UNHCR decisions to refer underrepresent minority groups
Figures obtained by Barnabas Fund in response to a Freedom of Information request have revealed that, in 2017, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees recommended 7,060 Syrian refugees for resettlement in the UK. However, only 25 of these were Christians – representing less than 0.4%. Yazidis were similarly grossly underrepresented, with only seven refugees finally recommended for resettlement in the UK by the UN. Notably, it is precisely these minority groups that have been most severely targeted by jihadists, and victims of crimes against humanity and possible genocide. In October 2017 , Barnabas Fund obtained figures for 2016, which also showed an appallingly low percentage of Christians and other minorities such as Yazidis.
Like Barnabas Fund, a number of UK politicians have expressed their concerns to senior UNHCR officials and discussed the low percentage of people from minority religious groups assisted or referred for resettlement. A number of answers were forthcoming, but it appears that many unanswered questions remain. UNHCR does not give religion much weight even in situations of sectarian conflict and some UNHCR operations apparently do not ask about religion. There is also a sense that what happens on the ground locally in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and elsewhere does not fully adhere to policies set in place.
UK decisions to accept reduce numbers even further
UK Home Office officials, who process referrals from the UN, appear to have made the situation yet worse. While 69% of all Muslims referred by the UN were accepted for resettlement in the UK, only 44% of Christians were accepted and less than 21% of Yazidis. The end result was that of the 4,850 Syrian refugees the Home Office accepted for resettlement, a mere eleven were Christians, representing only 0.2% of all Syrian refugees accepted by the UK.
UK Home Office denies resettlement figures are disproportionately low
When Barnabas Fund asked, “What representations the UK government have made to the UNHCR concerning the disproportionately low percentage of Christians among Syrian refugees recommended for resettlement in the UK?”, Home Office officials denied there was a problem, claiming:
“The UNHCR-registered refugee population is about 1% Christian. The proportion of Christians and other religious minorities accessing the VPRS [UK government scheme] are similar to (and in some cases greater than) the proportions of these groups registered with UNHCR.”
However, even given that only 1% of UNHCR registered Syrian refugees are Christian is massively underrepresenting even conservative estimates of the pre-war population, this Home Office statement is untrue. The statistics provided in the response indicate that only 0.35% of all Syrian refugees referred to the UK were Christians. This compares with an estimated 10% Christian population in Syria before the civil war began in 2011.
Similar underrepresentation of Christians and Yazidis in the USA
This is not only a UK problem. Similar data from the USA shows that, of 3,024 Syrian refugees resettled there in 2017, only 61 (2%) were Christians, and only seven were Yazidis. Significantly, although the US relies on UN referrals, unlike the UK it also takes some refugees directly, likely accounting for the slightly higher percentage of Christians resettled there.
UNHCR’s vulnerability criteria does not identify targeted minorities
The primary source of the problem lies with the vulnerability criteria used by the UNHCR. These do not include anything related to religious cleansing or specific targeting of religious minorities by jihadists, even though this has been a significant feature of the Syrian conflict. Shockingly, Islamic State (IS, ISIS or ISIL) produced a slave price list, and tellingly this only lists prices for Christian and Yazidi women. It does Home Office officials no credit that they have attempted to cover up and deny the existence of this problem.
Lord Carey article prompts House of Lords debate on Syrian Christian Refugees
On 5 September 2015 former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey drew attention in a Telegraph article to the serious discrimination that Syrian Christians faced in the UN refugee system. Four days later, in a House of Lords debate on “Syria: Christian refugees”, Lord Green of Deddington asked the Home Office minister Lord Ahmad to ensure that the UK did not discriminate against Christians when considering the issue of resettling Syrian refugees in the UK:
“Is he aware of an article in the Sunday press by the noble and Right Reverend Lord, Lord Carey of Clifton? He reported that Christians have been targeted by ISIL for crucifixion, beheading and rape. Even now, they are not to be found in the UN camps because they have been attacked by Islamists and have had to find refuge in private houses and churches. Will the Government now assure this House that they fully understand the plight of Syrian Christians and that they realise that they are not in the camps for the reason I have given? If they reach an agreement with the UNHCR that does not take account of that fact, they are discriminating against Christians, who have suffered from these events at least as much as anybody else. It can be done; it is a question of the small print. Let it be done.”
The Home Office minister replied:
“I assure the noble Lord that the Government take all persecution against any minority very seriously. In his consideration, he mentioned the Christians; and we have seen the appalling scenes against the Yazidis. All minorities who are suffering such persecution at the hands of this hideous ISIL entity will be dealt with in the proper way, by ensuring that their vulnerabilities are protected and they are given the protection they deserve.”
Home Office urgently needs to tackle underrepresentation and deliver on assurances
This assurance to protect the Syrian refugee minorities is something that the Home Office has singly failed to keep. The UNHCR still does not include the specific targeting of people because of their religion in its “vulnerability criteria”. The Home Office has done nothing to redress the balance. Worse still, Home Office officials are now denying that there is even a problem.
It is the job of parliament to hold government to account. Individual MPs have asked questions on this issue, but there has been no select committee investigation – although Barnabas Fund has asked several select committee chairs to do so.
The UK’s new Home Secretary Sajid Javid, a man with a Muslim family background and married to a Christian, has in the short time he has been in office already been prepared to stand up to Islamist organisations. As a matter of urgency, Mr Javid needs to tackle the underrepresentation problem for at-risk Christian and Yazidi refugees.
It is serious enough for the UN to discriminate against Christians and Yazidis targeted by jihadists in Syria, but for UK officials to cover it up, or even deny there is a problem, tarnishes the UK’s long-standing reputation as a place of refuge for those facing religious persecution.