The world's refugee population is estimated to be nearly 13 million persons. Nearly 24 million more are displaced within their own countries by war, famine, and civil unrest. The United States works with other governments and international and nongovernmental organizations to protect refugees, internally displaced persons, and conflict victims, and strives to ensure that basic human needs for food, health care, water and sanitation, education, and shelter are met. The United States has been instrumental in mobilizing a community of nations to work through these organizations to protect and assist refugees worldwide, supporting major humanitarian relief operations, as well as seeking durable solutions for refugees. For the vast majority of refugees, voluntary return to their homelands is the preferred solution. Where voluntary repatriation in safety and dignity is not feasible, other durable solutions are sought, including local integration in countries of asylum or resettlement in third countries.
Resettlement, including in the United States, is appropriate for refugees in urgent need of protection and for refugees for whom other durable solutions are inappropriate or unavailable. The United States considers for admission as refugees persons of special humanitarian concern who can establish that they experienced past persecution or have a well-founded fear of future persecution in their home country on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The legal basis of the refugee admissions program is the Refugee Act of 1980, which embodies the American tradition of granting refuge to diverse groups suffering from or fearing persecution. The act adopted the definition of "refugee" contained in the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. Over the past decade, the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program has been adjusting its focus away from the large refugee admissions programs that had developed during the Cold War for nationals of Communist countries and toward more diverse refugee groups that require protection for a variety of reasons, including religious belief. The following describes the program's efforts, by region, in meeting the needs of refugees worldwide who have faced religious persecution.
The U.S. admissions program processes refugee cases referred by UNHCR, U.S. embassies, and certain non-governmental organizations (NGOs) whose claims are based on persecution due to religious beliefs (in addition to race, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion). It has worked closely with UNHCR and NGOs to strengthen this referral process.
For the majority of countries in sub-Saharan Africa, religious freedom and peaceful coexistence are the rule, even where other conflicts hold sway or where there has been communal violence along sectarian lines as in Nigeria. The primary exceptions to the rule have been Sudan and periodic harassment of Jehovah's Witnesses--e.g., in Eritrea. During the 22-year civil war between "north" and "south", the government conducted or tolerated attacks on civilians, indiscriminate bombing raids, and slave raids in the south, all with a religious as well as an ethnic dimension. Though the conflict in Darfur has featured its own human rights abuses based on ethnic differences, it lacks the religious dimensions of the North-South conflict. In Northern Sudan, Islam is treated as the state religion and a Muslim majority runs the government. In areas controlled by the government, access to education, as well as other social services, is far easier to obtain for Muslims than for non-Muslims. The government has restricted the activities of Christians, practitioners of traditional indigenous religions, and other non-Muslim religions. However, under the January 9, 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the North-South conflict, a new constitution was drafted to include specific religious freedom guarantees based on a series of negotiated protocols. The interim National Constitution entered into force on July 9, 2005, and a new Government of National Unity took office in September of that year. The country remains in a state of political transition; however, the Government of National Unity has continued to impose restrictions on non-Muslims in the north, while permitting the Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS) to develop a secular administration respecting the rights of Christians, Muslims, and others in the south. During FY 2005, 2,205 Sudanese refugees who had found refuge in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Kenya (primarily) were resettled in the United States. With the end of the North-South conflict and the current peace prospects in southern Sudan, efforts are now focused primarily on repatriation for approximately 550,000 Sudanese refugees. However, UNHCR continues to refer a limited number of Sudanese refugees in need of protection for consideration by the U.S refugee admissions program.
While many governments in East Asia permit freedom of worship, religious believers face serious persecution in some countries. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) severely restricts religious freedom, including organized religious activity, except that which is supervised tightly by officially recognized groups linked to the government. While the DPRK Constitution provides for "freedom of religious belief," genuine religious freedom does not exist. Consistent with the intent of the North Korean Human Rights Act, the United States has recently resettled some North Korean refugees in the United States.
The situation in other countries such as China, Vietnam, Burma, and Laos is mixed. The Chinese constitution provides for freedom of worship; however, it restricts activities of religious organizations. In China, most independent religious activities are either prohibited or severely restricted. Despite dramatic increases in religious observance in China, the government continues to suppress, intimidate, harass, detain and imprison followers of those religions or spiritual movements it cannot directly control, most notably the (underground) Catholic Church loyal to the Vatican, Protestant "house churches," some Muslim groups, Buddhists loyal to the Dalai Lama, and the Falun Gong spiritual movement. In Vietnam, the constitution provides for freedom of worship; however, it also restricts activities of religious organizations. There were a number of significant improvements in law and practice, and a vast majority of Vietnamese who wish to practice their religion do so freely, without harassment or interference. However, official oversight of recognized religions and harassment or repression of followers of some non-recognized religions continued. Some religious practitioners, especially ethnic minorities in the Northwest Highlands, continue to suffer harassment, arbitrary detention, and physical intimidation, though reports of such incidents have declined. Vietnam has released a number of religious prisoners, but others face administrative and civil restrictions. In Laos, Protestants in particular suffer periodic arrest and imprisonment. In Burma, the government maintains a pervasive internal security apparatus that generally infiltrates or monitors meetings and activities of all organizations, including religious groups. The government actively promotes Buddhism over other religions as a means of boosting its own legitimacy, and continues harsh discrimination against members of minority religions.
Former Soviet Union
The breakup of the Soviet Union initially led to a resurgence of religious practice throughout the region, but in recent years the fear of newer religious groups, many of them with ties to coreligionists in other countries, has led to a backlash in a number of the newly independent states. Most post-Soviet states regulate religious groups and activities, specifying a set of "traditional" religions with certain privileges denied to other groups. They require registration and use this as a mechanism of control; by refusing to register new denominations it makes them vulnerable to charges of illegal association. In Belarus, and to a lesser degree in Russia, some minority religious groups suffer harassment and difficulties finding places to meet. In some countries, such as Belarus, groups with international ties are sometimes accused of being security threats. In some countries, one's faith may be associated with ethnicity, patriotism, nationalism, or even with terrorism; and authorities may be suspicious of religious groups perceived as having political agendas and organizations. This is especially true in some of the Central Asian republics where support for political Islam and terrorism may be found in small segments of the population. In the case of Uzbekistan, members of Islamic groups not approved by the State are often seen as potential terrorists and suffer harassment or imprisonment; members of Christian groups with ethnic Uzbek members are seen as politically and socially de-stabilizing and also suffer severe harassment. In the case of Turkmenistan, the government continues to monitor all forms of religious expression. Although the level of harassment continued to decrease in the last year, most religious groups continued to experience the types of government harassment similar to years past, including detention, arrest, confiscation of religious literature and materials, pressure to abandon religious beliefs, and threats of eviction and job loss. The U.S. refugee admission program provides resettlement opportunities to religious minority members (as identified in the Lautenberg Amendment) with close family ties to the United States. In addition, UNHCR has recently increased the number of referrals to the program. Refugee admissions based on grounds of religious persecution have been significant in both the Bosnia and Kosovo resettlement efforts. The Department of State will continue to work with the UNHCR, nongovernmental organizations (both faith-based and non-sectarian), human rights groups, and U.S. missions to identify persons who qualify under the 1980 act on religious grounds for whom resettlement is appropriate. The U.S. refugee admissions program has provided protection to Muslims, Jews, Evangelical Christians, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians as well as individuals of other religious minorities.
In general, religious freedom is widely recognized and enjoyed in Latin America. The key exception is Cuba, where the Government engages in active efforts to monitor and control religious institutions, including surveillance, infiltration, and harassment of clergy and members; evictions from and confiscation of places of worship; and preventive detention of religious activists. It also uses registration as a mechanism of control; by refusing to register new denominations, it makes them vulnerable to charges of illegal association. However, despite these obstacles to religious expression, church activity has grown in recent years. The U.S. refugee admissions program specifically includes religious minorities and other human rights activists among the list of eligible groups.
Near East and South Asia
Repression of religious minorities is common in some countries in the Near East and South Asia. In Pakistan, the government fails to protect the rights of religious minorities. Discriminatory legislation and the government's failure to take action against societal forces hostile to those who practice a different faith fostered religious intolerance and acts of violence and intimidation against religious minorities, including Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus, and Zikris. In India, the government sometimes in the recent past did not act swiftly enough to effectively counter societal attacks against religious minorities and attempts by some leaders of state and local governments to limit religious freedom. In Afghanistan, despite constitutional guarantees, years of Taliban rule and weak democratic institutions, including an unreformed judiciary, have contributed to a culture of intolerance manifested in acts of harassment and sometimes violence against reform minded Muslims and religious minorities, including Christians, Hindus and Sikhs. In Saudi Arabia public non-Muslim worship is prohibited, as is conversion of a Muslim to another religion. In Iran, members of minority religious groups continue to face arrest, harassment, and discrimination. Iranian refugees who belong to religious minorities (Baha'is, Sufis, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Christians) are able to apply directly for U.S. resettlement. In addition, the UNHCR and U.S. embassies in the region facilitate access to the admissions program for individuals of other nationalities who may qualify on religious grounds. Congress passed the Specter Amendment which adds "members of a religious minority in Iran" to the list of categories of aliens who may benefit from the reduced evidentiary standards for demonstrating a well-founded fear of persecution in refugee processing, established pursuant to the "Lautenberg Amendment" contained in Section 213 of the foreign Operations, Export Financing, and related Programs Appropriations Act, 1990 (P.L. 101-167). The Department of State will continue efforts to improve access to refugee processing through dialogue with nongovernmental organizations and human rights groups who may identify victims with valid claims based on grounds of religious persecution. The UNHCR also has addressed religious persecution issues in several regional workshops to increase the sensitivity of protection and resettlement officers to victims of religious persecution.