UN: Critics wrong on Christian Syrian refugees
Under fire from conservative critics, the United Nations’s refugee agency is insisting that critics have their facts wrong about the small number of Christians fleeing the civil war in Syria.
Against heated criticism from Capitol Hill, officials from the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) maintain that the situation in Syria is much more complicated than its opponents assert.
“The details of resettlement are so detailed and so precise that only a few people in Washington ever care about it,” said Jana Mason, UNHCR’s senior adviser for government relations and external affairs. “Now all of a sudden, everybody on the morning news, the evening news, cable news are talking about it. And because it is so complicated and so multi-step, people get it wrong.”
“What’s caught us by surprise is that it’s being parsed in the public domain without all the detailed understanding being out there.”
Mason and her colleagues attempted to correct some of that “misinformation” in an interview with The Hill on Friday.
Her agency has been trapped in the spotlight by comments from some Republicans, who have criticized the UNHCR and the Obama administration for a seemingly low number of Christian refugees that come to the U.S. from Syria. The U.N. agency provides the first line of screening for most of the refugees that eventually make it to the U.S.
“They appear to be filtering Christians out,” said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).
According to data from the State Department, just 62 of the 2,550 Syrian refugees that have been resettled in the U.S. since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011 are some denomination of Christian. That 2.4 percent is much lower than the roughly 10 percent of pre-war Syria that was believed to have been Christian.
The disparity is not just in the U.S.
Of the roughly 2 million Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt who have registered with the UNHCR, only 1.2 percent are Christian, Mason said.
Why the discrepancy?
“We don’t know,” she said. “We don’t want to speculate.”
António Guterres, the U.N.’s high commissioner for refugees, has suggested that many Christian Syrians may have gone into Lebanon, which has a high Christian population.
Many Christians within Syria also might feel protected by embattled President Bashar Assad, who himself is part of the minority Alawite offshoot of Islam.
“A higher percentage of them support Assad and feel safer with him there,” Anne Richard, the assistant secretary of State for population, refugees and migration, testified on Capitol Hill this week.
“The ones who come out, who choose to flee and feel they are in danger, those are the people we want to help.”
There also might be problems with the pre-war demographics in Syria, which could explain the discrepancy. Or a disproportionate number of Christians may be among the 102,000 Syrians who came to the U.S. through work, study or other visa programs since 2012.
Whatever the reason, critics maintain their distrust of the U.N. agency.
Possible explanations for the disproportionate refugee numbers are just “poor excuses,” Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), the chairman of the House’s subcommittee on global human rights.
“Clearly, there’s a discriminatory process that excludes Christians,” he told The Hill on Friday. “It needs to be changed.”
“The discrimination manifests in that they’re not getting food, the medicines, the shelter that they absolutely deserve,” Smith added. “So it’s twice offended: first by groups like ISIS [the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria] and then as refugees, as they are part of that refugee flow.”
UNHCR officials reject the notion that any structural flaws in their systems discriminate against Christian refugees, intentionally or not.
Roughly 16 percent of Iraqi refugees who have registered with the UNHCR are Christians, officials noted — far higher than the roughly 1 percent of Iraq that is Christian.
“Those are the exact same offices where Syrians would be coming,” said Larry Yungk, a senior resettlement officer with the UNHCR.
“If there is an idea of an inhibition [against registering with the UNHCR], it didn’t appear with the Iraqis at the very same offices,” he said.
Critics on the right have pointed to anecdotal evidence indicating that Christians feel intimidated in U.N. refugee camps, which might keep them out of the U.N.’s reach.
Yet only 15 percent of Syrian refugees are in formal camps. The rest are scattered in cities, towns and makeshift shelters, where they might be receiving U.N. assistance but living alongside the rest of the population.
“We have undertaken efforts specifically to both encourage and facilitate registration by all minority groups to make sure they feel comfortable registering,” Mason said. Among other steps, that includes mobile units to meet people in their neighborhoods and working with churches.
Critics are undeterred.
Multiple lawmakers have called for the Obama administration to declare both Christians and members of the small Yazidi community victims of genocide, which could lead to additional legal levers to support them.
Others have openly wondered whether the U.S. ought to turn to outside non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to refer refugees to the State Department, instead of going through the U.N.
“If UNHCR won’t reform itself, well then let’s make sure we have an NGO that can process these people, find them and help to bring them to safety,” Smith said on Friday.
“We’re just trying to keep our eye on the ball here,” UNHCR spokesman Chris Boian maintained.
“A lot of politics going on — we’re aware of all that,” he said. “But we’re doing everything possible to make sure that Christians, like all religious minorities, and like all refugees, have access to our services on an equal basis.”
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