Pro-Christian, Anti-Muslim or Anti-Refugee? What is behind European politicians’ statements favouring Christian refugees?

Vivien Lowndes and Roda Maziva

In the midst of what has come to be known as the worst refugee crisis of our generation, the wrench­ing images of a toddler lying dead on a Turk­ish beach emerged as evidence of a reality that cannot just be captured in words. This has seen many calling for the need to shift the debate away from borders and security and towards asylum, solidarity and responsibility. Yet, in the midst of this humanitarian talk, a new rhetoric is emerging which suggests that the lives of some refugees have more value than others. In particular, the anti-Muslim rhetoric by some politicians in Australia and other European countries such as France, Slovakia, Poland, the UK and many others have widely been judged as discriminatory and a perversion of liberal values especially hospitality, compassion and inclusion.

The Polish Prime Minister, Ewa Kopacz was cited as saying “Christians who are being persecuted in a barbaric fashion in Syria deserve Christian countries like Poland to act fast to help them”. The former Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott had reportedly been under pressure from the Coalition Members of parliament who pressed for the need to prioritize Christian refugees from the Middle East as they were perceived to be the “most persecuted in the world” and therefore “the most needy”. In France, a Member of Parliament and Mayor, Yves Nicolin, was heavily criticized for vowing to only accept refugees in his town on the condition that they were Christians and not ‘disguised terrorists’. While such sentiments may imply a welcome for Christian refugees, there seems to be a gap between rhetoric and practice in the absence of a well-defined protection plan or selection process, not least because distinguishing between Muslim and Christian refugees is not actually a clear-cut process.

Our research with Pakistani Christians suggests that processes to determine refugee status do not map onto any clear distinction between welcome Christians and unwelcome Muslims.  Indeed, Christian refugees from Muslim-majority countries face special difficulties in putting forward their asylum case, and in negotiating community relationships.  Like thousands of Christians fleeing war and Islamic State in Syria, Pakistani Christians come to the UK under fear and trauma. They are seeking to escape discrimination, persecution and harsh blasphemy penalties in the context of the Pakistani government’s limited action to prevent religiously-motivated violence. For those who have fled and managed to reach the UK for safety and protection, arrival in the UK is not the end to their traumatic experiences, as our interviews, focus groups and case reviews demonstrate.

Ironically, Pakistani Christians’ experience of seeking asylum in the UK is characterised by a putative Islamophobia.  Like Pakistani Muslims, they are frequently received with suspicion as an unwelcome population of a particular ethnic and national origin, with an ascribed Islamic religious identity. In the context of Islamaphobia,  perceptions of Muslim extremism are associated with particular bodies and nationalities. Thus, the conflation of nationality and religion has seen Pakistani Christian asylum seekers being invariably treated as suspects first and ‘welcome-Christians’ second (if at all).  The assumption seems to be that all migrants from Muslim majority countries, by virtue of their place of origin, are potentially dangerous and therefore unwanted.  The refugees we worked with were traumatised by the experience of double-discrimination, often backed up by actual or threatened violence – in Pakistan as Christians and then in the UK as presumed-Muslims.

In seeking asylum on religious grounds, our respondents reported that their testimonies often fell foul of understandings of Christianity that were ill-suited to the Pakistani context from which they had come.  In addition, our respondents alleged that Home Office translators of similar national heritage, but from the Muslim majority, were ignorant of appropriate language to describe Christian experiences, and even undermined or manipulated accounts in a discriminatory fashion.

Our research raises serious questions of whether the current Christian/Muslim binary discourse could simply be a political cover for both Islamophobia and refugee-phobia.  Such rhetoric needs to be seen in the context of a highly controversial political debate over the policy measures that Europe should adopt in order to protect the humanity of thousands of uninvited, yet desperate migrants arriving daily on its shores.  Not all refugees arriving from the Middle East are Muslims. Christian refugees arrive daily from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Iran.  Among Syrian refugees, there are also other religious minorities including Druze and Yazidis.

The unfolding refugee crisis has been characterized by the European Union’s struggle to get its member states on board to address what is, in reality, a shared problem.  The UK has refused to engage with the transnational project of coordinating access and settlement, yet against the backdrop of an overwhelmingly expression of sympathy for the refugees from its publics. The Home Secretary, Theresa May’s infamous speech to the Conservative conference in October 2015 stated that a ‘chosen few’ Syrian refugees would be identified in refugee camps through the UN High Commission for Refugees.  They would then be processed under conditions which spell out the point that those who benefit are the lucky recipients of a gracious favour rather than a right under international humanitarian law.

The British government, to its credit, has not proposed any religious selection criteria in its (highly restrictive) refugee policy.  But its intention to take refugees directly from camps in Syria could have serious side effects.  Due to religious discrimination in Syria, this policy may be particularly disadvantageous to refugees from non-Muslim backgrounds.  One of our research participants, with extensive experience of working with Christian asylum seekers from Muslim majority countries, explained that:

‘The way the UK government plans to get refugees from Syria is very likely to be detrimental to Christians. Because they plan to get people from the refugee camps, as Christians don’t feel safe in a refugee camp, so they tend to hide, seek for routes to escape where possible or just stay where they are no matter how hard the situation is for them. So they’re among the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, but they would actually be missed by the government’s approach’

In addition, the Director of the Migrants Rights Network has pointed out that the system that the UK has put in place represents a sub-standard version of refugee protection as temporary status. The future of all Syrian refugees largely depends on ‘safe return reviews’. This in turn leaves government authorities with the power to repatriate Syrian refugees whenever it is deemed safe to do so.

Our research suggests that the term ‘Muslim’ is increasingly being used as synonym for ‘Refugees’ or ‘Migrants’ or ‘Unwanted persons’, especially in the case of the Western member states that are either unwilling to admit refugees of whatever faith or seek to minimise the numbers of refugees they can settle into their territories. We have also found that expressing a preference for Christian refugees may simply be a way of deflecting responsibility for refugees in general, rather than reflecting any serious engagement with the complex experience of Christians fleeing the Middle East. These types of policy pronouncements are actually a disservice to refugees of all religious backgrounds.  Religion should play no part in the selection of refugees (directly or indirectly), but asylum claims based upon religious persecution need to be taken seriously.

The authors Vivien Lowndes (INLOGOV, University of Birmingham) and Roda Madziva (University of Nottingham) and  are researching the experience of asylum seekers as part of a Leverhulme funded programme Making Science Public: Opportunities and Challenges’, led by the University of Nottingham.

Vivien Lowndes photo

Professor Vivien Lowndes is involved in research, teaching and knowledge transfer on local governance and public services. She is particular interested in partnerships, citizen participation, and gender issues. Currently Vivien is working on the development of Combined Authorities in the context of devolution, local government responses to austerity, Police and Crime Commissioners’ gender policies, and the use of evidence in migration policy. With colleagues at INLOGOV, she is also engaged in comparative research analysing innovative governance institutions in the UK and Brazil.


Roda Madziva is a Research Fellow working on the use of evidence in public policy as part of a Leverhulme funded programme, ‘Making Science Public: Opportunities and Challenges’, led by the University of Nottingham.


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