Global Cooperation

The case for a safe haven for refugees in the Middle East

Chris Seiple
President Emeritus, Institute for Global Engagement
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I soon will have visited Northern Iraq six times since October 2014. Every time I drive northwest to Dohuk from Erbil, no matter the driver, each time, he points to the place where American planes stopped the advance of ISIS.

The idea of a safe haven for people of faith who have fled ISIS—more likely now on the Nineveh Plain in Northern Iraq (just south of Kurdistan) than in Syria, given the Russian intervention—has now become mainstream.

On 9 October, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that “no-fly zones” and “safe harbors” for people “warrant serious consideration.” After all, they argued, “We will continue to have refugees until people are safe.” Similarly, during the first Democratic Presidential Debate on 13 October 2015, Hillary Clinton called for “safe zones” in Syria (and presumably, by extension, in Iraq).

For example, a safe haven on the Nineveh Plain for Sunnis, Christians, and Yazidis would not only protect them—stemming the flow of refugees—it would also delegitimize ISIS in two ways.

First, a safe haven would unequivocally state that the very people of faith that ISIS persecutes have equal dignity, and that the international community will defend them.

Second, the essence of ISIS’ identity is theographic (theology + geography); i.e., its self-perception is rooted in its own interpretation of theology, which, in turn, demands the “re-capture” of geography/lands previously under the Caliphate (which it presumes to re-establish).

Declaring and defending a safe haven of previously persecuted peoples not only blunts the military momentum of ISIS, more importantly it delegitimizes their theographic identity. All of which, combined, would also lessen the attraction of global wannabes looking to join ISIS.

In my view, the multi-national rapid reaction, protection force for such a safe haven need not be big, perhaps 10,000 people, likely led by the Jordanians, and probably based in Erbil, with a NATO contingent. If complimented by a regional diplomacy that witnessed a Muslim-led defeat of ISIS along with a Muslim-led “Marshall Plan” for the region, then such a safe haven might even point towards a brighter future.

Meanwhile, as we wait on the bigger pieces of the geo-political puzzle to settle, such a safe haven would also buffer Sunni and Shia, Kurd and Arab, and, in part, Iran and Syria. All of which, when combined, as I have argued elsewhere, allows for the possibility of trust being re-established among fractured faith communities.

Last but not least, there are financial and spiritual costs to the above options. Instinct suggests it is cheaper and sounder to protect people where they are than to provide new homes for them in Europe or North America.

Pelagius once wrote that “there is no worse death than the end of hope.” The loss of hope among people in a desperate situation can destroy any possibility of reconciliation among faiths, and societies, sowing long-term seeds of instability not only in Iraq and Syria, but also in Europe and North America. Conversely, proper plans to support refugees – whether in the region or elsewhere – bolsters hope for a better future, encouraging them to play their responsible part.

Faith cannot help but be a part of this process, for, by definition, it is the substance of things hoped for. No matter our respective belief traditions, may we remain hopeful because we are faithfully practical toward our common future.

Author: Chris Seiple, Ph.D., chairs the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faith. He is President Emeritus and Chairman of the Board at the Institute for Global Engagement.

Image: A migrant from Syria walks along rail tracks with his son as they arrive to a collection point in the village of Roszke in Hungary after crossing the border from Serbia, September 6, 2015. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

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