President Donald Trump’s disastrous executive order on the admission of refugees and other immigrants from the Middle East – specifically seven countries in the region – has obviously been the source of a lot of consternation. Much of the disagreement hinges on assumptions about the composition of the refugee population itself, and how it reflects on the moral or policy merits of the directive, so that population is worth a closer look.
One big sticking point has been whether this is truly the “Muslim Ban” that Democrats, Rudy Giuliani and a former top advisor of Trump’s National Security Advisor would have it be. “But most Muslims live outside the terror-stricken countries Trump is targeting” seems to be the counterargument (though most of these folks are the same ones who have spent years insisting the terrorism in the region be described as Islamic so they are maybe not the best messengers).
Anyway – it’s true! Most Muslims do not live in the Middle East, or Trump’s 7 countries (Somalia, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, Iran and Syria). But on the key question of refugees, I have already argued it is a Muslim ban in all but name. Just look at the numbers: in 2016, 82% of the Muslim refugees admitted into the United States came from the 7.
Put another way, 84% of the refugees from those 7 countries are in fact Muslim (Note: all of this refugee data comes via the U.S. State Department’s Refugee Processing Center database). The more committed contrarians have pointed to a pause in refugee admissions initiated by the Obama administration in 2011 (though it wasn’t publicly announced or even reported until 2013) as a Gotcha! for anyone unwilling to call that a Muslim ban too. Not to get too much into the policy details, it’s a silly argument in solely numeric terms: compared to the more than 80% of the Muslim refugee population covered by Trump’s ban, Obama’s would have only affected about 1 in 5 Muslim refugees if it held throughout 2016. Not a happy situation whatsoever for those left out – but not remotely comparable in scale.
That brings us to another important issue. The exception for religious minorities – excluding the persecuted and displaced Muslim communities that make up a majority of refugees in the region – is, by Trump’s own admission, aimed at giving preferential treatment to Christians over Muslims. A few commentators on the right will insist the text itself does not mention Christianity – just persecuted religious minorities –so this is not about Christians, but a more general belief (even including that first group) seems to be that this fixes some fundamental problem with the previous administration’s policy on Christian refugee applicants in the Middle East. Namely, that not only did Obama not admit enough Christian refugees from the region, but that it was an intentional policy showing preferential treatment for Muslims over Christians.
This latter view is exemplified in a recent post by a generally Trump-skeptic conservative commentator, Erick Erickson:
[F]or the last number of years, the press has downplayed that the Obama Administration bent over backward to allow in Muslim refugees from war-torn areas while limiting the immigration of Christians and Yazidi from the same area.
However, this is just one example of a whole mythology that developed about Barack Obama’s refugee policy regarding Christians during his second term. Mind you, I have not seen anyone present a shred of evidence that this was ever a deliberate policy by the administration, no stated directive, not even a stray Wikileak!
In fact, the core argument seems to be simply that Obama admitted too few Christians, specifically in Syria, from 2015-2016. So let’s look at the data. According to the US State Department’s Refugee Processing Center, Obama admitted 125 Christian refugees from Syria in the calendar year of 2015. This is more than double the widely cited number, 56. I am not sure why. One obvious answer is that estimate was through September, and my number is through December. It’s possible my definition of Christianity is also broader – my count includes 52 unspecified Syrian “Christians”, 32 Catholics, 32 Orthodox, 5 Protestants and 4 Jehovah’s Witnesses. But in a sense the distinction is unimportant, because the core point is that too few Syrian Christians are admitted relative to their share of the overall population. Estimates for the Syrian Christian vary between 5% (Pew Research) and 10% (the BBC), but whether you take 56 or 125 as the number, their share of the US Syrian refugee population is much lower, less than 1% in either case.
This is the core of the argument that Obama is deliberately discriminating against Christians. Now, some have argued this is even true “in effect” because, like the rest of the world, the U.S. resettles refugees who have registered with the U.N. refugee program, and Christian refugees are, according to one think tank, afraid to go to the U.N. I should say I am no expert on refugee resettlement policy, Syria or the U.N., but my first thought at pondering this issue was, well, if there was some systematic bias against U.N. camps among Christians in the region – or else a bias within the Obama administration – would it not appear outside of Syria, too?
To look at this I filtered the refugee data down to all Middle Eastern and North African (“MENA”) nationalities along with Somalia, and then broke down the numbers by religion. In terms of raw numbers, the Obama administration actually admitted far more Christian refugees on an average, yearly basis than the Bush administration: 6,700/year versus 4,000/y) He also took in larger numbers of Muslims, by a factor of more than two from (9,600/y under Bush to 21,100 under Obama).
In percentage terms, it is true that there has been some decline in the share of refugees that are Christian – from 26% during the Bush years (excluding 2001, for which there’s no data) to 24% under Obama.
However, looking at both charts it seems clear there is a waxing and waning under both presidents, which may well simply come down to major world events that drive people out of certain areas with certain demographic and religious leanings. You can see that since the Arab Spring broke out, the U.S. has taken in growing numbers of Muslims, without a doubt. What you don’t see is the disproportionately small number of Christian refugees cited in Syria; looking specifically at neighboring Iraq, for example, Christians made up 17% of refugees in 2015. The Syria discrepancy does seem unusual, and the international community should investigate why Syrian Christians seem to be staying away from U.N. camps (the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has said many Syrian Christians have gone instead to Lebanon). But to jump argue Obama, himself a Christian and an advocate of expanding the country’s refugee policy, practiced “de facto discrimination” against Christians and gave preferential treatment to Muslims – well, I’ll just stop and say I don’t see how that’s based on evidence.
Note: an earlier version had “Christian” mislabelled in key for the third graphic. Fixed.