It is clear that religious-based conflict and persecution has become one of the main causes for displacement in the Middle East. This complex interaction is particularly illustrated by the crisis in Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, the pre-2003 Christian population of 1.5 million is estimated to have dwindled to 400,000, while of Syria's 1.8 million Christians before the revolution, over half a million have been displaced. In the last year, ISIS has deliberately displaced religious minorities in both countries, including Christian, Yezidi and Shabak and Turkmen Shia populations. Those who have not been displaced have faced punitive taxes and restrictions on employment, and endure the destruction of mosques, shrines and other places of worship.
All this is part of a wider global phenomenon of the deliberate targeting of religious minorities. But many more members of religious communities are displaced not necessarily as a result of direct discrimination or persecution, but because they are among the most vulnerable and marginalised within the population, and thus least able to protect themselves. As with all displacement experiences, distinguishing causal factors is not easy.
Just as much as displacement can be a consequence of sectarian polarisation, it can also be a cause. Since the outbreak of the conflict in Syria, over one million mainly Shia Iraqi refugees in the country have been targeted, and the majority have now gone home. But it is important not to oversimplify. Refugees around the world often face persecution because they are perceived to place strains on public services or compete in local labour markets, or simply because they are displaced, as much as because of their national, ethnic, or religious identity.
There is a risk that refugee camps become fertile recruitment grounds for violent extremism.
Another intersection between displacement and religion is the risk that refugee camps may become fertile recruitment grounds for violent extremism. There is certainly evidence in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen of radicalisation leading to violence within refugee camps. If the current Syrian crisis remains unresolved and refugee situations become increasingly protracted, there is the risk of a similar process unfolding here too. Indeed, there are signs that it may already be occurring in Jordan's Zaatari camp.
So while we must guard against generalisations and recognise the importance of other factors, it is good that there has been growing attention on sectarianism as a cause for displacement, as well as the impact of displacement on rising sectarianism. Where attention is still lacking, however, is on the role of religion in finding solutions.
First, we must work with religious leaders to avoid the radicalisation that leads to violence in situations of displacement, as well as growing an understanding of the religious lives of local communities and how religious belief influences their decisions. Second, we must recognise that faith-based organisations have become significant frontline responders in crisis situations, from providing shelter, food and clothing, to companionship and spiritual support.
We must work with religious leaders to avoid radicalisation in situations of displacement
Third, more attention is required on the role of religion can play in finding durable solutions, particularly during repatriation of refugees and internally displaced persons. Returning the displaced to the areas from which they were driven because of their religion in a sustainable fashion can be an effective way to address root causes, and prevent further conflict and displacement. As experiences in the Balkans, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa have shown, the return of displaced populations can be an important signifier of peace and the end of conflict, and can play an important part in validating the post-conflict political order. The return of displaced populations can be a pre-condition for peace if they are politically active. And the return of displaced populations can make an important contribution to the recovery of local economies.
At the same time, in seeking solutions, we must recognise that the role of religion may be distorted. For example, there are reportsof Iranian Shia asylum seekers in Turkey converting to Christianity on the basis that apostasy is punishable by death in Iran, and that conversion will thus strengthen their claims for asylum and resettlement.
While religion is not the only identity exploited by violent extremists, it is important. I have recently been appointed Executive Director of the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF), a public-private partnership to support grassroots initiatives to counter violent extremism. Refugees and internally displaced persons may not be a primary focus for the Fund, but particularly in our efforts to fund anti-ISIS initiatives, they will require significant attention. Most importantly, GCERF recognises the interdependence of religious tolerance, intellectual freedom, and community resilience in resisting violent extremist agendas. We look forward to driving forward our efforts to unlock local solutions to this pressing global challenge.
Dr Khalid Koser is the Executive Director of the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF) www.gcerf.org
The Tony Blair Faith Foundation is represented on the GCERF board.