Following Secretary Kerry’s announcement this morning that ISIS is responsible for genocide against Christians, Yazidis, and others, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AK) announced on the Senate floor the introduction of the Religious Persecution Relief Act of 2016.
Senator Cotton rightly noted in his remarks that in addition to naming the crimes that ISIS has committed, the United States must also take action to relieve the genocide. As Secretary Kerry also noted this morning, “We must hold the perpetrators accountable. And we must find the resources to help those harmed by these atrocities be able to survive on their ancestral land.” Secretary Kerry added, “Naming these crimes is important. But what is essential is to stop them. That will require unity in this country and within the countries directly involved, and the determination to act against genocide, against ethnic cleansing, against the other crimes against humanity must be pronounced among decent people all across the globe.”
One of the challenges that victims of genocide and specifically Syrian religious minority refugees are facing is that the current refugee resettlement process unintentionally discriminates against Syrian religious minorities. In 2015, only 2.3% of the 1,790 Syrian refugees resettled in the U.S. were religious minorities. This is despite Syrian Christians representing approximately 10% of Syria’s pre-war population. So far in 2016, only 4 out of 465 Syrian refugees resettled in the U.S. are religious minorities. That represents a rate of less than 1%. The U.S. resettlement program for Syria relies almost solely on referrals of refugees from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (“UNHCR”). According to the U.S. State Department, of the roughly 20,000 Syrians referred to the U.S. for resettlement by UNHCR, less than 1% are non-Muslim religious minorities.
Syrian religious minorities are reluctant to register as refugees with the UNHCR for fear of persecution and retaliation. As the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom stated in a 2013 report, “Christians and Alawites reportedly are not registering with their organization because they fear negative repercussions from Sunni refugees identifying them with the regime. They reportedly also fear that if Bashar Al-Assad remains in power and they return to Syria, the Syrian government will view them as disloyal for having sought safe haven in a neighboring country.” Because they are not registering with UNHCR, Syrian religious minorities are not referred to the United States for resettlement in representative numbers, which leads to unintentional discrimination and persecuted Syrian religious minorities being shut out of the U.S. resettlement program.
Senator Cotton’s bill provides a solution to this problem by granting Syrian religious minorities underrepresented in U.S. resettlement admissions priority “P-2 status” in the resettlement review process. The Religious Persecution Relief Act would create a dedicated 10,000-person quota for Syrian religious minorities that is in addition to the current worldwide refugee resettlement quota set by the State Department.
IDC Executive Director Kirsten Evans stated, “IDC believes that the United States must help protect and preserve the right of religious minorities including Christians to remain in their ancient homeland as well as provide asylum through the refugee resettlement process to vulnerable communities targeted for persecution, atrocities, or genocide. IDC encourages Members of Congress to support this legislation which would provide this necessary relief to Syrian refugees, while committing to a long-term strategy to ensure the preservation of these communities and their rich cultural heritage in their rightful homeland.”