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Challenges religious minorities face in accessing humanitarian assistance

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William Avis


What evidence exists regarding the challenges specific religious minorities face in accessing humanitarian assistance?


This rapid literature review, surveys evidence regarding the challenges specific religious minorities face in accessing humanitarian assistance. This review acknowledges that there remains a paucity of research on the presence, scale and diversity of religious groups, experiences, values, motivations and engagements in a range of humanitarian contexts and how these intersect to mediate access to humanitarian assistance. The report also acknowledges that the complexity of settings in which humanitarian actors are operating often influences how assistance is provided. Experiences of persecution and active targeting of religious minorities must thus be understood alongside the politicisation of contexts in which access is often mediated by a range of state and non-state actors.

More broadly, underpinning the provision of humanitarian assistance are a set of principles that govern the way humanitarian response is carried out. The four guiding principles are humanity, impartiality, independence and neutrality. Whilst these principles are long-established, challenges in terms of their application and interpretation have beset the humanitarian community complicated by the complexity of contemporary humanitarian contexts. Interpretations of these principles also have particular relevance when considering the challenges that religious minorities face in accessing humanitarian assistance.

More specifically, the increasing polarisation of societies in many contexts, often underpinned by deep underlying and unresolved tensions between majority and minority groups, have made religious minorities particularly vulnerable to violence, persecution and displacement – this polarisation has also influenced how access to humanitarian assistance is mediated. Indeed, disaster response processes often reveal the extent to which political and social dynamics crisscross society, state and aid relations.

In the context of this report, it is important to understand who is most vulnerable to threats and that this may involve important differentiation by age, gender, ethnic group, social status, religion or other factors. Given the above, it is broadly acknowledged that ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples may be overlooked in an emergency response due to a range of factors:

  • Humanitarian actors may not be aware of the presence of minority groups;

  • Minorities may have a weak socio-economic position which may render them less visible;

  • Minorities may experience marginalisation in the country of origin or country of arrival.

Minorities can often represent a particularly vulnerable proportion of those seeking international protection. Factors that may influence access to humanitarian assistance include:

  • Active targeting of religious minorities based on religious identities;

  • A reluctance by certain communities to make themselves ‘more visible;’

  • Concerns regarding displacement in countries that may be hostile to particular minorities;

  • Minorities may have a preference for accessing humanitarian assistance from actors; within their community or from international faith-based bodies;

  • The “religion-blind policy” of humanitarian actors has also been muted by some commentators.

More broadly, humanitarian actors may view religious identity as a source of conflict which can exacerbate identity politics particularly with regard to displaced groups/minorities. In the Syrian context, humanitarian actors interviewed for a recent Migration Research Unit report cited a preference to avoid engagement with religion in responding to displacement. This was due to two assumptions:

  • That religion was a non-essential feature of displacement and unimportant in relation to the hierarchy of refugee identities, needs, and experiences.

  • That religion is a source of conflict and identity politics. This was particularly pertinent in relation to assumptions held about the role of religion for Syrian refugees.

Some commentators assert that limited engagement with religious identity is in part due to (mis)interpretations of humanitarian principles of neutrality and universality and widespread assumptions held about religion as non-essential or divisive. The case studies identified in this report highlight that exclusion of religion in displacement affects religious minorities in relation to their wellbeing, security protection and access to humanitarian services. It is also suggested that understanding these experiences is essential to enhancing more inclusive refugee aid and protection for a range of refugee populations. Findings from case studies include:

Yemen: In the context of rising religious extremism, the threat of targeted violence between Sunni and Zaidi Shi’a Muslims has increased. It is asserted that the discourse of various parties to the conflict has deepened the fault lines of a conflict that, though rooted in economic, social and political grievances, risks becoming defined in sectarian terms. In Yemen, restrictions and issues of access intersect with the marginalisation of minorities when it comes to aid distribution and relocation to safer areas.

Syria: Due to sectarian tensions and fears of reprisal attacks, Syrian Christian and Druze refugees often choose not to register with UNHCR and in order to avoid formal refugee camps, they seek lodging in urban centres, often living in monasteries, clustered housing, or makeshift camps. In such settings, religious minorities experience isolation, stigmatisation, and (perceived or real) discrimination in accessing humanitarian aid and assistance.

Iraq: ECHO partners have noted that humanitarian access is often dictated by constraints in areas in which they are able to travel securely. Humanitarian actors reported that they didn’t distinguish their beneficiaries in Iraq on the basis of aspects such as religious beliefs, political opinion, or ethnic, and cultural background. The preference of humanitarian organisations was to support certain beneficiary groups regardless of their status of need but based on their organisational mandates or missions, and the type of work they carry out and for whom.

Myanmar: During post-cyclone disaster responses, assistance for Muslim groups was generally international. International humanitarian actors faced four broad challenges: stigmatisation and security risks, government control, uncertainty, and manipulation. International humanitarian actors devoted significant effort to navigating the governmental barriers and the social and political tensions inherent in supporting highly stigmatised Muslim minorities. In contrast, the Chin ethnicity (Christian), parallel minority and diaspora networks were mobilised. Relief, which was not always distributed in a transparent or unbiased manner, was channelled from ethnically and religiously affiliated groups within and outside of Myanmar.

Sub-Saharan Africa: Denial of access by militants or armed militias, is the single greatest obstacle to the provision of humanitarian assistance in contexts such as Somalia and the Central African Republic. For example, Al Shabaab not only creates a prohibitive security environment but also restricts humanitarian operations in southern Somalia