Over three years after Daesh unleashed its genocidal campaign against religious minorities in Iraq and Syria, the groups have not been able to start a new life yet. Their homes have been destroyed and the reconstruction will take months if not years. However, the alternative, resettling to safe haven, has also been unsuccessful (with some exceptions). In a previous piece, I explained the recently released statistics suggesting that religious minorities subjected to religious persecution and genocide are not being resettled in the UK. There are two main reasons that require attention. The first issue centers around the designation of the refugee status, and the second, the designation of who is particularly vulnerable and resettling based on this consideration.
Despite the fact that religious minorities persecuted by Daesh clearly meet the particulars of the definition of a refugee under the 1951 Refugee Convention, they struggle to be granted this recognition. The procedure is time consuming, involves numerous interviews, among other challenges, and is rarely granted after the first application. What makes the situation worse is that religious minorities in exile do not have access to assistance how to make their applications or the sorts of evidence to submit in support.
Individuals are to be resettled depending on their vulnerability. However, when accessing vulnerability, religious persecution, even that which amounts to genocide, is not a consideration for the vulnerability assessment. There are several guidelines on what are the vulnerability criteria and how to assess them. According to the UNHCR 2016 Vulnerability Screening Tool, the existing vulnerability domains are: children; sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation; health and welfare concerns; protection needs; other (not previously included). The guidance does not provide for a clarification how to approach the cases of survivors of genocidal atrocities or victims of religious persecution, despite the fact that they should fall under the category of individuals in need of protection. Similarly, many other guidelines are silent when it comes to recognising vulnerability of survivors of genocide or religious persecution.
The guidelines fail to recognise that religion in countries like Syria (or Iraq and any other parts of the Middle East), religion is identity. Hence, religious persecution, persecution on grounds of religion, goes to the very reason why the person is persecuted. This also explains why Christian or Yazidi minorities in the Middle East did not want to convert to Islam. Because without their own religion, they would have lost more than their sense of ‘belonging’ to a religious groups, they would lose their identity. This is not understood in the Western world where religion has all but disappeared from the public sphere. Its importance diminished over time with fewer people identify themselves as practicing a particular religion.
The lack of recognition for religious persecution (and especially when it amounts to genocide) as a vulnerability criteria by the UNHCR is highly concerning. The importance of such an additional vulnerability criteria has become increasingly evident over the recent years. In 2014, Daesh unleashed a genocidal campaign against Christians, Yazidis, and other minorities. The target of the atrocities was the eradication of the religious identity of these groups. Daesh wanted to establish a purely Islamic state and hence targeted religious pluralism in Iraq, Syria, and beyond. It was their religious identity that made the groups the primary victim of Daesh atrocities. This religious persecution made them extremely vulnerable, and this vulnerability has not been addressed adequately or at all. Over the recent months, news from Burma has been circulating of the persecution of Rohingya Muslims. This persecution has a religious and ethnic background. Again, this vulnerability criteria continues to be neglected as it is not officially recognised as a vulnerability criteria by the UNHCR.
The lack of recognition of religious persecution as one of the characteristics is detrimental to individuals persecuted for their religion. It is true that, theoretically, belonging to ‘a religious minority group subjected to persecution’ could fall into one of the recognised and existing vulnerability characteristics. However, this is not clear from the UNHCR guidelines, and there is no systematic approach to it. There is no guidance that would help the caseworkers to make this connection either. This is the source of all challenges encountered by groups persecuted for their religion.
The recent genocidal atrocities perpetrated against religious minorities cannot be neglected and vulnerable victims cannot be left without assistance. A reading of Article II of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide indicates that genocide occurs when atrocities (as listed in Article II) are perpetrated against one of the four protected groups (religious, racial, ethnic or national) with the specific intent to destroy the groups in whole or in part. This persecution of the protected groups, if perpetrated with the specific intent to destroy the groups in whole or in part, can amount to genocide - the crime of crimes. However, as explained above, the religious is not recognised in the vulnerability determination without reliance of other characteristics.