Like many Western countries, Australia has agreed to resettle refugees from the wars in Syria and Iraq. Unlike other countries, Australia explicitly favors Christians, even though they are a minority of those seeking refuge.
The Australian experience is a case study for Europeans grappling with an influx of refugees and for Americans considering the long-term implications of the Trump presidency: When Muslims are demonized, state-directed prejudice is more likely.
Data I obtained through Australia’s freedom of information law shows that 78 percent of the approximately 18,563 refugees from Syria and Iraq granted entry from July 1, 2015, to Jan. 6 of this year identified themselves as Christian.
This figure is significantly out of proportion to Christians’ presence among the region’s displaced peoples. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees puts the number of registered Christian refugees from Iraq at around 15 percent. The figure for Syria is just under 1 percent.
Australia’s conservative coalition government has never denied that religion is an important factor in choosing who will be admitted from Syria and Iraq. The favoritism is justified by the claim that Christians are more at risk from the Islamic State and other groups that engage in indiscriminate murder.
Some Christians feel that members of their religion are the unacknowledged victims of the wars in Syria and Iraq. “Christians have been copping the brunt of persecution at the hands of ISIS,” Lyle Sheldon, the managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby, told me.
Similarly, a Labour legislator, Tony Zappia, said in the Australian Parliament, “Christians appear to be the most persecuted people on earth.”
But experts don’t buy it.
“Christians from conflict zones in Syria and Iraq aren’t persecuted more than others,” said the head of Human Rights Watch in Australia, Elaine Pearson. “In both Syria and Iraq, Muslims have overwhelmingly borne the brunt of most of the atrocities by ISIS and by the Assad regime.”
There is evidence that in Syria Christians are being protected by the Assad regime, which likes to portray itself as the defender of minorities. The civil war in Iraq is primarily a Sunni-Shiite conflict.
The Australian approach is in part motivated by a belief expressed in private by government ministers, and in public by Christian groups like Mr. Sheldon’s, that Christians are more likely to integrate into Australia’s Anglo-Christian-dominated culture than Muslims. “They have a worldview that’s more aligned with the founding principles of our society,” Mr. Sheldon said of Christians.
Selecting refugees based on their spiritual beliefs is a form of state-supported prejudice that secular societies like Australia have a moral obligation to reject.
As one of Australia’s foremost experts on refugees points out, specific religions don’t have a monopoly on peaceful behavior. “Some Buddhists, for example, are extremely spiritual and peaceable,” William Maley, a professor at the Australian National University and author of “What is a Refugee?,” said in an email. “But there are Buddhist extremists in Sri Lanka and Myanmar who might better be classed as fascists.”
There are two primary ways refugees from the Middle East get to Australia. They can go through the United Nations refugee agency, which prioritizes the most desperate. Most are from Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
The agency works closely with Australian immigration officials, but does not use religion as a criterion. In 2015 and 2016 the agency selected 6,444 refugees from the region for resettlement in Australia. Twelve percent were Christian — just 782 people.
The other way is to apply for asylum directly to the Australian government. This route is stacked in favor of Christians, whether they be Armenian Apostolic, Assyrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic or one of dozens of other Christian denominations. Indeed, since the total pool of refugees admitted to Australia in this period was so largely Christian, the government must have approved few if any Muslims seeking asylum by direct application.
When I asked the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection about its criteria for selecting refugees, it didn’t dispute the policy has a religious bias. But a spokesman said applicants don’t have to disclose their religion.
But telling refugees they don’t have to declare their faith is like telling them they don’t have to choose a gender. The Australian data puts the number of admitted refugees who didn’t state their religion at 0.07 percent.
Muslims, especially those from the Middle East, have an image problem in the Western world. Concerns are fed by a legitimate fear of terrorism and the alienness of Muslim and Arabic social norms, clothing and language.
In Australia, hostility is fanned by populist politicians and Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid newspapers, which are eager to seize on perceived slights to Anglo-Australian culture by the nation’s tiny population of militant or orthodox Muslims. The attack outside the British Parliament on March 22 prompted a prominent Australian anti-Muslim politician to start a hashtag: #pray4muslimban. Last month, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he would make it harder to obtain citizenship. The new rules will require behavior consistent with “Australian values,” a vague test that many commentators on the right and left regard as aimed at Muslims.
Before World War II, Australia resisted international pleas to grant refuge to more Jews. “As we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one by encouraging any scheme of large-scale foreign migration,” a government official said in 1938.
Australia should consider that history may judge it harshly for treating today’s Muslims as it did yesterday’s Jews.
A. Odysseus Patrick is a writer for The Australian Financial Review.