Perhaps the defining image of the past year has been that of the refugee. Their images fill the news reports, huddled into perilously overcrowded boats, eking out an existence in refugee camps, desperately queuing at border posts, or trudging across dusty plains carrying the fragments of their lives in plastic bags.
And darker, even more shocking images: toddlers lying lifeless on Turkish beaches; desperate captives, kneeling at the feet of their black-clad executioners.
Our impression of the refugee crisis is largely defined by events in the Middle East. Yet the truth is that this is a global phenomenon. Throughout the world, people are on the move – and millions of them are Christians.
Syria is the ‘largest displacement crisis globally’ according to the UN. More than half the Syrian population have left their homes; 7.6 million are internally displaced within the country, and 4 million are refugees outside it. Before the war there were some 1.8 million Christians in Syria; now best estimates stand at between 700,000 and 800,000.
Most of Syria’s refugees have ended up in refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan. But many Christians fear to go into the camps where, in the words of one, ‘we are still a vulnerable minority in a very dangerous place’.
“You flee to survive and keep your children safe, but that is just as hard in the camps,” said a father in a refugee camp in Lebanon. “It can be tough to find enough to eat and also to stop undesirables preying particularly on our young daughters.”
Syrians feature heavily among the many refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean. But Eritrea is the biggest source of asylum seekers in Europe. According to the Commission on Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, 5,000 people leave Eritrea every month. The percentage of Christians among these is hard to estimate, but clearly it is very high. Ethiopians also flee their country in large numbers, as do those from Sudan. For Christians, the journey through Islamised North Africa is highly dangerous, as we saw with the barbaric executions of 30 Ethiopian Christians in Libya.
Then there is Nigeria, where an estimated 2 million people are internally displaced, many of whom are thought to be Christian. In the north, Boko Haram have displaced many thousands, but the hidden story comes from the country’s middle belt, where a campaign of religious/ethnic cleansing by Hausa-Fulani herdsmen has targeted Christians, burning their fields and shops and houses, and forcing them off their land.
South Asia is also struggling with mass-migration. In particular, there are two quiet tragedies today in this region concerning Christians.
In Pakistan, which has risen to #6 on the 2016 World Watch List, oppression and violence have forced thousands of Christians across the border to Thailand. The UN claims that some 4,000 Pakistani Christians have fled; the real number is thought to be about 10,000. The Thai government refuses them refugee status: they cannot work, are subject to police intimidation and live on handouts.
Meanwhile, in Myanmar the government continues its war against Christian minority groups such as the Kachin and the Chin. A reported 100,000 Christian refugees have crossed the border to China, with even more internally displaced. They live in camps that offer little protection: abuse is rampant, drugs are common, and many vulnerable young girls are exploited and married off.
In Colombia, over six million people have been displaced – making it second only to Syria in the numbers of internally displaced people. Though most have fled from war zones, still many Christians are forced out of their communities by paramilitary violence and religious persecution. In Mexico there are just over 281,000 displaced people. A significant proportion of these are Christians, displaced by indigenous tribes, who hate it when people become Christians and reject their tribal traditions.
Refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) lose so much: their homes, jobs, communities, possessions – even their sense of status and identity. But the one thing they dare not lose is hope.
As one of the 120,000 Iraqi Christians who fled from the Nineveh plain said: “Yes, we have to cope with the trauma of leaving, and sometimes with the dreadful things we have seen, but the hardest thing I find is to keep hope alive that we will ever return – if you feel despair about the future then it is very hard to find the motivation to survive.”
This is where the presence of Open Doors is so important. With your support, our local partners are providing vital food, medical aid and shelter to tens of thousands of Christians who have been forced to flee their homes, but are too poor or infirm to escape their war-torn nations. We are visiting them, praying with them and assuring them that the global body of Christ has not forgotten them. This is a long-term as well as a global crisis, which is why Open Doors is also investing in long-term support such as trauma counselling, small business loans, and leadership training for church leaders who feel called by God to stay and serve their people – strengthening the church to be the church in the most dangerous places on earth. In this way, said another displaced Iraqi mother, ‘you help to keep our hope alive’
We support people who are beaten, tortured,
imprisoned, falsely accused, and hated simply for following Jesus.