Engaging with Faith Values to Reshape Responses to the Global Forced Migration Crisis

By: Sadia Kidwai

October 6, 2016

Ethics and Responsibility: Thoughts on the UN General Assembly's Summit for Refugees and Migrants

The pages of the Qur’an are filled with stories of refugees. Indeed, migration and escape from persecution were often central experiences of many of Islam’s great prophets—whether it was Abraham seeking refuge in Canaan (Q29:26), Moses fleeing certain death in Egypt and finding shelter and employment in Midian (Q28:20-28), or the Prophet Muhammad himself being forced to leave his home of Mecca due to the persecution he and his followers suffered at the hands of former neighbors, friends, and relatives. All this means that there is a rich tradition of seeking and providing refuge within Islamic teachings. Both the Qur’an and the prophetic teachings provide a robust framework for the protection and provision of forced migrants.

Yet this heritage is rarely invoked, despite the modern global refugee crisis having a distinctly Islamic identity: More than half of the world’s refugees (54 percent) originate from just three Muslim-majority countries—Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Similarly, five of the world’s top six refugee-hosting countries are members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation—Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, and Jordan. The reasons for this disconnect require further research, but we can speculate that the answer may lie in the dominance of secular thinking within the international humanitarian and development sector. For many decades, and in many quarters still, religious discourse has been regarded with suspicion, uncertainty, and outright disdain. Stereotypes perpetuate of religion being a cause of the persecution, discrimination, and violence that refugees are forced to escape from, rather than a solution.

However, in recent years, there has been an increasing recognition of the role that faith actors do or could play in responding to the forced migration crisis. UNHCR’s Partnership Note on Faith-Based Organizations, Local Faith Communities and Faith Leaders is one example of how the mainstream secular sector is seeking to deploy the financial, material, and social resources of faith actors in meeting their own objectives. However, the willingness to make space for faith organizations in formal, mainstream processes of refugee response seems to be dependent on the usefulness of faith actors to access or gain the trust of donor or beneficiary communities, generate resources, or steer public opinion.

Although such advances towards partnership and cooperation should be recognized and valued, there remains little serious interest in engaging with the actual teachings, traditions, and principles of faith when it comes to identifying solutions to forced migration. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants, adopted by the UN General Assembly on September 19, 2016, which makes just four references to engaging with faith-based organizations (as part of a broader list of civil society actors) and claims that the UN is “the birthplace and custodian” of values such as dignity and equality.

In many respects, Islamic teachings on the rights of forced migrants differ little from secular frameworks. However, in some areas, Islamic and other faith traditions could inform more holistic and creative solutions to the challenges faced by forced migrants and their hosts. One example where faith-based traditions might allow for more holistic refugee protection is in the recognition of faith as an essential human need. Islamic traditions state that in order to promote the well-being of mankind and protect human dignity, it is essential to safeguard five things: our faith, our physical self, our intellect, our wealth, and our posterity. Eighty-four percent of the global population identify as belonging to a faith group, yet faith is rarely recognized as an essential need. This is despite the fact that faith can act as a powerful coping mechanism for forced migrant communities—as a source of spiritual solace, as a means by which to make sense of trauma or loss, and as a way to build connections and shared identity. Islamic Relief often receives requests from the refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) we work with to build mosques in camp settings, to enable forced migrants to resume a sense of normalcy and meet their spiritual needs.

Likewise, while secular international frameworks assign responsibility for the protection of forced migrants to states—which often manifests itself in camp-based approaches—Islamic traditions favor community-based approaches. When the Prophet Muhammad and his followers migrated to Medina to escape persecution in Mecca, each refugee of Mecca was adopted by a local family in Medina who shared with the refugees their homes, wealth, and tribal protection. Such a system may better reflect the reality of refugee needs in contemporary times, where over half of all refugees globally live in urban areas and over 75 percent of Syrian refugees alone live outside of camps. Currently, the relative absence of organized and coordinated funding in non-camp settings means that host communities are ill-equipped to meet the needs of forced migrants living among them—often resulting in rising tensions between host and migrant communities as they are forced to compete for increasingly scarce resources, such as schooling, jobs, housing, and food. Greater investment in municipal resources and community-based mechanisms of protection would not only better meet the needs of refugees and IDPs, but could act as a powerful antidote to the strained communal relations and rising xenophobia that has spiked in the wake of the recent forced migration crisis.

The needs of forced migrants must be at the center of any response. Faith values and religious practices are not a panacea, and in some contexts may be inappropriate. However, despite a growing body of evidence regarding the importance of spirituality and faith to coping with adversity, the mainstream humanitarian response to the refugee crisis fails to formally recognize and meet the spiritual needs of forced migrants. Moreover, religious traditions and teachings on forced migrant protection are rarely appreciated, understood, or fully deployed in meeting contemporary challenges. As the international humanitarian and development sectors move towards developing a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration in the wake of the New York Declaration, greater engagement with both faith actors and faith values is a necessity.
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