Reaction to UNHCR 2014 annual report

The latest trend report by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, which has the striking title World at War, highlights that 2014 saw the highest displacement ever. Indeed, “by end-2014, 59.5 million individuals were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or human rights violations”, as the report concludes, 8.3 million more than the year before. The report also finds that “an estimated 13.9 million individuals were newly displaced due to conflict or persecution in 2014.”

Most countries on the top 10 in terms of displacements (in or from the country) have consistently received high scores on Open Doors’ World Watch List (WWL), the annual index of persecution of Christians: Syria (83 points), Colombia (55), Iraq (86), Sudan (80), Afghanistan (81), Pakistan (79), Nepal (45) and Myanmar (60). DRC and South Sudan, even though not scored are among the countries that WWR attentively follows.

WWR welcomes this excellent report, which comprehensively describes the extent and scope of displacement (including refugees, internally displaced persons and asylum-seekers) in the world, but would like to highlight two aspects that are specifically related to the position of Christians within a context of religious persecution.

The first aspect to be highlighted is that persecution of Christians (or of any other religious group for that matter) is often linked with displacement. World Watch Research has documented numerous cases of Christians who were displaced for faith-related reasons, both inside their own countries and outside of them.

In Nigeria, for example, many thousands of people have been displaced by Hausa-Fulani Muslim herdsmen following attacks on the Christian population which are part of the drive by expansionist Islamic policy to dominate the Middle Belt region. In the context of the Kachin conflict in Myanmar, high numbers of refugees, including Christians, are still awaiting to return to their homeland. Recently, dozens of tribal Christians have fled to the jungles of Cambodia to flee persecution in Vietnam. Religious intolerance is also one of the factors for the internal displacement of Christians in countries such as Mexico or Colombia. Finally, Christian migrants fleeing both economic hardship and persecution from countries such as Eritrea or Ethiopia are at high risk when traveling through Libya, Sudan or Egypt where they usually meet human traffickers who hold them for ransoms as well as militant Muslims who usually perform summary execution on them.

A form of displacement that is often not observed is that of converts to Christianity from a Muslim background who need to go into hiding to avoid reprisal from family members or even persecution as well as prosecution due to apostasy legislation. This occurs in countries such as Saudi-Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt and Sudan (please refer to the corresponding persecution profiles in the WWL 2015 report).

Of course, saying that displacement often occurs in a context of persecution, does not imply that all people affected by displacement in these countries are necessarily Christians, nor that their displacement is caused by faith-related reasons only. It is nevertheless relevant to mention the existence of these cases, as Christians often possess a specific vulnerability to humanitarian crises, especially in countries where they are a minority.

The second aspect to be highlighted is the issue of the treatment of Christians in refugee camps. Based on in-country sources, World Watch Research has established that Christians do not always feel safe in UN refugee camps for refugees from the Central African Republic, because they are often in the same camps as Séléka rebels, who used to attack Christians, fleeing the anti-Balaka insurgency. In and outside Syria, Christians prefer not to stay in refugee camps administrated by the UN because other refugees in those camps, some of whom are militant Muslims themselves, cause them to suffer great hostilities. This situation is particularly poignant, as Christians who fled the violence in Syria also have to flee from UN refugee camps. These are just two examples, but there are reasons to believe the problem is much more widespread. Not only because victims and perpetrators meet in the same camps, but also because it happens that these camps are run by individuals who somehow are part in the conflict.

Displacement that occurs in a context of religious persecution deserves proper attention. It is also important that the international community and the responsible governments address the issue immediately, considering that protecting civilians in UN refugee camps is primarily the duty of the host states. When a host state is unable and/or unwilling to do so, the onus is on the international community to safeguard the safety and security of the refugees, ensuring that these camps are run by individuals with no vested interest in the conflict.

This post appeared previously on The Analytical.

Dennis P. Petri
Dennis P. Petri is Director of Plataforma C, Platform for Christian Politics. A political scientist by training, he specializes in comparative politics with a specific interest in Latin America. He is currently working on a dissertation about religious freedom at VU University Amsterdam.

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