Nigel Farage’s Proposal to Accept ‘only’ Syrian Christian Refugees in the UK: Euro Rights Blog by Noelle Quenivet
A couple of days ago Nigel Farage suggested the United Kingdom to accept onto British territory individuals fleeing the armed conflict in Syria. He then qualified his call to let Syrian refugees into the UK by adding that only Christians should be given shelter.
There are a number of problems with his call.
First it is not clear whether the UK would have to determine the refugee status of the individuals. If that is the case then the individuals would need to be flown into the UK for their claims to be processed. Once in the UK such individuals would be protected by the 1951 Geneva Convention against return to Syria as they would be outside their country of nationality and in a contracting State (see Regina v Immigration Officer at Prague Airport and another (Respondents) ex parte European Roma Rights Centre and others (Appellants)  UKHL 55]. Until their claim is processed they would by virtue of the principle of non-refoulement, the cornerstone of asylum and refugee law, stay in the UK. And even those individuals who do not fulfil the requirements would stay too because the UK would, owing to its human rights obligations, not be able to send them back to Syria unless the situation improves significantly in the meantime. Given the current political climate it is unlikely that this would be the adopted procedure.
The more likely procedure would be for the government to agree with UNHCR to accepting a number of individuals chosen by UNHCR on the basis of specific criteria. For example in 1999 a Humanitarian Evacuation Programme was set up by UNHCR to provide protection to Kovosar refugees in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Under this programme priority was given to refugees in camps, refugees with medical problems, reunification of refugees with their family members (i.e. no family separation) and family reunification (i.e. family ties in receiving country). Quotas were discussed with individual States. Under this programme a number of Kosovars entered the United Kingdom in 1999. It must be stressed that this was not a resettlement programme and that protection is given temporarily. Generally, States can contribute to alleviating a refugee crisis by offering resettlement (residency and assistance to refugees), admitting individuals on humanitarian grounds (shorter residency periods with limits of family reunification) or allowing private sponsorship visas. These are also the solutions recommended by UNCHR in its document ‘Finding Solutions for Syrian Refugees’ published in October 2013.
The second issue relates to the determination or evidence of Christianity needed to accept evacuees/refugees into the UK. Here two issues need to be clearly separated. One relates to the kind of evidence needed to prove appurtenance to a particular religion and the other to the lawfulness of accepting only Christian individuals. Some people wonder how Christianity can be proven and whether it is lawful to ask an individual to show his/her religion. If the asylum claim is based on persecution on religious grounds (Article 1(A)2 Refugee Convention) then the individual will indeed have to divulge his/her religion, prove that he/she follows it and that he/she has been persecuted on these grounds. Assessing the credibility of a claim based on religious grounds is no different to assessing other types of claims. The tribunals will take a range of oral and documentary evidence into account (see e.g. AB (Ahmadiyya Association UK: letters) Pakistan  UKUT 255 (IAC): religious observance, faith-based activities). Once the asylum claim is examined and the person fulfils the criteria to be recognised as a refugee there is no way of denying refugee status because the person is persecuted as a Muslim (in contrast to being persecuted as a Christian). Moreover, it is not a given that all Syrians of Christian faith are persecuted for their religion (i.e. they could be persecuted on the basis of e.g. race or membership of a particular social group) which means that not all of them would divulge their religion.
Anyway, this would only apply if the asylum-seekers were on British soil. In the more likely scenario, they would be chosen by UNHCR in the camps and there is no doubt that UNHCR would refuse to distinguish between individuals based on religion or faith. In fact in such situations, UNHCR aims to offer protection abroad to those who are most vulnerable. In relation to Syria UNHCR explained in October 2013 that it
is proposing that countries admit up to 30,000 Syrian refugees on resettlement, humanitarian admission, or other programmes by the end of 2014, with a focus on protecting the most vulnerable. ….
is working closely with resettlement and humanitarian admission countries to prioritize the most vulnerable, including women and girls at risk, survivors of violence and/or torture, refugees with medical needs or disabilities, LGBTI refugees at risk, vulnerable older adults, and refugees in need of family reunification. Refugees who face serious threats to their physical security, particularly due to political opinion or belonging to a minority group, may also be prioritized. Vulnerable refugees are identified through registration data and community outreach by UNHCR and its partners. UNHCR has been working to increase its capacity to identify vulnerable refugees and to streamline procedures for referral. As the programmes continue to grow, additional personnel, equipment, and resources are needed.
Those who fear that ‘terrorists’ and ‘criminals’ would find refuge in the UK might want to emulate from the Canadian example. Indeed under the Canadian resettlement programme, all individuals are screened to ensure that if they fall into one of categories specified in Article 1F of the Geneva Convention (info on the application of Article 1F in the UK here) or Canadian admissibility provisions they are not accepted onto the programme and thus allowed to enter Canadian territory. In 1999 as Canada accepted Kosovar refugees as part of the evacuation programme it paid particular attention to membership in the KLA and despite the urgency managed to set up an efficient and speedy screening procedure as UNHCR had already carried pre-screenings.