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In 2012 the estimated refugee population worldwide stood at 15.4 million, with 10.4 million receiving protection or assistance from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The United States actively supported efforts to provide protection, assistance, and durable solutions to refugees because these measures meet both the humanitarian objectives and the national security interests of the United States. The U.S. government worked with other governments, international organizations, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to provide protection and assistance to refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs), victims of conflict, and other vulnerable migrants. These efforts included the legal and physical protection of refugees as well as providing water, sanitation, food, health care, shelter, education, and other services.
In seeking durable solutions for refugees, the United States and UNHCR recognized that for most refugees, safe voluntary return to their homelands was the preferred solution. Where opportunities for return remained elusive, the United States and its partners pursued self-sufficiency and temporary, indefinite, or permanent local integration in countries of asylum. The Department of State worked diplomatically to encourage host governments to protect refugees through local integration, and provided assistance to meet integration needs through promoting refugee self-sufficiency and community-based social services.
UNHCR estimated some 12 million people worldwide were not recognized nationals of any state and were therefore legally or de facto stateless. Without recognized citizenship in any country, many stateless persons existed in refugee-like situations, denied even the most basic protections of law. The United States supported UNHCR’s efforts to prevent and reduce statelessness, including addressing gaps in citizenship laws, eliminating provisions that discriminate against women, and promoting fair application of those laws.
The United States and UNHCR also recognized resettlement in third countries as a vital tool for providing refugees protection and/or durable solutions, particularly for those for whom other solutions were not feasible. For some refugees, resettlement was the best, and perhaps only, alternative. The United States was the world’s leader in refugee resettlement, having admitted more than three million refugees since 1975, including more than 65,000 in 2012. The United States encouraged UNHCR to refer for resettlement individuals or groups of stateless refugees for whom other durable solutions were not possible. The United States also supported UNHCR’s efforts to expand the number of countries active in resettlement, and engaged bilaterally on the issue. In 2012, UNHCR referred refugees to 27 countries for resettlement consideration.
An increasing proportion of refugees arriving in the United States either did not have close family members already living in the United States to help with their adjustment and integration, or their family members were recent arrivals themselves. The refugee population was increasingly diverse linguistically, with wide-ranging educational and employment histories among the 66 nationalities admitted in 2012. The shortage of available affordable housing, particularly in urban areas, continued. These factors created significant challenges for resettlement agencies in meeting the needs of refugees in the program. The Departments of State and Health and Human Services worked closely with private voluntary resettlement agencies to enhance capacities to provide effective services.
The U.S. Refugee Admission Program (USRAP) continued to be available through Priority 1 referrals to Sudanese, Eritrean, and other refugees who were victims of religious intolerance. Refugees from Eritrea and Sudan with refugee or asylee family members in the United States also had access to the USRAP through Priority 3. In FY 2012, 10,608 refugees from 26 African countries were admitted to the United States.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, most governments generally provided for and respected freedom of religion, although the governments of some countries, such as Eritrea, Mauritania, and Sudan, restricted religious freedom in a manner inconsistent with their commitments to uphold the right to freedom of religion. In Somalia, the terrorist organization Al-Shabaab harassed and killed persons suspected of converting from Islam, and maimed and killed those who failed to adhere to its edicts.
The government of Eritrea restricted religious freedom. It retained significant influence over the four state-approved religious groups (the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the Islamic community) and did not permit others to register. The requirement for national service, which included military training and a civilian militia program, put members of religious groups whose tenets did not permit bearing arms into conflict with citizenship requirements. The government provided no alternative non-military service for conscientious objectors. In addition, the government held persons associated with unregistered religious groups in detention without due process, occasionally for long periods of time in harsh conditions. In December Human Rights Watch asserted that 56 Jehovah’s Witnesses were being incarcerated, including three held since 1994 and 12 arrested in 2012 while attending a funeral.
The government of Sudan continued to place restrictions on Christians. By law, converting from Islam was punishable by death. Although the government reportedly has not enforced the law, the authorities expressed their strong prejudice against conversion by occasionally subjecting converts to intense scrutiny, ostracism, and intimidation, or by encouraging converts to leave the country.
In Mauritania, the constitution and other laws and policies restrict religious freedom and, in practice, the government generally enforced legal and policy restrictions on religious freedom. In addition, there were reports of societal discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. International organizations active among Christians reported that family members and neighbors ostracized persons who participated in Christian gatherings.
In Somalia, the new government had only limited capacity to enforce the provisional federal constitution, which establishes Islam as the state religion and prohibits laws that do not comply with Sharia principles and propagation of religions other than Islam. The terrorist organization al-Shabaab imposed its own interpretation of Islamic law and practices on other Muslims in areas under its control.
Nationals of the DPRK, Vietnam, China, Laos, and Burma had access to the USRAP through Priority 1 individual referrals. A significant number of Burmese will be processed in FY 2013 under Priority 2. North Korean and Burmese refugees also had access to family reunification processing through Priority 3. In FY2012, 14,366 refugees from eight countries in East Asia were admitted to the United States.
Although many governments in East Asia did not restrict religious freedom, members of religious groups faced serious persecution in several countries. While the constitutions of the DPRK, China, Burma, and Vietnam provide for freedom of religion, in practice these governments restricted or repressed the activities of members of some minority religious groups, in a manner inconsistent with their commitments to uphold the right to freedom of religion.
The DPRK severely restricted religious freedom. The only organized religious activity it allowed was supervised tightly by officially recognized groups linked to the government. Because the DPRK government did not allow representatives of foreign governments and journalists to assess human rights conditions, little was known about the day-to-day life of religious persons in the country. Religious and human rights groups outside of the country provided numerous reports that members of underground churches were beaten, arrested, tortured, or killed because of their religious beliefs. The government reportedly punished DPRK citizens who were in contact with foreign religious groups while abroad.
The Chinese government continued to harass and interfere with unregistered religious groups, most notably the unofficial Catholic churches loyal to the Holy See, Protestant “house churches,” some Muslim groups (especially Uighur Muslims), members of the Falun Gong, and Tibetan Buddhists. Cultural and religious oppression led to numerous self-immolations in Tibet. The government harassed, detained, arrested, or imprisoned a number of individuals for activities reportedly related to their religious beliefs and practice.
In Burma, the government continued to discriminate against members of minority religious groups, and continued to monitor the meetings and activities of some religious groups. There were continued reports that government officials enticed or coerced non-Buddhists to convert to Buddhism in southern Chin state. Burmese army officials reportedly used houses of worship as locations for sexual violence against women and torture of religious leaders in Kachin state. There were also credible allegations of the involvement of local military authorities in the burning of Muslim villages during a protracted period of communal unrest in Rakhine state.
Vietnam’s religious freedom record was mixed. There were continued reports of violations of religious freedom, including cases involving arrests, detentions, harassment, and surveillance. However, the government registered new congregations, permitted the expansion of charitable activities, and allowed large-scale worship services with more than 100,000 participants.
Certain religious minorities in Europe and Central Asia had access to USRAP processing. A Priority 2 (P-2) designation applied to Jews, evangelical Christians, and Ukrainian Catholic and Orthodox religious adherents identified in the Lautenberg Amendment, Public Law No. 101-167, § 599D, 103 Stat. 1261 (1989), as amended (“Lautenberg Amendment”), with close family in the United States. With annual renewal of the Lautenberg Amendment, these individuals were considered under a reduced evidentiary standard for establishing a well-founded fear of persecution. In FY 2012, the United States admitted 1,129 refugees from eleven countries in Europe and Central Asia, including those under the Lautenberg Amendment in-country processing program.
The status of religious freedom varied widely in Europe and Central Asia. Many governments required religious groups to register with authorities. Registration typically carried the right to rent or own property, hold religious services, appoint military and prison chaplains, and receive state subsidies. Governments sometimes labeled religious groups not traditionally found in their countries as “sects” or “cults,” subjected their members to special scrutiny, and limited their ability to carry out their activities. Restitution of religious properties expropriated during WWII and the Cold War remained an issue.
Manifestations of anti-Semitism continued throughout the region, including demonstrations by extremist groups, physical assaults, and vandalism of cemeteries, synagogues, and monuments. While most incidents took place in former communist bloc countries, a number of Western European countries faced a significant increase in anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents. In France there was a reported 28 percent increase in anti-Muslim and a 58 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents during the year. In the United Kingdom there were 640 reported attacks against Jews, representing a 5 percent increase from the previous year, and 631 anti-Muslim incidents reported from March through December.
The Russian government continued to target certain minority religious groups. Jehovah’s Witnesses, readers of Said Nursi’s works, Scientologists, Protestants, and other minority religious groups had religious publications banned as extremist, and in some cases their religious organizations disbanded. The government also used administrative measures to restrict religious freedom, refusing to register religious groups or denying access to places of worship.
Governments such as those of Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan sometimes arrested and prosecuted individuals who objected to military service on the basis of religious beliefs for failing to comply with laws mandating military service. In Armenia, individuals granted conscientious objector status continued to be jailed for their refusal on religious grounds to complete required alternative national service managed by the Ministry of Defense.
In some countries, there were legal prohibitions against wearing headscarves and other religious garb in public.
Some governments in Europe and Central Asia viewed Muslims as potential threats, with ties to violent extremism. Central Asian governments often justified restrictions on religious freedom in the name of maintaining stability and combating terrorism. Some governments feared religious freedom would result in competing centers of power and influence or open the door to violent extremism, although research showed government suppression often resulted in increased violence and loss of regime legitimacy. Nonviolent religious minorities such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Nursi readers were often targets, as were members of the Muslim majorities whose beliefs or practices their governments deemed “foreign.”
The USRAP in Havana offered the opportunity for permanent resettlement in the United States to Cubans who were persecuted on a number of grounds, including their religious beliefs. The government of Cuba declined to provide the necessary exit visas to some individuals. In FY 2012, 2,078 refugees from the region were resettled in the United States, including 1,948 Cubans and 126 Colombians.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, religious freedom was widely recognized and supported by government and society, although there were cases of religious intolerance. In Cuba, significant government restrictions remained in place. Although the constitution protects religious freedom, the government continued to control most aspects of religious life; it interfered in church affairs, placed religious institutions under surveillance, and harassed outspoken church leaders.
Manifestations of anti-Semitism occurred throughout the region. In Venezuela anti-Semitism in the government-controlled media was a particular concern.
The USRAP provided resettlement access to refugees in the Near East and South Asia who suffered religious persecution. The Specter Amendment, first enacted as sec. 213, Division E, of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2004 (P.L. 108-199), provides that Iranian religious minorities designated as category members benefit from a reduced evidentiary standard for establishing a well-founded fear of persecution. Iranian refugees also had access to the program through Priority 3. In addition, the USRAP accepted UNHCR and embassy referrals of religious minorities of various nationalities in the region. UNHCR or a U.S. embassy may refer nationals of any country to the U.S. program for reasons of religious persecution. In FY 2012, 30,057 refugees from 18 countries in the Near East/South Asia region were admitted to the United States, including 15,070 Bhutanese, 12,163 Iraqis, and 1,758 Iranians.
Persecution of members of religious groups was common in many countries in the Middle East and South Asia, including several countries of origin for refugee populations entering the United States. Government responses to violence against members of religious groups were often inadequate.
In Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Egypt, individuals accused of apostasy or blasphemy were legally subject to severe criminal penalties and societal violence. Under these governments’ interpretations of Islamic law, individuals could be denied their civil rights if any member of society filed an apostasy or blasphemy complaint against them. In some cases, the accused could face the death penalty. Personal status cases in most countries in the region were decided by Sharia courts. Judges in these courts often ruled against converts and members of minority religious groups by annulling marriages, transferring child custody, conveying property rights to Muslim family members, depriving individuals of civil rights, and declaring them wards of the state without any religious identity.
In Afghanistan, the lack of government responsiveness to the needs of or protection for members of minority religious groups contributed to constraints on religious freedom. Non-Muslim minority groups, particularly Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs, continued to be targets of societal persecution and discrimination. Most Bahais and Christians did not publicly state their beliefs or gather openly to worship out of fear of discrimination, persecution, detention, or death.
The government of Iran severely restricted religious freedom. Iranian authorities imprisoned, harassed and intimidated members of religious minority groups, including Sunni Muslims, Bahais, Sufis, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Christians. Those reportedly arrested on religious grounds faced worsening prison conditions and treatment. The government restricted proselytizing, arrested Zoroastrians and Christians for practicing their religion, and vilified Judaism. The government considered Bahais apostates and defined the Bahai Faith as a “political sect.”
The government of Saudi Arabia severely restricted religious freedom. The public practice of any religion other than Islam was prohibited. The government reportedly deported foreigners for worshipping privately. Some Muslims who did not adhere to the government’s interpretation of Islam faced significant discrimination, including limited employment and educational opportunities, underrepresentation in official institutions, restrictions on religious practice, and restrictions on places of worship and community centers.
In Pakistan, the government’s respect for and protection of the right to religious freedom continued to be poor. It rarely investigated or prosecuted the perpetrators of acts of violence and intimidation against religious minorities. Violent extremists in some parts of the country demanded that all citizens follow their authoritarian interpretation of Islam and threatened brutal consequences if they did not abide by it. They also targeted Muslims advocating tolerance and pluralism. There were scores of attacks on Sufi, Hindu, Ahmadiyya Muslim, and Shia Muslim gatherings and religious sites, resulting in numerous deaths and extensive damage.
In India, anti-conversion laws in five of the 28 states negatively affected members of religious minority groups. Additionally, some local police and enforcement agencies were not swift to counter communal attacks against members of minority religious groups.
In Iraq, violence by sectarian and illegally armed groups in many parts of the country restricted religious freedom and greatly affected small minority religious groups. These groups, including Christians, Yezidis, Sabean-Mandaeans, and others, experienced wide-scale displacement, in some cases affecting as much as 90 percent of their population over the past eight years. Some 20 percent of registered Iraqi refugees were members of minority religious groups, a figure significantly larger than their percentage of the overall population.