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Religious identity and the Refugee Crisis

Date:20 June 2016
Author:Religion Factor
A line of Syrian refugees crossing the border of Hungary and Austria on their way to Germany. Hungary, Central Europe, 6 September 2015. Source: Mstyslav Chernov Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International
A line of Syrian refugees crossing the border of Hungary and Austria on their way to Germany. Hungary, Central Europe, 6 September 2015. Source: Mstyslav Chernov Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Today, 20 June, is World Refugee Day. The UNHCR released its annual Global Trends Report. For the first time in the organisation’s history, global displacement has crossed the 60 million threshold, with a total of 65.3 million people displaced in 2015. That’s 24 people every minute, or 1 in every 113 people.[1]

Last Thursday, 16 June, the European Parliament Platform on Secularism in Politics hosted a meeting on The Role of Religion in Asylum Policies. CRCPD Director Erin Wilson was one of the panelists for this event. To coincide with World Refugee Day, we are posting her remarks from the event in full below.

Good afternoon and thank you for the invitation to be part of today’s important discussion, and to the Platform on Secularism in Politics, especially to the Honourable Sophie In’t Veld for hosting.

I will focus my comments on two aspects of the relationship between religion and asylum policies:

  1. The role of faith-based agencies in the asylum sector and
  2. The place of religion in discourses around the so-called crisis, particularly in how we think about the religious identity of refugees.

I say ‘so-called’ because there are multiple factors that contribute to the perception of crisis – the sheer number of people displaced is unprecedented, but not the only reason this is a crisis. It is also because of the unwillingness of political leaders to address the crisis and develop practical, workable solutions.[2] I suggest the perception of religious identity of refugees is part of this complex situation.

For my remarks, I am drawing on material contained in this policy document and a soon to be published volume,  The Refugee Crisis and Religion , co-edited by myself and my colleague, Dr Luca Mavelli.

Religious organisations and beliefs provide important support for people experiencing displacement. Research in forced migration studies and religion highlights the importance of spirituality as a psychological support for many refugees.[3] Other scholars highlight the significant role that faith-based organisations often play as first line responders to humanitarian and refugee producing emergencies.[4]

Some have raised concerns over this prominent role of religious organisations and the extent to which such actors may take advantage of vulnerable people for purposes of conversion, and was a key question posed in the advertisement for today’s meeting.[5] This is a legitimate concern and one that should be monitored. At the same time, it is important not to overlook the agency of refugees themselves. They may be vulnerable, but they are also intelligent, determined and highly resilient people, not simply agency-less victims.

In addition, while there may be religious agencies that do seek to convert refugees, these are by and large a minority.[6] Research suggests that it can be beneficial to have religious organisations providing services, since many refugees come from highly religious contexts and are therefore more able to relate to service providers from faith-based than from secular backgrounds.[7] There should however be a good balance of different kinds of both religious and secular agencies, not just one tradition dominating.

A final point on this issue: Focusing on power dynamics between refugees and faith-based organisations regarding conversion potentially obscures broader questions regarding the role of the state and international institutions in producing the conditions in which individuals are made vulnerable and their only hope of having their survival needs met is through non-government and often faith-based humanitarian agencies. Faith-based agencies are doing what states used to and should be doing. If the issue of conversion is a genuine concern for national and international governments and institutions, arguably attention should then be directed at reducing the time individuals spend in uncertain, vulnerable situations, opening up more safe legal pathways to resettlement and more services being offered by states rather than relying on non-state actors.

The second issue I raise concerns the over-emphasis of the religious identity of refugees in public and political discourses surrounding the crisis. Religion has arguably become the primary characteristic by which refugees are conceptualized, leading to a number of problematic assumptions:

Firstly, over-emphasis of religious identity contributes to a predominant conclusion that because a majority of refugees are from countries where Islam is the dominant religion, they must therefore be Muslim. Yet while many refugees entering Europe do identify as ‘Muslim’, many also do not. Many are Christian, atheist, Baha’i, Druze, Yazidi, amongst many others.[8] To characterize all refugees as Muslim is therefore misleading.

Second, while many refugees do identify as ‘Muslim’, they are not all necessarily practicing Muslims. Being ‘Muslim’ can mean a number of different things. It can mean highly observant, but also lapsed; it can mean Sunni, Shi’a, Alawi, to name but a few. Assuming that all refugees are ‘Muslim’ and are all ‘Muslim’ in the same way can lead to erroneous judgments regarding what the most important and pressing needs for refugees are when they arrive in a resettlement country. In the Canadian context, selecting suitable towns and villages for resettling Syrian refugees has at times overly focused on whether these towns and villages have a mosque or not.[9] Yet not all refugees from Syria are Muslim, and for those that are a mosque may not be amongst their most immediate needs or concerns. Just as each person’s experience of displacement is unique, so is their engagement with religion. Over-emphasising religious identity can make it more difficult for refugees to resettle and be accommodated in their new country.

This is not to say that religion should be completely ignored. While religious identity is arguably over-emphasised in public politics and discourses surrounding the refugee crisis, the experience of refugees in immigration camps in the Netherlands is precisely the opposite – religion is not present there at all. Refugees describe experiencing something of a culture shock coming from contexts where religion and spirituality are highly pervasive.[10] It is important to find a middle ground between over-emphasising and ignoring religion. Refugees suggested providing a ‘quiet room’ (not a prayer room), for silent reflection, meditation and prayer, and having spiritual counselors available, catering for all faiths, as possible ways to address this issue.[11]

Further, presenting all refugees as Muslim and all Muslim in the same way can contribute to the unnecessary securitization of migration, because of the way the word ‘Muslim’ has also become entangled with the word ‘terrorist’ in the parallel discourses surrounding violent extremism.[12] The concurrent rise of both these global challenges and their accompanying discourses has resulted in a complicated entanglement where ‘refugee’ = ‘Muslim’ and ‘Muslim’ = ‘terrorist’ in public discourse and consciousness that contributes to increasingly securitized approaches to forced migration.[13] It is essential that political leaders, policymakers and the media stress the diverse nature of Islam and continually endeavor to delink these three terms as part of overcoming these misapprehensions in broader public consciousness. At present, however, many political leaders across Europe, North America and in Australia are doing exactly the opposite of this.[14]

Other avenues through which more nuance can be brought to this issue include longer term education strategies in ‘religious and secular’ literacy for policymakers and in schools, as well as providing opportunities for encounter and mutual learning across refugee and resident populations – Jesuit Refugee Services France Welcome Project is one example of this, and numerous other citizen-led initiatives have been emerging all over Europe.[15]

Third, the emphasis on the religious identity of refugees contributes to the assumption that religion is the main feature of their identity. It also positions religion as something that is or can be separated from the other aspects of a person’s identity and personality, and as something that is static and unchanging. Such assumptions are problematic and often do not fit with the way refugees understand themselves nor are they reflective of their experiences. For many refugees who identify as religious, the displacement experience can be highly disruptive for their religious identity, leading to significant doubt, questioning, in some cases depression.[16]

Positioning religion as the main feature of refugee identities also feeds into the narrative that because refugees are religious, and especially Muslim, they do not ‘fit’ in the secularized contexts of Europe, North America and Australia, hindering their integration in countries of resettlement. This ignores the fact that there are multiple ways of being ‘secular’, just as there are multiple ways of being ‘religious’.[17]

Ultimately, however, it is important to remember that when your life is threatened, your primary concern is your survival, not necessarily your religion. Shifting focus from religious identity to emphasising solidarity with fellow human beings whose survival is at stake would, I suggest, be a significant step in shifting dominant discourses and attitudes to the crisis, generating greater space for alternative policy responses. Thank you.


[2] OECD. 2015.  Migration Policy Debates, No 7, September 2015 . Accessed January 6, 2016.; Roth, K. 2016. “A Way for Europe to Remove Chaos from the Migration Crisis”.  Human Rights Watch,  1 February. Accessed 26 March, 2016. way-europe-remove-chaos-migration-crisis.

[3] Godziak, E. M. and D. J. Shandy. 2002. ‘Religion and Spirituality in Forced Migration’  Journal of Refugee Studies  15(2): 129-135; Koop, I. 2005 ‘Refugees in Church Asylum: Intervention Between Political Conflict and Individual Suffering’  Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology  11(3): 355-365; McKinney, M.M. 2011. ‘Treatment of survivors of torture: spiritual domain’  Torture  21(1): 61- 66

[4] Ager, Alastair and Joey Ager. 2011. ‘Faith and the Discourse of Secular Humanitarianism’  Journal of Refugee Studies  24(3): 456-472; Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Elena. 2011. ‘Introduction: Faith-based humanitarianism in contexts of forced migration’  Journal of Refugee Studies  24(3): 429-439


[6] Barnet, M. and J.G. Stein. 2012. ‘Introduction’ in Barnet, M. and J.G. Stein (eds).  Sacred Aid: Faith and Humanitarianism  Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press

[7] Wilson, E.K. 2011. ‘Much to be proud of, much to be done: Faith-based organisations and the politics of asylum in Australia’  Journal of Refugee Studies  24(3): 548-564

[8] Eghdamian, K. 2015. ‘Refugee Crisis: Syria’s Religious Minorities Must Not Be Overlooked’  The Conversation

[9] Beaman, L.G., J. Selby and A. Barras. 2016. ‘No Mosque, No Refugees: Some Reflections on Syrian Refugees and the Construction of Religion in Canada’ in Mavelli, L. and E.K. Wilson (eds).  The Refugee Crisis and Religion: Secularity, Security and Hospitality in Question . London: Rowman and Littlefield International

[10] Consultation with Jacob Aamir Syed, refugee from Pakistan, 14 June 2016

[11] Consultation with Zoia Albert, former refugee from Pakistan, 1 June 2016

[12] Mamdani, M. 2004.  Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror.  New York: Pantheon; Mamdani, Mahmood. (2002) ‘Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: A Political Perspective on Culture and Terrorism’, American Anthropologist 104(3): 766–75; Wilson, E.K. and L. Mavelli. 2016. ‘The Refugee Crisis and Religion: Beyond Conceptual and Physical Boundaries’ in Mavelli, L. and E.K. Wilson (eds).  The Refugee Crisis and Religion: Secularity, Security and Hospitality in Question.  London: Rowman and Littlefield International

[13] Hurd, E.S. 2016. ‘Muslims and Others: the politics of religion in the refugee crisis’ in Mavelli, L. and E.K. Wilson (eds).  The Refugee Crisis and Religion: Secularity, Security and Hospitality in Question . London: Rowman and Littlefield International

[14] Hurd, ibid, Wilson and Mavelli,  op cit


[16] Consultation with Jacob Aamir Syed, refugee from Pakistan, 14 June 2016; Consultation with Zoia Albert, former refugee from Pakistan, 1 June 2016

[17] Asad, T. 2003.  Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity . Stanford: Stanford University Press; Wohlrab-Sahr, M. and M. Burchardt. 2012. ‘Multiple Secularities: Toward a cultural sociology of secular modernities’  Comparative Sociology  11(6): 875-909


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