Christian and Alawite Refugees Face a Precarious Future

By   /  27 January 2018   

According to the U.S.-led international coalition against ISIS, less than one thousand of the terrorist organization’s fighters are left in Syria and Iraq. Officials from the U.S. military also said the group has lost 98 percent of its territory. The rapidly decreasing capability of ISIS, as well as other extremist factions, to hold and govern large swathes of land may bode well for the stabilization of the broader region in the near future, although it is raising concerns about the numerous foreign fighters returning home after years of combat. Moreover, the territorial demise of ISIS is drawing increasing attention to the predicament of local communities and to the reconstruction of their native places, which were devastated by the group’s frenzy of puritanical violence.

Among the hardest hit are the religious minorities. While some fears over the more immediate possibility of genocide may have been allayed, in order to truly deny ISIS a posthumous victory, the international community must work together to secure their rights in a post-conflict Syria, ensuring they will be able to resettle in areas they were forced to flee.

Turkey currently hosts nearly 3.5 million refugees from Syria and a significant number from Iraq. Tens of thousands among them are Christians, particularly from the Assyrian, Syriac, and Chaldean sects. Despite their distance from the more intense conflicts plaguing their homes beyond the Turkish border, they still face challenges in security, economic opportunities, and public attitudes. Although local NGOs and churches are providing some assistance, many living in the more conservative and rural provinces of eastern Turkey still feel the need to hide their religious identity.

Like Christians, Alawite refugees in Turkey can also encounter new uncertainties and prejudices from some quarters. Many thus often eschew state-run camps in rural areas in favor of makeshift settlements in bigger cities like Izmir or Istanbul, where they can perhaps rely on networks established by Turkish Alevis (a similarly heterodox religious community) for basic humanitarian support. Despite being relatively large minorities in both Turkey and Syria, Alawites do not yet have strong connections or diasporas abroad, so many instances of discrimination or violence against them are often only reported in local languages and media.

Refugees of any denomination fortunate enough to find jobs, in construction sites for instance, tend to get paid a fraction of what others receive for the same work, due to a lack of access to proper documentation. As of January 2017, Turkey had issued a staggeringly low number of work permits to Syrian citizens—less than fourteen thousand.

According to Turkey’s state-run media outlet TRT, the European Union has allocated seven billion dollars in aid for a joint United Nations–Turkey project meant to help register the millions of refugees living in the country. So far, less than 600 thousand have been verified. The process collects details such as contact information, education, family status, occupation, and biometric data. Registered families are paid stipends via “Emergency Social Safety Net” debit cards distributed to them.

Tighter oversight of these and similar programs by monitors from partner countries or international organizations should help ensure that they reach refugees of all backgrounds without discrimination. The additional economic and social hardships faced by Christian and Alawite refugees, as well as the increasingly difficult task of finding affordable secular schools for their children, can only be alleviated by ground-level involvement that goes beyond providing finances from afar. Closer inspections can help confirm that aid is being distributed as intended and prevent the misuse of funds by local intermediaries.

In 2016, Syrian Christians were finally able to celebrate Christmas in Aleppo for the first time in five years; and in 2017, Iraqi Christians in Mosul celebrated for the first time in three. Those now living abroad, along with millions of other refugees, can eventually form important, trans-border links between their host and native countries. If provided integrative opportunities beyond a precarious migrant status that keeps them stuck in limbo, they can be essential in future reconstruction efforts that may hopefully produce safer, more tolerant societies—ones in which groups like ISIS will be unlikely to flourish again.

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