Selective Religious Criteria for Refugees: Justifiable? (Speech)

The recent presidential executive order suspends the United States refugee resettlement program which has gained much global criticism and concern, and it orders authorities to “Prioritize refugee claims made by individuals based on religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality”. 

The religious minority exception has been largely understood to refer only to Christian refugees thanks to comments Donald Trump made in an interview about Syrian Christians. However, the order doesn’t specify any specific religious group and Christians aren’t necessarily visiting lean priority in its enforcement. The exception has been criticized on three grounds – legal, moral, and practical.

The legal argument is that accepting refugees is an obligation under the law of nations that ought to be determined on humanitarian grounds. Morally, deciding whether to guard people against persecution supported by nationality, race or religion alone is just discriminatory. However, religion has long been an element in determining asylum claims. In some cases, too, positive discrimination is also necessary to shield certain groups from extreme persecution, like genocide. 

Practical objections to the exception relating to national security concerns and therefore the loss of spiritual plurality within the geographic region. The priority is that by identifying religious minorities as a priority, the US is a target of spiritual violence by religious extremist groups receiving – and spiritual minorities are further persecuted within the Near East region. If some groups of refugees would be disproportionately favored over others, religious extremists, like Islamic State, could use this to exacerbate sectarian tensions.

As definitions of “minorities” differ reckoning on the context, questions remain: will Muslim minorities be recognized and prioritized equally? Will the order help Baha’is in Iran, Yazidis in Iraq, or Rohingya Muslims in Burma additionally to Christian minorities? Among refugee communities, too, increased sectarian tensions and spiritual violence are fuelled by political rhetoric and responses to refugee admissions. In Germany, clashes between Christian and Muslim refugees resulted in necessitate refugees to be separated supported by religious affiliation. 

Undoubtedly, some religious groups are specifically targeted around the world and need urgent protection. Yet, religious identity alone doesn’t predetermine whether someone is fleeing persecution. Whether an applicant is Christian, Muslim, or otherwise, the necessity remains to demonstrate that they need to be fled from persecution, and therefore the nature of that persecution.

Priority should be supported by those who need refuge. While religion can and does factor into this determination, it’s not the sole factor. The continued focus of my very own research has emphasized the importance of recognizing the religious dimension of displacement. This is often to recognize that not all refugees flee for identical reasons and not all experience displacement equally.

Religious minorities like Druze, Christians, Yazidis, Baha’is, and Zoroastrians, have long been recognized as needing specific protection when fleeing religious persecution. But none of this suggests that entire groups of individuals are to be considered more or less “ideal” refugees if they need a specific religious affiliation. 

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