The unmatched, global refugee crisis calls for the United States to increase its support for the tens of millions of people who have fled their homes because of religious persecution and other causes, a bipartisan commission says.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) renewed May 12 its request that the Biden administration prioritize victims of religious persecution in its planned expansion of resettling refugees in this country. USCIRF, a nine-member panel chosen by the president and congressional leaders, made the recommendation in a report that provided a summary regarding refugees who are fleeing religious persecution around the world.
More than 26 million people around the world are refugees out of a total of 84 million people who are forcibly displaced, according to the latest statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Two-thirds of refugees are from five countries, including three—Afghanistan, Burma (Myanmar) and Syria—where religious communities are experiencing “systematic, ongoing and egregious persecution,” USCIRF reported.
USCIRF’s new report “demonstrates the unprecedented scale of this crisis and the urgent need for providing security and assistance to persecuted people,” said Hannah Daniel, a policy associate with the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).
“The United States Refugee Resettlement Program has long been an essential component of supporting those oppressed for their faith around the world,” Daniel said in written comments for Baptist Press (BP). “It is imperative that the U.S. work to quickly rebuild our capacity to efficiently and safely resettle those displaced because of persecution and re-establish our nation’s legacy as a place of hope and refuge for the vulnerable.”
Bryant Wright, president of Send Relief, encouraged Southern Baptists to serve refugees who gain resettlement in the United States.
“We as Americans have been incredibly blessed with our First Amendment right of religious liberty, a blessing that’s not always shared around the world,” Wright told BP in a written statement. “It is the government’s role to determine who enters our nation, but it is the church’s role to minister with the love of Christ to people in need.
“Those who have been persecuted for their religion need our support and compassion. If they are not Christian, it gives us the opportunity to share the Good News of Christ as we show them the love of Christ.”
Care for refugees is one of the focus areas of Send Relief, the Southern Baptist Convention’s compassion ministry carried out through the cooperative efforts of the North American Mission Board and International Mission Board. Send Relief encourages churches to proclaim the gospel while meeting practical needs. Its current projects in 2022 are serving more than 519,000 displaced people in Eastern Europe, according to Send Relief.
Millions of people have fled Ukraine, Afghanistan and other countries as a result of wars, religious persecution and political instability in the last nine months. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February and the Taliban takeover after the U.S. departure from Afghanistan in August 2021 have come at a time when the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program has declined to unprecedented lows in numbers of refugees.
Only 11,411 refugees were admitted to the United States in the fiscal year ending September 2021, marking the fewest refugee admissions since the 1980 enactment of a law establishing the Refugee Resettlement Program. The previous low was 11,814 in the year ending 2020.
The Trump administration established four years of record lows that saw the refugee admissions ceiling fall from 45,000 in the 2018 fiscal year to 15,000 in 2021. The Biden administration set a revised cap of 62,500 for last year but fell far short. President Biden has authorized the admission of as many as 125,000 refugees through September of this year, but it appears unlikely that goal will be reached.
In its report, USCIRF provided examples of 11 countries where refugees have fled continued persecution because of their religion or belief, including:
- Afghanistan, where conditions have resulted in 2.6 million registered refugees, according to UNHCR. After the Taliban takeover last year, 120,000 Afghans, including religious minorities, were evacuated from their homeland, and many eventually resettled in the United States and other countries.
- Burma (Myanmar), which has seen more than 1.2 million refugees flee the country. Most are the predominantly Muslim Rohingya people. In March, the U.S. State Department designated the Burmese military’s violent campaign against the Rohingya as “genocide and crimes against humanity.”
- Iraq, where an estimated 2.9 million Iraqis are displaced inside or outside the country even though the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria was defeated in 2017 after its terrorist campaign against non-Muslims and some Muslims.
- Nigeria, which has been the site of violence by militant Islamic groups in the northeast part of the country for more than a decade. The terrorism against Christians and other religious groups has resulted in 300,000 refugees and two million internally displaced Nigerians.
- Syria, where political conflicts for more than a decade that have included the targeting of various religious groups by extremist Islamic organizations have produced an estimated 6.6 million refugees to other countries and 6.9 million internally displaced people.
In Ukraine, more than 5 million refugees have left the country since Russia’s unprovoked invasion, according to USCIRF. Biden announced in March the United States would receive as many as 100,000 people fleeing Ukraine, and the administration initiated a streamlined process in April to enable Ukrainians with an American sponsor to enter the country for two years, USCIRF reported.
USCIRF also repeated other recommendations it had made previously to the administration, such as:
- Including Iranian religious minorities in prioritizing refugees for resettlement under the Lautenberg Amendment, which provides for family reunification.
- Expanding Priority 2 (P-2) refugee status specifically to include Afghan religious minorities
- Providing support for refugees in other countries and those who reach the U.S. border.
- Correcting problems regarding the treatment of asylum seekers in Expedited Removal, including improvement in processing noncitizens, enhancement of detention conditions and installation of an official at the Department of Homeland Security to implement reforms.
The United Nations has defined a refugee as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion,” according to its 1951 Refugee Convention.
USCIRF monitors the status of religious liberty worldwide and issues reports to Congress, the president and the State Department. Congress and President Clinton established USCIRF in 1998 with enactment of the International Religious Freedom Act.
Messengers to the 2016 SBC annual meeting adopted a resolution that urged Southern Baptist “churches and families to welcome and adopt refugees into their churches and homes as a means to demonstrate to the nations that our God longs for every tribe, tongue, and nation to be welcomed at His throne.” Messengers to the 2018 meeting reaffirmed that resolution.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Brandon Elrod, public relations consultant with the North American Mission Board, contributed to this article.)