An opinion editorial by CRGA's Research Associate Kat Eghdamian.
Every day when Ahmed*, a Druze Syrian refugee living in Irbid, Jordan goes grocery shopping, he is called a kafir (infidel). Further south, in the city of Amman, a Christian Syrian refugee family chooses to hide their religious identity in order to secure an apartment rental after multiple failed attempts to find housing. Over in Mafraq, only 10 kilometres from the gates of the Zaatari refugee camp, Mina, a single Christian Syrian refugee woman, fears walking alone as passersby ask her why she is unveiled and tell her that she does not belong there.
These stories, shared with me during field research in Jordan, offer a glimpse into why religion matters in the context of displacement. Yet, despite its importance, humanitarian examinations of and responses to (internal and international) displacement often overlook or misunderstand the role of religion in these contexts. With the rise of global Islamist terrorism and concerns over the fate of religious pluralism in the Middle East region, the subject of religion in relation to refugees and forced migrants is returning to the attention of a range of actors. Whether through scholarly research, policy considerations, or practitioner responses to humanitarian needs, it is clear that religion can not be left off refugee and forced migration agendas.
Despite this increasing interest, however, religion in displacement still requires in-depth, nuanced and meaningful engagement. To date, religion has often been viewed in one of three ways:
religion as a potential resource to be operationalised in humanitarian service delivery (the instrumentalisation of religion);
religion as a source of conflict among and between groups (religion as divisive identity politics); or
religion as an unimportant feature of displacement (religion as pertaining only to the private sphere).
Although different aspects of these perspectives hold true in a range of cases, as the anecdotes at the beginning of this piece illustrated, they are certainly not an exhaustive account of the multiple ways in which religion can and does play a role in humanitarianism broadly, or displacement specifically. In my research on Syrian refugees from religious minority groups, I also found that non-instrumental roles of religion (e.g. religious ethics and motivations) and the numerous constructive ways in which religious values and religiously-motivated practices do shape and inform displacement experiences have yet to be fully investigated.
Specifically, for Syrian religious minority refugees in both Jordan and Turkey, I found that religion manifested itself in ways that went above and beyond the sectarian dimensions that contributed to some of their protection and assistance needs. This is not to say, as my examples showed, that religious prejudice and conflict did not feature into the causes or experiences of their displacement but that their understandings and practices of religion were not limited to that conflictual dimension. For instance, for the refugees who participated and contributed to my research, religion also offered comfort in difficult times, gave perspective on their sufferings and hardship, and provided tools (such as prayer, service, charity) to respond to experiences of discrimination and persecution. Beyond the individual dimension, religion was also a source of motivation to try and find commonalities with and to seek to recast misunderstandings of and between others. This was a particularly poignant concern for refugees who, in the context of an increasingly sectarian Syrian civil war, wanted to move beyond the ways in which their religious differences had been exacerbated, manipulated, and politicised.
In order to identify and draw on the potentially constructive roles of religion to play in displacement, however, the importance of ensuring and protecting freedom of religion or belief in these contexts is imperative. This is of concern not only for understanding causes of displacement (such as religious persecution) but also for experiences of seeking asylum and further, in cases of repatriation or resettlement. Dimensions of freedom of religion or belief among internationally displaced populations undoubtedly differs according to a number of factors. These may include the religious affiliation of displaced persons and whether or how religion factored into the cause of displacement; the majority religious affiliation of a host society; and the history, policies, and politics of religion and religious diversity in both sending and receiving countries.
Yet, despite its importance, freedom of religion or belief does not usually factor into the list of priorities in understanding or responding to refugee needs and experiences. Indeed, the hierarchy of refugee needs often begin with physical safety and health, followed by shelter, food and (if there is time, resources, commitment, and political will), education and employment. Yet, beyond overt violations of freedom of religion or belief, such as harassment, abuse, or even killings on the basis of religious identity alone, there are subtle restrictions to the freedom of religion or belief for refugees that need to be taken more seriously. This is important to acknowledge at the outset not only in order to protect those hierarchy of needs but also to establish conducive environments for positive and constructive manifestations of religion to be revealed and used.
For example, in both Turkey and Jordan, I found that Syrian religious minority refugees often concealed their religious identities or refused to register with humanitarian and government agencies. This was due to a (real or perceived) fear of having their religious identities known that would in turn, be misunderstood or misused, causing harm to themselves and their families. Yet, in doing so, many of them had restricted access to humanitarian assistance and protection. In some cases, entire families were living in precarious situations where their physical safety was at risk or they experienced insecurities in their social, economic, and cultural lives. These experiences of stigmatisation, isolation, and discrimination on the basis of religion also meant that there were no spaces for experiences of pluralism and diversity and all the positive outcomes that such environments foster.
On the one hand, freedom of religion or belief matters in the context of displacement simply because it is a universal human right that must be ensured regardless of the circumstance. However, in a global climate of increasing religious prejudice, it is particularly timely and urgent to reconsider, and in some cases entirely recast, our notions of religion when it comes to refugee identities, needs, and experiences precisely in order to protect their freedom of religion or belief. Freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental human right given to all people in order for them to live according to their own convictions. In the context of displacement, for some refugees, this is more important, vital, and life-giving than any other matter. And indeed, in these contexts, sorely in need of peace and security, freedom of religion or belief may in fact be a missing antidote.
*all identifying names changed for the purposes of anonymity