education is restricted and their rights are clawed back progressively. Citizens have also been specifically targeted in relation to their religion, belief, ethnicity or sect. Half of the population is in desperate need of life-saving humanitarian assistance – a total of 8.4 million Afghani people.
In turn, this has generated a refugee crisis on an unparalleled scale. There are currently 2.9 million Afghan refugees, three-quarters of whom are being sheltered in nearby Iran and Pakistan. Many of these are religious minorities, such as Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and Hazara Shi’a Muslims, who have fled a regime that is violently antithetical to other religious beliefs, and considers conversion to a religion outside of their interpretation of Islam as punishable by death.
In addition, the UNHCR estimates 80% of these refugees are women and children, who can face even further vulnerabilities on account of both gender and age, in addition to their religion.
Thus, any explanation of the lives of refugees cannot and should not be divorced from the surrounding issues that intersect with one another, including religion or belief.
The international community has made some attempts to respond to this crisis, including the UK, who on 6 January 2022 opened the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme which aims to resettle up to 20,000 vulnerable people from the country.
However, concerns have been expressed by the Refugee Council that while “people in neighbouring countries will be able to access the scheme from the Spring … the pathway for people still in Afghanistan will be limited to a small cohort of people in the first year, leaving thousands of extremely vulnerable people in great danger. It is also a concern that not everyone who arrives under the scheme will be granted refugee status, which, critically, will mean that they will not have the opportunity to reunite with their family members left behind.”
A radical yet transformative approach
A deeper understanding of the different factors driving people from their homes and countries must inform policies in countries where they seek to resettle, alongside a humane and transformative approach that mainstreams freedom of religion or belief into humanitarian, advocacy, and development work.
By CSW’s Digital Communications Officer Lizzi Joyner