GOP Bill Would Set Aside 10,000 Refugee Slots Annually for Religious Minority Syrians

Patrick Goodenough | March 17, 2016 | 6:32pm EDT
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Christian refugees from Syria and Iraq, in Jordan. (Photo: Maria Lozano/Aid to the Church in Need)

( – On the day that the Obama administration acknowledged that terrorist atrocities against Christians and other religious minorities in Syria and Iraq amount to genocide, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) introduced legislation Thursday requiring the government to set aside 10,000 refugee resettlement places annually, for five years, for Syrian religious minorities.

The Religious Persecution Relief Act would give members of religious minorities, fleeing persecution at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) and other groups in Syria, priority status, enabling them to bypass the United Nations and apply directly to the U.S. resettlement program.

The fast-tracked process of establishing whether minority applicants are victims of genocide and persecution will not entail any less security screening than that undergone by others, Cotton stressed in a speech on the Senate floor.

According to some groups working among refugees, religious minority Syrians who flee their homeland often fear for their safety in U.N. refugee camps and do not register with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Since the U.S. rely on UNHCR referrals at the early stages of processing refugee applications, they may as a result be inadvertently disadvantaged.

Christians account for 1.9 percent of all the Syrian refugees admitted into the U.S. since the conflict began five years ago this month. Other non-Muslim minorities together account for another 1.1 percent.

“Without doubt, Syrians of all confessions are being victimized by this savage war and are facing unimaginable suffering,” Cotton said. “But only Christians and other religious minorities are the deliberate targets of systematic persecution and genocide.”

“It’s well-established that many religious minorities in Syria are very reluctant to register as refugees with the United Nations because they fear facing even more persecution,” he said.

Cotton quoted the UNHCR itself as having reported that minorities “fear that registration might bring retribution from other refugees” in the camps or other havens.

“Whether these fears are well-founded or not, the reality is they exist and they deter Christians from seeking U.N. protection,” Cotton said. “While the U.N. has sought to educate minority populations on the safety of the registration system, the fact remains that only one percent of the millions of Syrian refugees registered with the U.N. are non-Muslim.”

On Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry met a congressionally-mandated deadline to announce his determination that atrocities carried out by ISIS against Christians, Yazidis and Shi’as in the areas it controls amount to genocide.

Cotton said the genocide determination required the U.S. to act – both to pursue a new strategic approach as head of a coalition to defeat ISIS, but also to make changes to the refugee resettlement policy.

Under his bill, a priority “P-2” status would allow religious minorities to skip the U.N. referral process. Instead, they will be able to apply directly at U.S.-funded refugee support centers, which are in place in most nations hosting displaced Syrians, including Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon.

“And to answer in advance a most urgent and understandable question, those who apply for P-2 status will be subject to the same security vetting process as all other refugee applicants,” Cotton said.

“And it is my strong position that the United States must work with known religious leaders in the region and pursue other proven vetting methods to ensure that those who enter this country are not threats to the security of the American people.”

Holding crosses painted in the colors of the Syrian opposition flag, Syrian Christians protest persecution in their homeland (Photo: Shaam News Network)


According to Cotton prioritizing religious minority Syrian applicants in this way would not be unique.

He recalled the 1989 Lautenberg Amendment that granted P-2 priority status to Soviet Jews, Vietnamese nationals and others minorities seeking refuge; and its extension in 2004 to cover religious minorities fleeing Iran. A bill passed in 2007 granted priority status to certain Iraqi religious minority members, he said.

Cotton’s bill would also add 10,000 resettlement spots each fiscal year, dedicated to Syrian religious minorities – in addition to the worldwide refugee resettlement quota set by the State Department – a requirement that would apply for five years.

“This would allow religious minorities to ‘play catch-up’ after they have been deprived of resettlement opportunities since 2011,” a factsheet on the bill states.

“This would guarantee a critical mass in the U.S. of religious minority groups,” it says. “This will help preserve the cultural identity in the U.S. of populations that are the target of genocide in the Middle East.”

An estimated 700,000 Christians have fled the country since the conflict began in March 2011.

Yet according to State Department Refugee Processing Center data only 57 Syrian Christian refugees have been resettled in the U.S. over that period – 1.9 percent of the total 3,014 – compared to 2,829 Sunni Muslims, or 93.8 percent of the total.

Another 16 Shi’ites and 78 refugees identified simply “Moslem” have also been admitted in that time.

For non-Muslim minorities, the figures are: six Zoroastrians, two Baha’i, eight Jehovah’s Witnesses, one Yazidi, three atheists, seven identified as “other religion” and seven as “no religion.”

President Obama pledged last fall to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees during the course of fiscal year 2016.

Since FY2016 began on October 1, a total of 1,141 have been admitted as of Thursday. Of those, nine (0.8 percent) are Christians, 1,110 (97.3 percent) are Sunnis. The others are 18 “Moslems,” three Shi’ites and one “other religion.”

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