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President Obama compares Syrian refugee crisis to Jews fleeing the holocaust - but fails to even mention Christians and Yazidis facing genocide

23 September 2016

President Obama used his final visit to the UN to hold a special world leaders' summit on refugees in which he declared the world refugee crisis to be “a test of our common humanity”. However, although he singled out the Syrian refugee crisis, his speech failed to even mention the plight of Christians and Yazidis despite the US government, under heavy pressure, finally admitting in March that they were facing genocide. This omission was all the more evident as President Obama compared the Syrian refugee crisis to Jews fleeing the Nazi holocaust, saying, "I called this summit because this crisis is one of the most urgent tests of our time,” and, “Just as failure to act in the past - for example, by turning away Jews fleeing Nazi Germany - is a stain on our collective conscience, I believe history will judge us harshly if we do not rise to this moment."

Yet this is precisely what the Obama administration is failing to do in relation to Christians fleeing genocide in Syria and Iraq. As we reported recently, although Syrian Christians make up around 10% of the population, less than 2% of all Syrian refugees who have admitted to the US since 2011 are Christians. Not only that, despite the number of Syrian refugees significantly increasing – and set to the increase tenfold – the tiny percentage of Syrian Christians accepted into the US last year actually fell to a mere half of one percent.

President Obama’s parallel with Jews fleeing the holocaust is apt. In fact in 1939, when planning to invade Poland and “kill without mercy”  Polish citizens including the country’s 3 million Jews, Hitler actually remarked “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”. His comments showed he believed that he would be able to get away with killing millions of Jews and other Poles in the same way that the Ottoman Empire had not been held to account for the genocide of millions of Armenian, Assyrian and Greek Christians that peaked a century ago. Many of the Christians fleeing Syria are in fact direct descendants of those who survived “the death march” from their homes in Turkey into the Syrian Desert during that genocide.

Mr Obama’s parallel is also apt because, as he touched on in his speech, during the holocaust the US government made it extremely difficult for Jews to obtain visas for the USA. Then as the USA entered WW2, US policy meant that, in the words of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, this “trickle of immigration virtually dried up, just as the Nazi regime began systematically to murder the Jews of Europe”. The reason given for this was “security concerns” – yet the one group of Germans who were both most vulnerable and at the same time clearly presented no security threat were Jews fleeing the holocaust. In the same way the Syrian refugees who are most vulnerable, and at the same time by definition present no risk of becoming jihadists, are Christians and Yazidis fleeing genocide. Whilst there are major concerns about the role of the UN in selecting refugees for resettlement and its de facto discrimination against Christians, similar questions have to be raised about the Obama administration.

President Obama’s comments talked about the need not to let security concerns stop us exercising compassion, suggesting he was responding to concerns about the number of Syrian Muslim refugees coming to the USA. Yet neither he nor his administration have given any real response to the concerns raised that the US government is discriminating against Syrian Christian refugees.

This raises the question of whether US government policy on Syrian refugees has become such a partisan political issue that President Obama’s Democratic administration is deliberately reacting against the earlier suggestion by a number of Republican senators that the USA should prioritise Syrian Christian refugees facing genocide. If this is affecting the Obama administration’s policy in any way, it is utterly disgraceful. People facing genocide, whether Jews fleeing the holocaust or Christians fleeing IS in Syria and Iraq, must never become a party political football.

If President Obama wishes to have a legacy that includes a successful refugee policy, then before he leaves office he needs urgently to address his administration’s de facto discrimination against Syrian refugees who are Christians or members of other non-Muslim minorities fleeing genocide in Syria and Iraq. If he does not, he is likely to be judged in the same way as those who hindered Jews fleeing the holocaust from claiming asylum in the USA.