Christians need help, justice

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By Geoffrey Johnston
Commander of Canadian Special Operations Forces, Major General Mike Rouleau (left) and Lieutenant Stephen Bowes (right), Commander of the Canadian Joint Operations hold a news conference in Ottawa, Wednesday November 16, 2016 to give an update on Canada’s ongoing strategy to counter Daesh in Iraq. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

Commander of Canadian Special Operations Forces, Major General Mike Rouleau (left) and Lieutenant Stephen Bowes (right), Commander of the Canadian Joint Operations hold a news conference in Ottawa, Wednesday November 16, 2016 to give an update on Canada’s ongoing strategy to counter Daesh in Iraq. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

The inevitable defeat of Islamic State forces on the battlefield will not magically transform Iraq into a tolerant society, where ethnic and religious minority communities live without fear of being attacked and/or wiped out.

Nor will the lives of Assyrians and other persecuted Iraqi Christians return to normal after the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh) has been vanquished. Many Christians, who have been targeted for extermination by the Islamic State, have fled the country and are now living in misery in neighbouring Jordan.

“Their situation is desperate,” said Ewelina Ochab after visiting with Christian refugees in Jordan earlier this year. She is an expert on the genocide perpetrated by Islamic State forces and serves as legal counsel for ADF (Alliance Defending Freedom) International, a Vienna-based legal organization that advocates “for the right of individuals to freely live out their faith.”

Although the Trudeau government has yet to formally recognize that Assyrians and other Christians are victims of genocide in Iraq, Ochab has no doubt that systematic atrocities targeting Christians have been perpetrated in Iraq. And she says so in her 2016 book, Never Again: Legal Responses to a Broken Promise in the Middle East.

“The book makes the case that Christians are subjected to genocide by ISIS/Daesh,” Ochab stated in an email interview. And she noted that her book “was presented at the European Parliament in late June 2016 on invitation from a number of members of the European Parliament.”

In September 2016, Ochab travelled to Jordan on a fact-finding mission. “Some of the Iraqi Christians that I visited lived in very poor conditions,” she said. “They did not have a proper place to sleep, some slept on the floor. They did not have money for food, medication, clothes, and other basic needs. They cannot send their children to school. Their lives pass before their eyes, and they remain frozen in time in Jordan.”

Researching genocide

When Ochab first joined ADF International, she was located in Geneva, where she attended the UN Forum on Minority Issues. At that forum, she heard “firsthand testimonies” of the victims of the genocide perpetrated by the Islamic State against Christians and Yezidis.

“On my return from the session, I decided to look into the question whether the Daesh atrocities committed against Christians and Yazidis may amount to genocide,” Ochab said.

“I was then asked by my NGO to prepare a memorandum on the question of Daesh genocide,” she said. “The memorandum was used in the United Kingdom during the Parliamentary debates on the topic and at the European Parliament debates. The memorandum was also sent to [U.S. Secretary of State] John Kerry as a part of the report prepared by the Knights of Columbus,” which helped spur Kerry to declare on March 17, 2016, that ISIS has perpetrated genocide against Christians, Yezidis and Shia Muslims.

“Despite the fact that this Daesh genocide has been recognized by the European Parliament,” said Ochab, a number of governments (including the Trudeau government) have yet to acknowledge what has been happening to Christians in Iraq and Syria. In addition, she asserts that “no decisive steps have followed the few recognitions of genocide.”

It was against that backdrop that Ochab visited Jordan. “The idea behind the trip to Jordan was to meet with the refugees, obtain their testimonies, and ensure that the testimonies are delivered to the right bodies, for example, the United Nations,” she said.

Ochab spent most of her time in Amman, where she saw many Christian refugees. “Iraqi Christians are not in the refugee camps,” she said. “Some of them were afraid to go to refugee camps. They heard stories that Christians were being persecuted in refugee camps.”

Where are the refugees living in Amman? “Most of the Iraqi Christian refugees in Jordan live in private accommodation,” Ochab answered. “When they came to Jordan, they had some savings so they were able to afford the accommodation.”

However, when the money runs out, Christian refugees face especially hard times. “Now, over two years after coming to Jordan, their savings are gone,” Ochab said. Iraqi refugees are not allowed to work in Jordan. The situation is desperate. There is also no guarantee that they will be able to move to a safe haven any time soon.”

Needs not being met

Not surprisingly, the refugees, having fled genocide, have medical needs that are not being met. “They are suffering from lack of medical treatment and medication,” Ochab said. “Also, many of them require psychological counselling.”

Were the Iraqi Christian refugees whom Ochab met in Jordan registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)? “All of the Iraqi Christian refugees that I met were registered with the UNHCR,” replied. “They have the registration letter.”

Were those Christian refugees getting help from UNHCR? “They were not receiving any assistance from the UNHCR,” the genocide researcher alleged. “Some of them have been in Jordan for over two years. Their cases are not progressing at all.”

Are the Iraqi Christian refugees being well cared for by other UN agencies? “The Iraqi Christian refugees that I spoke to felt very neglected,” Ochab replied. “They could not understand why they were forgotten by the world.” And she said that the Christian refugees felt as though they were living in “limbo” and had “lost their hope for a better life.”

UN responds to allegations

What does the UNHCR have to say in response to Ochab’s allegations? “We cannot respond specifically to the cases that you cite as there are not enough details,” stated UNHCR spokesperson Matthew Saltmarsh. “But we can assure you that UNHCR seeks to ensure religious minorities — including Iraqi Christians in Jordan — are not excluded from the support that they need.”

According to Saltmarsh, “UNHCR encourages all of those who are forced to flee to register with us and we treat every individual who approaches us for support in the same way, with dignity and respect, regardless of their ethnicity or religion.”

Saltmarsh asserts that refugees “from all backgrounds and nationalities — there are 42 nationalities registered with UNHCR in Jordan — can access services and protection after registration, including legal aid, financial assistance, access to medical care, education and durable solutions [for example resettlement] based on their protection needs and socioeconomic vulnerabilities.”

As for the allegation of discrimination against Christians, the UNHCR representative stated that the UN agency “is not aware of religious minorities being targeted or ill-treated as a result of their faith in Jordan or elsewhere.”

In addition, Saltmarsh declared that the UNHCR office in Jordan “has a very effective registration and case-tracking methodology, including a complaints mechanism that is open to all refugees, including advocates on their behalf, if there is any suggestion of deliberate neglect or discrimination in any case.”

There is no doubt that UNHCR provides assistance to Iraqi refugees in Jordan. However, Saltmarsh acknowledged that “UNHCR does not break this down by religious group.”

For example, UNHCR reports that “2,295 Iraqi families are currently receiving monthly financial assistance.” But Saltmarsh stated that UNHCR could not provide “a breakdown based on religion.”


How does the UNHCR determine which refugees get resettled? Do they prioritize persecuted religious minorities and/or victims of genocide? “Determining which refugees will be referred by UNHCR for possible resettlement is based solely on the criteria of vulnerability, of which religion can be a factor,” Saltmarsh said.

The UNHCR says that it has referred a total of 72,700 Syrian and Iraqi Christians for resettlement since 2008. And since 2003, said Saltmarsh, “26 per cent of all Syrians and Iraqis who were referred for resettlement by UNHCR were Christians or other minorities.”

The Trudeau government has yet to acknowledge that Assyrians and other Iraqi Christians are targets of genocide. And the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship does not explicitly prioritize Christian victims of the Islamic State’s genocidal campaign.

“The Iraqi Christian refugees in Jordan are registered with the UNHCR and have been applying to Canada and Australia for asylum,” Ochab said. “They say that Canada and Australia are the only countries that actually consider their applications. Nonetheless, they have been in Jordan for two years and there seems to be no hope of finding a permanent home.”

In addition, Ochab said that many of the Iraqi Christian refugees she met in Jordan “expressed their disappointment that many people, mostly Muslim, receive asylum to other countries, but no one is concerned with their fate. They do not understand why.”

Follow Geoffrey P. Johnston on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston.

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