President Donald Trump said Christians have “been horribly treated” by the refugee program and that it has been “almost impossible” for Syrian Christians to gain refugee status for entry into the U.S. But he provides no evidence that they’ve been discriminated against.
It’s true that relatively few Syrian Christians have been accepted into the U.S. as refugees. But officials at the United Nations refugee program say fewer Christians from Syria have registered seeking resettlement. And while there are several theories for that, no one is entirely certain why.
Trump’s comments about the disparity of Christian refugees were made during an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody on Jan. 27.
Brody: Persecuted Christians, we’ve talked about this, overseas. The refugee program, or the refugee changes you’re looking to make. As it relates to persecuted Christians, do you see them as kind of a priority here?
Brody: You do?
Trump: They’ve been horribly treated. Do you know if you were a Christian in Syria it was impossible, very, very – at least very, very – tough to get into the United States? If you were a Muslim you could come in, but if you were a Christian, it was almost impossible and the reason that was so unfair, is that the – everybody was persecuted in all fairness, but they were chopping off the heads of everybody but more so the Christians. And I thought it was very, very unfair. So we are going to help them.
Later that day, Trump signed an executive order that says that the U.S. — “to the extent permitted by law” — should “prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.” Christians would qualify as belonging to a minority religion in Syria.
On CNN on Jan. 30, Democratic Sen. Chris Coons accused Trump of spreading “alternative facts.”
Coons, Jan. 30: President Trump went on the Christian Broadcasting Network and spread some alternative facts about the numbers. We welcomed nearly as many Christian refugees as Muslim refugees last year.
Coons clarified later in the same interview that he meant “alternative facts” as “a euphemism for a lie, that’s a euphemism for spreading false facts.”
A Pew Research Center analysis of data from the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center found that a record high of 38,901 Muslim refugees entered the U.S. in fiscal year 2016; slightly more than the 37,521 Christians who were admitted that year. Nearly half of all refugees resettled in the U.S. came from three countries: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria and Burma (in that order).
But Trump specifically cited the example of Syria. The U.S. accepted 12,587 Syrian refugees in fiscal year 2016, and the overwhelming majority of them were Sunni Muslims, according to data from the Refugee Processing Center. (Sunnis tend to support the rebels and oppose President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war.) Just 64 Syrian refugees admitted to the U.S., or about 0.5 percent, were Christians in fiscal year 2016. So far this fiscal year, about 1.8 percent of the Syrian refugees accepted into the U.S. were Christians.
By either figure, the number of Christian Syrian refugees is underrepresented. The question is why.
Nina Shea, who heads the Center for Religious Freedom at the conservative Hudson Institute, believes it is evidence of de facto discrimination against Christians by the United Nations’ refugee program, which identifies potential candidates for resettlement. She also blames U.S. officials for its tacit acceptance of the disparity, and recommends the U.S. bypass the U.N. refugee program entirely with regard to Syrian Christians.
Chris Boian, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said “UNHCR staff simply does not discriminate.” Boian said decisions about how to prioritize refugees is based on the “basic human needs” of refugees, regardless of religion, nationality or race.
The reality, he said, is that far fewer Christian Syrians have applied for resettlement.
According to data supplied by the UNHCR, just 1.5 percent of the 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon are Christians; 0.2 percent of the 655,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan are Christians; 0.3 percent of the 228,000 Syrians refugees in Iraq are Christians; and 0.1 percent of the 115,000 Syrian refugees in Egypt are Christians. (In Turkey, where there are 2.7 million Syrian refugees, they do not record the religion of refugees.)
“We don’t fully know why there are fewer Christians requesting refugee status with UNHCR,” Boian said.
Shea believes it is due, in part, to mistreatment Syrian Christians face as minorities in resettlement camps. “The religious terror that drove them from Syria blocks their registering,” Shea wrote in a piece published by the National Review Online.
But only about 491,000 of the Syrian refugees are in camps, while nearly 4.4 million are in rural or urban areas. UNHCR says services may be provided to registered refugees regardless of whether they live in camps, urban areas, or non-camp settlements. And it claims to make extra effort to help minorities — like Syrian Christians — register for claims of asylum, by offering mobile registration and help desks.
Boian said claims of discrimination against Christians don’t square with the UNHCR’s experience in Iraq. In fiscal year 2016, there were 9,880 refugees accepted from Iraq, and 15.4 percent of them were Christians. That’s far higher than the 0.8 percent of the overall Iraqi population that is Christian. Boian noted that Iraqi Christians are being registered in the same offices, by the same staff, as Syrian Christians.
In October 2015, Shea asked then-U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and current U.N. Secretary General António Guterres about the low number of Syrian Christians in resettlement programs.
Guterres said the situation in Syria is “more complex” than in Iraq. For one, he said, many Syrian Christians have friends or family in Lebanon, and have found safe refuge there.
Christians in Syria “have been less systematically victimized than they were in Iraq,” Guterres said. “… Most of the Syrian Christians have moved to Lebanon. And in Lebanon, the first thing that has happened to me when I met the Lebanese president … when I asked him to start a resettlement program from Lebanon, (he said), ‘Don’t resettle Christians because they are vital for us.’ Which means that for the Lebanese society, there is a strong interest in preserving the Christians in Lebanon.”
In a congressional hearing on Dec. 17, 2015, Anne Richard, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, acknowledged the low number of Christian Syrian refugees. She offered an alternative explanation: that Syrian Christians were more comfortable with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad than are many Sunni Muslims (at the 2:23:50 mark in the video).
“A disproportionate number of Syrians staying in the country are Christian. Now why is this? It’s because a higher percentage of them support Assad and feel safer with him there,” Richard said.
Andrew Tabler, a Middle East expert at the Washington Institute, said that blaming discrimination against Christians for the low percentages of Syrian Christian refugees ignores the complex political situation in Syria. He said the overwhelming majority of those seeking resettlement from Syria are Sunni Muslims who have (largely unsuccessfully) resisted Assad’s regime.
Tabler, who wrote a book in 2011 titled “In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria,” told us in an email more than a year ago that Assad’s regime is “made up of Alawites AND other minorities like Christians.”
In November 2015, when the issue of Syrian Christians was raised in the U.S. presidential campaign, Tabler told us that most refugees are not displaced because of the Islamic State terrorist organization, but as a result of bombardments by the Assad regime. “Those fleeing the fighting who are not with the regime have to run to neighboring countries for protection and become refugees,” Tabler said. “And some of them eventually apply to come to the U.S. as refugees.”
Tabler said: “It is natural that there would be a larger percentage of (Sunni) refugees to be considered for resettlement to the U.S.”
In short, there are some — like Shea — who are convinced discrimination of Christians is to blame for low percentages of Syrian Christians resettling in the U.S. But the fact that the U.N. is seeing the opposite with Iraqi Christians — who register in the same offices as Syrian Christians — suggests that there are more complex reasons for the disparity. The U.N. says it simply gets fewer applications from Syrian Christians, though it cannot fully explain why.
To date, though, Trump has provided no evidence that the lower figures are because Syrian Christians have “been horribly treated” in the refugee process.