October 20, 2016

No, the U.S. Is Not Discriminating Against Syrian Christian Refugees



Last month, Senator Ted Cruz sought answers to a question that has been vexing some opponents of the Syrian refugee resettlement program: where are the Syrian Christian refugees?

Christians made up ten percent of the Syrian population at the start of the Syrian conflict, but constituted only two percent of the resettled refugees. Cruz argues that this is proof the Obama Administration prefers resettling Muslim refugees and is actively trying to keep out Syrian Christians.

The explanation for the disparate resettlement rates is much more innocuous than Senator Cruz believes. Human Rights First investigated this facet of the resettlement program, ultimately finding “no indication of any efforts to limit resettlement of Christian refugees from Syria.”

On the contrary, the number of Christian refugees resettled in the United States is proportional to the number of Christians registered as refugees by the United Nations.

This indicates that few Syrian Christians are seeking refugee status, although it is true that hundreds of thousands of Syrian Christians have been displaced by the chaos of the Syrian conflict, similar to other Syrian refugee populations. But being displaced is not the same as being a registered refugee. So why is it that Syrian Christians are not looking to acquire refugee status?

There are three main reasons.

First,  as Department of State official Simon Henshaw explained last month,  many Syrian Christians do not flee their country for refugee camps outside Syria. Instead, they opt to seek safety in some government-controlled regions of Syria.

Second, many of the Syrian Christians that do flee the country go to nearby Lebanon, home to a large Christian population. They tend to settle within these Christian communities, rather than in the refugee camps where the UN predominantly registers refugees.

Moreover, American refugee processing capabilities are notoriously weak in Lebanon, compared to more robust processes in Turkey and Jordan. For those Syrian Christians in Lebanon that do seek refugee status, the modest U.S. infrastructure restricts processing capacity. The limited resettlement capabilities squeeze refugees slowly through a system not prepared to handle high numbers.

Third, Syrian Christians also have a number of alternative legal pathways to enter the United States outside the refugee system, including: coming as students or as workers, or to reunite with family.

Furthermore, Human Rights First reports that some Christians in Syria have been coerced by ISIS to pay jizya, a religious tax, or face death. Often, these payments appear in the rigorous American screening process that checks refugees, resulting in denied claims for refugee status for having provided “support” to ISIS.

Ultimately, there is no grand conspiracy or single cause driving the low resettlement numbers of Syrian Christian refugees. But that does not mean there is nothing to be done to ensure that all potential refugee populations have access to resettlement programs.

As Human Rights First explains, the United States can and should expand its resettlement program in Lebanon. Also, it ought to support NGOs to help identify and assist vulnerable Christians who might slip through the United Nation’s system.

The Obama Administration is not actively discriminating against Christian refugees from Syria. False and misguided accusations of discrimination undermine the American refugee resettlement program and hurt the important work done by the United Nations and the U.S. resettlement agencies to provide safe haven to the most vulnerable refugees across the globe.