Response to Michael McConnell’s Politico Piece, “Yes, We Should Consider Refugees’ Religion”

Shirin Sinnar 1

Professor Michael McConnell’s op-ed piece (“Yes, We Should Consider Refugees’ Religion”) contends that U.S. refugee policy should take religion into account in admitting refugees from Syria and Iraq, because the Islamic State is systematically targeting Christians and Yazidis for persecution. Professor McConnell is right in saying that religious affiliation may be relevant to one’s ability to establish a well-founded fear of persecution under U.S. refugee law, and that most Christians and Yazidis fleeing ISIS should easily qualify. But he is wrong to assert that, based on the law and the facts on the ground, Christians are “entitled by law to preferred consideration for asylum.”

In fact, under an accurate understanding of U.S. law and the facts, many – perhaps most – Muslims fleeing Syria and Iraq would easily meet the test for refugee status. This is so for several reasons. First, refugee law protects groups facing persecution not only on the basis of religion, but also on the basis of one’s “political opinion” or “membership in a particular social group.” Numerous Muslims fleeing ISIS are eligible for refugee status on the basis of political opinion or membership in disfavored social groups, if not religion itself: ISIS systematically targets not only Christians and Yazidis, but also Muslims of any sect who disagree with its ideology or practices. Second, even if one were to focus on ISIS’ persecution of religious minority communities, the group also targets Muslim minorities, particularly Shia Muslims (who constitute a majority of Iraq’s population) as well as the Alawites in Syria. And third, Syrians are not only seeking to escape ISIS: those who have been, or would be, persecuted for their opposition to President Assad’s rule also qualify as refugees. The Assad regime has bombarded (and gassed) civilian populations perceived as resisting his regime, and according to human rights groups has killed many times more people than has ISIS.

Undoubtedly, ISIS has persecuted Christians and Yazidis, and perhaps even engaged in attempts at genocide against the latter; members of those groups fleeing persecution should absolutely receive refugee protection. But other bona fide refugees are also entitled to the protection of the law, and religious affiliation does not offer a sensible dividing line among deserving and undeserving applicants.

Shirin Sinnar is an Assistant Professor of Law and the John A. Wilson Distinguished Faculty Scholar at Stanford Law School. Her scholarship focuses on the role of institutions, including courts and executive branch agencies, in protecting individual rights and democratic values in the national security context.

2 Responses to Response to Michael McConnell’s Politico Piece, “Yes, We Should Consider Refugees’ Religion”
  1. This is a proper comment on the issue, but the article to which she responds is not worthy of a faculty member in our law school.

  2. I am a Swedish lawyer, currently studying English in San Francisco. I read professor Shirin Sinnar`s respond to a previous article about refugee status for Syrians based on religion. First of all I have to mention that Sweden, as an example, generally guarantees protection to any Syrian citizen upon arrival in Sweden because of the ongoing war in Syria. This protection ground is not based on the Geneva Refugee Convention persecution grounds, but if a Syrian or Iraqi citizen claims an individual persecution ground she/he will be guarantee protection according to the Geneva Refuge Convention. Swedish treatment of Syrian citizens seems to be accurate, because not many of Syrians face an individual persecution, but some of them, like Yazdies, Christians or Shia Muslims do. ISIS´ persecution of Yazidis and Christians is religion based. Even if Yazidis do not protest or agitate against ISIS and are willing to live under the ISIS controlled area, they are persecuted any way because ISIS consider them as heretics who deserve to die. When a Yazidi or a Christian is unwilling to convert to Islam she will be raped and taking to slavery or will be killed, there are many significant evidens and individual testimonies on the issue, but when a Syrian muslim is neutral and does not protest against ISIS he/she is not persecuted. Therefore there of course is a religion based persecution of Yazidis and Christians under ISIS controlled area in Syria and in Iraq. Their asylum claim should be handled according to the religion-based persecution ground if it is indicated.

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