The Australian Government has finally announced that it will increase its humanitarian intake by 12,000 places in the wake of the Syrian crisis. Amid the cacophony over which refugees are most in need of refuge, and the unhelpful 'Muslim versus Christian' discourse, there is a community that has been largely forgotten.
The Yazidis, who are facing ongoing genocidal attacks by ISIS, must be considered a high priority for Australia's new allocation of refugee visas.
The Kurdish-speaking Yazidis are an ancient people who have lived in Mesopotamia for thousands of years. Their religion incorporates a range of features from Zoroastrianism, Sufi Islam and other faiths, and is based on oral tradition. ISIS considers the religion idolatrous and views Yazidis as devil-worshippers because of the significance they ascribe to the ‘Peacock angel’
When ISIS captured the Sinjar region in August 2014, the international community – rightly predicting an imminent genocide – intervened with humanitarian and military assistance. The plight of Yazidis captured the world's attention for a brief moment. At the time, Australia agreed to open its humanitarian program to Yazidis (and Iraqi Christians). As feared, hundreds of Yazidi civilians were massacred, others were trapped on Mount Sinjar without food or water, and many more – including women and children – were abducted and enslaved, with the intention of destroying the group.
Several thousand civilians remain in ISIS captivity today; the women and girls raped, forcibly married from the officially sanctioned age of nine. Women are trafficked as sex slaves and intentionally made pregnant by ISIS fighters, so that the children will be considered to have inherited their fathers' ethnicity and religion. Forced conversion is widespread, with one survivor saying: 'They made us convert to Islam and we all had to say the shahada. They said, "You Yezidis are kufar" (infidels)…'
Boys as young as four are trained as ISIS fighters and given swords with which to kill their own relatives.
Those who narrowly avoided the genocide by fleeing their homes in Iraq remain in refugee camps in Iraqi Kurdistan, Syria, and countries now highlighted in Australia's response: Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Women who have escaped ISIS captivity sit in these camps in shock at the murder of their families and traumatised by their ordeal of sexual violence. They will never be able to return to their homes.
Although Australia did not increase its overall humanitarian intake in August 2014, it set aside 4000 visas to those 'most in need of resettlement'. There have been suggestions that in this current intake, Christians should be given precedence because of their supposedly greater ability to adapt to Australian life. The prioritisation of persecuted minorities is absolutely unrelated to false notions of whose culture, religion or values may align with Australia's way of life. To suggest so is prejudiced and underpinned by Islamophobia, not to mention a distraction from the real issues. Further, it serves to cement a perceived Christian-Muslim divide, which will have negative community relations consequences at home.
Civilians in Syria of all backgrounds have been caught up in the horrific civil war, and are in need of protection. ISIS is committing atrocities against various religious and ethnic minorities, especially Christians, whose local counterparts have been vocal in recent days in asserting their urgent need for refugee places. Muslims who do not adhere to ISIS doctrines have also been subjected to attacks, including the razing of places of worship.
According to the UN, however, ISIS has singled out the Yazidi people for genocide, strategically planning it in advance. Considered Mushrik or polytheists (as opposed to Christians who, while persecuted, are at least theoretically protected from outright genocide as 'People of the Book), Yazidi men were not given the opportunity to pay Jizya tax but rather were simply shot into ditches.
The enslavement of Yazidi women, including forced marriage, is not only accepted by ISIS, but actually mandated. It is so enshrined in its ideology that a supporter recently wrote on social media: 'Yes... they are idolaters, so it's normal that they are slaves, in Mosul they are closed in a room and cry, and one of them committed suicide LOL ...'
Some women who were captured when pregnant have been subjected to forced abortion and told, 'We do not want more Yazidis to be born.' One woman's captor sat on her stomach and repeatedly raped her in attempts to kill her unborn baby, saying 'This baby should die because it is an infidel. I can make a Muslim baby.'
In its March 2015 report on the situation in Iraq, the UN concluded that acts being committed against the Yazidis may constitute genocide, an assessment echoed by human rights organisations on the ground. Under international law, genocide involves killing members of the group; causing serious harm; deliberately inflicting conditions designed to bring about the group's destruction; preventing births within the community; or forcibly transferring its children. ISIS is committing all of these crimes, and more.
In line with the UN's principle of Responsibility to Protect, which encourages global collaboration to provide safe haven to those facing genocide, priority for Australia's humanitarian visas should be granted to people who are most at risk of mass atrocity. A refugee system that is based on need, will necessarily recognise the special vulnerability of persecuted minorities, as the Prime Minister has confirmed.
To accept that Yazidis are at immediate and urgent risk does not negate that others too are being persecuted, nor does it preclude individuals of any background from applying for refuge. It does however, acknowledge that the Yazidi individuals who have thus far escaped genocide, are unlikely to ever be able to live in safety in Iraq or Syria, even if the current level of violence abates.
Now that Australia has done the right thing and increased its humanitarian intake for those fleeing the conflict across Iraq and Syria, a policy that is conscious of the severe persecution of ethnic and religious minorities and the ongoing genocide of Yazidis, is both essential and ethical.
Escape from ISIS, the story of a network that is working to rescue women and children being held captive by ISIS is being shown on Four Corners, ABC, Monday 14 September.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user European Commission DG ECHO.