Over the last week, several UK media sources ran stories on a striking piece of research publicised by Barnabas Fund. The story centres around Home Offices figures obtained by the religious aid organisation. The figures highlight the very low number of religious minority Syrians who have been recommended for resettlement by the UNHCR, and eventually resettled by the UK government.
According to the research, out of 2,637 Syrians recommended for resettlement to the UK by the UNHCR in 2015, only 57 of them identified as religious minorities persecuted in Syria: 43 were Christians, 1 was Shia Muslim, and 13 were Yazidis. The individuals who were eventually resettled by the UK government in 2015 totalled 1,194 Syrians. Of those, 41 individuals belonged to religious minorities: 40 Christians, 1 Shia Muslim, and 0 Yazidis.
The figures were even lower in 2016. 7,499 Syrians were recommended for resettlement to the UK by the UNHCR. Only 45 individuals belonged to religious minorities: 27 were Christians, 13 Shia, and 5 Yazidis. From a total of 4,369 Syrians eventually resettled in the UK, 60 individuals belonged to religious minorities: 20 Christians, 12 Shia Muslims, 18 Yazidis, 6 Druze, and 4 Eastern Orthodox.
The numbers of the religious minority Syrians proposed for resettlement or actually resettled may be perceived as being reasonable and (more or less) proportionate to the religious demographics in Syria. Indeed, Christians, Yazidis and Shia Muslims are minorities in predominately Sunni Muslim Syria. However, such statistical approach is flawed. It neglects the nature of the atrocities perpetrated by Daesh against religious minorities in Syria (and beyond).
Photograph taken during my trip to the Nineveh Plains in November 2016. (Photo credit: Ewelina U. Ochab)
It is a matter of fact that the largest number of causalities in Syria are the Sunni Muslims. Sunni Muslims are the majority population in Syria. Hence, even without specifically targeting Sunni Muslims, they would statistically be the biggest victims of the ongoing atrocities perpetrated by the government, the opposition, and the various militia groups involved (of which Daesh is only a small part of).
Yet, in early 2014, Daesh unleashed a genocidal campaign against religious minorities with the purpose of eliminating religious pluralism from the region. It has been confirmed by international and state actors; Daesh targeted religious minorities, Christians, Yazidis, Shia Muslims and others in an attempt to establish a purely Islamic state. In accordance with Daesh' ideology, there was no space for religious minorities under Daesh's caliphate. Hence, while the Syrian Civil War has been ongoing for years, early in 2014 another conflict emerged. It followed different rules. It's aim was to create a purely Islamic state, separate from Syria and the Syrian internal conflict.
The recognition of the Daesh atrocities against religious minority groups in Syria (and Iraq) as genocide is not insignificant. Genocide is the crime of crimes. Under international law, this is the worst crime there is. While crimes against humanity or war crimes many lead to similar or even greater number of causalities than genocide, the crime of genocide is different because of the underlying intent. As its goal, Daesh planned to destroy protected groups in whole or in part.
It means that if the perpetrator is not stopped, if the genocidal campaign is not stopped, there is a risk that the targeted groups would disappear from the surface of the earth. The nature of the crime justifies a broad range of actions: from military intervention to humanitarian assistance to the survivors. Resettlement to a safe haven should be included as one of these actions. It is necessary to ensure that the what remains is temporarily or permanently removed from the conflict zone, depending on the situation and the needs, to ensure its survival. This consideration, justifying the favourable treatment of persecuted religious minorities as a priority for resettlement, appears to be removed from the debate.
The recent genocidal atrocities perpetrated against religious minorities cannot be neglected and vulnerable victims cannot be left without assistance.
There may be two main problems. The first problem centres around the designation of the refugee status and the second, the designation of who is particularly vulnerable and resettling based on this consideration. Religious minorities struggle to be recognised under either.
This struggle shows the flaws of the existing mechanism. A failure that needs to be addressed to ensure that vulnerability assessment reflects the empirical facts and not the coincidental falling within the artificially established categories. As it is clear from the cases of the religious groups persecuted because of their religion, the flawed vulnerability assessment fails Christians, Yazidis, Rohingya Muslims and many more. The survivors of genocidal atrocities must be treated differently - even if this means discriminating for resettlement. Their survival often depends on it.