ONE of the reasons that more Syrian Christians had not been resettled in the UK was the desire to keep families and faith communities together, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said this week, after it was revealed that no Christians were among the 1112 Syrian refugees resettled in the first three months of the year.
The figures were released by the Home Office in response to a request under the Freedom of Information Act submitted by the Barnabas Fund. Of the 1358 refugees recommended by the UNHCR for resettlement in the UK during the period, 1226 were Sunni Muslim, and 127 were Shia, or adherents of other branches of Islam. Four were Christian, and one an atheist. There were no Christians among the 1112 approved.
Last week, the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, asked the same question in the House of Lords, and was told by Baroness Williams, a Home Office Minister, that the UK “works to humanitarian principles of impartiality and neutrality, which means that we do not take into consideration the ethno-religious origins of people requiring assistance, as we resettle solely on the basis of needs, identified by UNHCR through their established submission categories”.
She declined to provide numbers on the religious and ethnic diversity of those resettled, citing concern for their privacy.
On Tuesday, a spokesperson for the UNHCR said: “Resettlement is a vital lifeline for vulnerable refugees, but, as spaces are limited, they are reserved for refugees deemed to be at greatest risk. UNHCR strives to keep families and faith communities together in the resettlement process, which is one reason why we have generally submitted more minorities to other European countries — as well as to North America and Australia — than to the UK, where only 0.2 per cent of Syrian Christian refugees have relatives.”
Last year, the Centre for Social Justice, noting that at least 600,000 Syrian Christians had been displaced, recommended that the Government analyse UNHCR registration data to “state definitively whether there is under-referral of Syrian Christians”.
The Government has repeatedly insisted that membership of a religious minority is not taken into account when assessing vulnerability, although such groups may meet other criteria. These are: women and girls at risk; survivors of violence and/or torture; refugees with legal and/or physical protection needs; refugees with medical needs or disabilities; children and adolescents at risk; persons at risk owing to their sexual orientation or gender identity; and refugees with family links in resettlement countries.
In 2016, in response to concerns raised by the International Development Select Committee, the Government recognised that, “for reasons of stigma or fear of repercussion”, some groups might be less willing to come forward for help and resettlement. Others might be “in remote areas”, or may rely on “community or social networks”.
This week, the Home Office reiterated that it was “working with the UNHCR and other partners to reach groups that might be reluctant to register for the scheme for fear of discrimination and unaware of the options available to them”.
In 2015, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, told the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom that, while the UNHCR did not discriminate on the basis of religion, “the fact that you belong to a religious minority is an important element of vulnerability. . . It is one of the criteria that we apply in the choice of people in need of protection through resettlement.”
He noted that in Iraq, Christians made up a high proportion of those resettled. In Syria, he said, it was “more complex. . . Most of the Syrian Christians have moved to Lebanon,” where the Lebanese President had said to him: “Don’t resettle Chrisitians, because they are vital for us.”
About ten per cent of the Syrian population is Christian, although many have fled to neighbouring counties and further afield since the start of the conflict. About three-quarters are Sunni Muslims. The fact that most of the opposition to the Syrian government was led by Sunni Muslims may explain why they are more likely to be recommended for resettlement.