The whole population of Syria and Iraq is feeling the toll of the armed conflicts in their countries. This report complements the existing information base by improving understanding of the protection needs of religious and ethnic minority groups from Syria and Iraq, including those remaining in these countries and those who have fled to neighbouring countries.
This report is geared towards humanitarian actors, to help them refine and coordinate efforts to provide life-saving assistance and work towards sustainable long-term solutions for all Syrians and Iraqis. Similarly, the report aims to support Syria, Iraq, neighbouring countries and donors in their search for better humanitarian responses, and to inform the most appropriate approaches towards finding durable solutions for displaced minority communities from Syria and Iraq.
The analysis and findings stem from a review of primary and secondary sources, as well as two specially commissioned research studies, surveys and focus groups to gather the views of 4,000 displaced people and refugees from Syria and Iraq. Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) carried out the project, in partnership with the World Council of Churches (WCC) and with funding from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
While many issues discussed in this report are common to minorities from Iraq and Syria, the two countries stand at different crossroads. In Iraq sectarian feelings have become deeply ingrained. Information collected for this study suggests Syria has not yet reached this point. Before Islamic State (IS) took control of territory there had already been significant migration of minorities from Iraq because of marginalisation and persecution. In this regard, the eventual defeat of IS alone will not solve these underlying dangers or ensure that minorities return to their place of origin. Especially in Iraq, the process of driving IS away sets in motion power struggles between larger sectarian groups – exactly the type of social tension that exacerbates the vulnerability of minorities. Ongoing internal politicking and unresolved problems of disputed territories further exacerbate the difficulties minorities face in returning to certain areas of Iraq.
Syria and Iraq both have a history of sectarianism and other factors that have influenced the course of their current conflicts. These conflicts in both countries have had an immense impact on their civilian populations, including mass displacement, trauma, death or injury of loved ones, sexual violence, exploitation and abuse, ongoing insecurity and targeted persecution. These experiences have affected women, men, boys and girls differently, meaning that their needs vary.
The conflict experiences of Syrians and Iraqis from minority groups have been similarly diverse, both between and within different religious groups. Consequently, the humanitarian needs of people from minorities vary, as does how best to meet those needs.
Humanitarian responses need to take this diversity into account in order to meet the critical needs of people affected by the conflicts in Syria and Iraq and support them in a sustainable way. They cannot overlook people’s inability to access assistance because of instability, fear or lack of trust in key actors. They must also address aid prioritisation and beneficiary criteria that may fuel resentment, discrimination and tensions by excluding some conflict-affected groups.
Both gender and age are now well-established concepts within the humanitarian sphere. Humanitarian agencies increasingly understand the differing needs and approaches required to support different age groups and genders. This report demonstrates that protecting minorities must also be considered as part of Syria and Iraq humanitarian response strategy, particularly through an age, gender and diversity (AGD)1 approach.
Given the history of persecution and conflict experienced by religious minorities, future reconciliation and peaceful relationships between different faith groups requires dealing with the trauma and suffering of the past. It also requires facilitating and sharing positive and hopeful examples of coexistence and mutual support between people of different faiths.
The political, social and security dynamics in Syria and Iraq are highly complex. There is no single recommendation or solution that will resolve the multitude of issues facing religious and ethnic minority groups as well as those facing the majority populations. Nevertheless, the recommendations outlined below aim to provide a basis for tackling the humanitarian crises, enabling displaced people to return home and creating a positive future for minorities in Syria and Iraq. It is worth noting that a certain level of stability needs to be achieved for the long-term recommendations listed below to become actionable.
Donors need to provide predictable and sufficient funding that is flexible and reaches the women, men, girls and boys most in need – including host communities – to avoid creating or exacerbating tensions. A one-size-fits-all funding approach and criteria can inadvertently result in excluding vulnerable groups. In the current crises in Syria and Iraq, humanitarian and development needs are intertwined. This may necessitate funding to enable relief and development assistance to be delivered simultaneously and designed to be mutually reinforcing.
Identify and account for diverse experiences in displacement – conflict-affected populations are not homogenous. In some instances, minority vulnerabilities and needs must be disaggregated in order to provide targeted and tailored assistance. The same applies to individual refugees and displaced persons – gender and age in particular are important characteristics to disaggregate in order to meet people’s needs. Humanitarian actors need to equip themselves with assessment tools able to capture differences based on ethno-religious affiliation and how different vulnerabilities intersect.
Promote conflict-sensitive programming and ‘a do no harm’ approach to avoid exacerbating tensions.
Continue to provide mobile registration centres and responses for out-of-camp refugees and IDPs.
Support programmatic interventions to promote inter-community peacebuilding, relationship building and social cohesion, both as standalone initiatives and project components in sector-specific interventions. Actors representing the different local religious communities could be a central resource to draw on, as is an awareness of how religion has been used by some to escalate tensions and violence.
Support the provision of cultural-, age- and gender-sensitive psychosocial support services to ensure that survivors of traumatic events receive sufficient rehabilitation to reintegrate into society. Ensure that appropriate and effective referral mechanisms are accessible for women and girls. Identify culturally appropriate ways to increase awareness about how rape and other forms of sexual violence are used as a weapon of war, destroying individuals and families. Work with communities, traditional and religious leaders to build a shared understanding that rape is always the fault of the perpetrator and not the survivor. Consider the value and appropriateness of religious rituals to facilitate reintegration into the community and avoid the stigmatisation of children and adults affected by sexual violence. Moreover, integrate community-based psychosocial support into humanitarian responses to help women, men, boys and girls, families and communities heal.
When requested by displaced children and adults themselves, facilitate their movement and return to their home areas as soon as practicably possible once the areas have been freed and secured. Ensure that women are included and considered when planning and facilitating a return home, and that women support family decisions to return. Focusing on humanitarian assistance to displaced populations should not overshadow support for people returning home when that is an option. Prioritise female-headed households for return support if they chose to make that decision.
Use existing civil society structures trusted by local populations, including those of minority groups, to channel assistance. Deliver aid channelled to those structures in a conflict-sensitive and non-discriminatory way, in accordance with humanitarian principles and standards.
Hold local governments accountable for political tactics that harm minority populations, exacerbate the effects of the crises that have affected them or that inhibit them from returning to their home areas.
Incorporate a gender-responsive transitional justice perspective into the current displacement response, while advocating for all cases of sexual violence to be addressed through criminal prosecution – ensuring that the wishes of sexual violence survivors are strictly adhered to. Support an international inquiry into genocide, war crimes, human rights abuses and atrocities, and ensure that sexual violence cases are prioritised in such inquiries. Facilitate the documentation of abuses, for possible future prosecutions.
Reconciliation can reduce tensions between residents and also the likelihood of widespread reprisal killings or further conflict. Promote communal reconciliation, particularly in areas where minorities have been directly targeted by armed actors and experienced hostilities from neighbouring communities. Take into account gender considerations when designing such efforts, as well as whether communities are ready for such efforts.
Facilitate the resumption of gender-sensitive livelihood activities, including the rehabilitation of civilian infrastructure and community facilities such as places of worship.
Make efforts to promote trust between conflict-affected communities and security forces responsible for their protection. Such security sector reform needs to address perceptions of wrongdoing and lack of accountability. Support security forces to include female staff members for community outreach, and facilitate reporting and requests for security among the female population.
Ensure that relevant education opportunities are provided to school-age girls and boys who have been displaced by violence or trapped in IS-held areas. This may include accelerated learning programmes, so that displaced children are not further disadvantaged. Educational programmes should address the language difficulties that some IDP and refugee children face in learning and integrate reconciliation, trust building, equal citizenship and religious tolerance. Ensure that education programmes for children from minority groups include their native language and maintain their cultural roots.
Assist local and national legal institutions in initiating legitimate and gender-sensitive legal procedures to tackle the property expropriation and redistribution processes taking place in many areas, to limit a pattern of dispossession of religious minorities or reallocation of property along sectarian and ethnic lines.
Support community and faith leaders and initiatives that promote religious tolerance and encourage peaceful relations among religious groups. International organisations should assist Iraqis and Syrians in collecting, emphasising and underlining stories that outline attempts to preserve and rebuild bonds between majority and minority communities and express common future narratives. These stories should accompany rather than replace tales of persecution, and give the silent, moderate majority a voice.
To reduce tensions and misunderstandings between communities and limit the likelihood of discrimination, promote education and curriculum reform to improve perceptions and understanding of religious minorities and their historical, cultural and religious significance. Diversity is an indicator of a society’s quality. Through education, foster recognition of diversity as a positive attribute and respecting diversity as a way to build a more sustainable society. This is necessary to provide stability, overcome prejudice, build trust and establish conditions for shared life. Similarly, promote access to education for all – regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion or political affiliation – and disaffiliate education provision from political motivations or agendas.
Address democratic governance deficits, structural discrimination and cultures of impunity embedded in particular in Iraq before IS took over significant parts of territory in 2014. Train the judiciary, security forces and public servants in general, addressing degradation of minorities in the public discourse. Promote the implementation of appropriate constitutional provisions when they exist and, when necessary, revisions of the legal framework at all levels to promote equal citizenship. During such legal changes, facilitate an inclusive process that ensures wide participation among different segments of society (women, youths, academics, etc.)