Over the last decade, I have advocated on behalf of hundreds of refugees. I have listened to their traumatic stories of horrific persecution and suffering. I have witnessed their physical and psychological wounds of torture. I have sat motionless listening to stories of rape, hideous violence, and the trauma they carry with them across deserts, seas, mountains and numerous international borders. I am convinced that there is one value that is greater than all other values: respect for human dignity.
Some of the individuals I have represented faced persecution at the hands of the State – the very organisation tasked to protect them. Sometimes, the perpetrators were non-state agents, where the state had been unwilling or unable to offer adequate protection. Yet, surprisingly, there is no universally accepted definition of persecution. It can include a wide spectrum: from hostility and ill-treatment, at one extreme, to imprisonment, torture, mass murder and genocide, at the other. As Guy Goodwin-Gill, a barrister and Professor of International Refugee Law at Oxford University, notes, ‘there being no limits to the perverse side of human imagination, little purpose is served by attempting to list all known measures of persecution.’ We can say, however, that at its core persecution is a violation of common human values and dignity. It is also clear that there is an intrinsic link between persecution and refugees; the former is often the precursor to the latter.
It has generally been accepted that a threat to life or freedom on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group is always persecution. Of course, serious harm and other grave violations of human rights can also constitute persecution. Although reasons for persecution may vary, innate or immutable characteristics central to a person’s identity can be a cause for being targeted. Sometimes, the reasons can be more nuanced, such as holding a particular belief, or denouncing a certain faith.
The most extreme case of persecution is, of course, that of the Jews under the Third Reich. In Nazi Germany, Jews were subject to state-sponsored persecution that resulted in the mass killing of six million Jews. The extermination of Jews was at the very heart of the domestic policy of the Nazi regime; it had the dual goals of spatial expansion and racial purity. The Jews, considered to be an inferior race, were seen as a threat to their ideology. The targeting of Jews commenced with the installation of measures which excluded them from aspects of civil society and public life, culminating in the Nuremberg Laws in 1935. This soon escalated to the building of a network of concentration camps. Those deemed ‘undesirable’ to the regime were detained and ghettos in Western Poland were established where thousands of Polish Jews were forced into exile by the German police. The initial policy of isolation and expulsion shifted to annihilation with Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’, known as the Holocaust. This involved killing centres where mass shootings took place; the deportation of Jews in sealed freight trains to extermination camps and mass killings in gas chambers.
At the end of the Second World War the victors were keen to bring the perpetrators to justice in what would become the first international war crimes trial, the Nuremberg Trials of 1945–46. Twenty-one defendants were charged with a melange of crimes including crimes against peace and crimes against humanity, and the newly defined crime of genocide. For the first time on the international stage the horrors of the Nazi atrocities against the Jews came to light.
There have been other moments in history when the persecution of a particular community has been so systematic and widespread that it has become necessary for the international community to intervene –sometimes with success, sometimes not. Labelling these atrocities as ‘ethnic cleansing’, ‘genocide’ or ‘crimes against humanity’ can carry the full weight of international condemnation and, more meaningfully, can lead to the persecutors being brought to justice in the International Courts.
We need to support individuals and communities facing persecution unconditionally. Their faith, ethnicity, political beliefs or sexual orientation does not matter. What matters is that their basic humanity and dignity is being violated – the most fundamental of human values.
Here is my list of the ten most persecuted communities.
It has been exactly a hundred years since the Balfour Declaration. In November 1917, when Palestine was still under British rule, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, which announced its intention to facilitate the ‘establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.’ The United Nations set out to make a Jewish state a reality with The Partition Plan in 1947 proposing to divide the country into two, with special international status afforded to the city of Jerusalem with the UN as its administrative authority. Not surprisingly, this proposal was rejected by Arab leaders and governments citing their right to self-determination, namely the right of a people to determine its own destiny, as enshrined in Article I of the Charter of the United Nations. The Palestinians had been living in Palestine for thousands of years!
Since the establishment of Israel, several years of fighting over the disputed territories ensued; most notably the wars in 1948 and 1967. During these wars, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to leave their homes and fled to neighbouring countries as refugees; whole generations have grown up in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Israeli authorities began to establish civilian colonies, known as ‘settlements’, in the newly occupied territory, gradually swallowing up the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). It has widely been accepted that these Israeli settlements are illegal with the UN Security Council recently reaffirming that the settlements in Palestinian territory, occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem ‘had no legal validity’ and constitutes a ‘flagrant violation under international law.’
Numerous attempts by the international community at peace negotiations have failed and the conflict continues unabated. Reports by Amnesty International highlight that Israeli forces continue to unlawfully kill Palestinian civilians, including children, in both Israel and the OPT. Thousands of Palestinians from the OPT are detained for opposing Israel’s continuing military occupation. Human Rights Watch recently reported that ‘fifty years after Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it controls these areas through repression, institutionalized discrimination, and systematic abuses of the Palestinian population’s rights.’
2. The Rohingya
A Muslim community living in Rakhine State in Western Myanmar/Burma, the Rohingya have been described by the United Nations as the world’s most persecuted community. Although they have lived in Myanmar – formerly Burma – for centuries, the government maintains that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The 1982 Citizenship Law, which denied them citizenship rights, effectively rendered them a stateless people. The persecution, indeed elimination of the Rohingya, is part of the domestic policy of Myanmar: these policies have deliberately isolated them, restricted their freedom of movement, and limited access to education, employment and health care services.
In 2017, the Myanmar army launched a ‘clearance operation’ against the Rohingya. This was in response to a small faction of Rohingya militants (the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army) attacking police posts resulting in the deaths of 12 of Myanmar’s security forces. Rohingya villages were burnt, there were brutal beatings, mass executions, gang rape and sexual assault of women and girls. Eight hundred thousand were forced to flee their homes, and now live in refugee camps in Bangladesh.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights described Myanmar’s treatment of its Rohingya minority as a ‘textbook example’ of ethnic cleansing. A report published by the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI), based at Queen Mary College, University of London, says that there is ‘compelling evidence that the Rohingya face mass annihilation and are in the final stages of a genocidal process’.
Yazidis are a religious minority whose origins can be traced to Mesopotamia. Their ancient faith takes elements from Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism. The majority of Yazidis are concentrated in Northern Iraq, although communities are located in countries such as Syria, Turkey, Georgia, and Armenia. Most Yazidis are Kurdish speakers and consider themselves to be ethnically Kurdish. It is their religious distinction from the majority Sunni Kurdish population in Iraq that makes them vulnerable to persecution. They have endured significant persecution throughout their history, notably under the Ottomans, and, more recently, the community has been brought into sharp focus due to their horrific suffering at the hands of ISIS. In August 2014, ISIS captured the district of Sinjar and orchestrated the abduction and killing of thousands of Yazidi men. Around 50,000 Yazidis sought refuge in the Sinjar Mountains only to find themselves trapped without food, water or medical aid. Having labelled them as ‘devil worshippers’ the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria found that ISIS ‘sought to erase’ the Yazidi population in Iraq. ISIS has been responsible for their expulsion, forced conversion, kidnapping of children, murder and the sexual enslavement of thousands of Yazidi women. The UN has formally recognised ISIS’s campaign against the Yazidis as genocide.
Following the republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s declaration of independence in March 1992, Bosnian Serb forces waged a systematic campaign to expel Bosniak (Bosnian-Muslim) and Croatian civilians from the territory in Eastern Bosnia. The campaign included forced removals, sexual assault, murder, rape and torture of civilians. The violence culminated in the brutal executions of as many as 8,000 Bosniak men and boys at the town of Srebrenica in July 1995, which has been described as the worst mass killing on European soil since the Second World War.
The conflict gave rise to the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ considered to emanate from a literal translation of the Serbo-Croatian expression etnicko ciscenje. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague and the International Court of Justice concluded that the killings in Srebrenica amounted to genocide. Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader, is currently serving 40 years in prison for his involvement in the Srebrenica massacre. The massacre of Srebrenica became a blemish on the United Nation’s peacekeeping mandate with Kofi Annan accepting that the UN ‘failed to do our part to save the people of Srebrenica from the Serb campaign of mass murder.’
5. Crimean Tatars
The Crimean Peninsula stands as a historical gateway between Europe and Asia, the Classical World and the Steppes, the East and the West and is geographically strategic for Black Sea naval forces. It has been occupied by numerous ancient empires and in modern history has been the territory of the Ottoman Empire, Russia (in its Imperial, USSR, and Federation Forms), and Ukraine. The indigenous people of this peninsula are the Crimean Tatar, a Turkic, Greek ethnic group. Until the end of the nineteenth century they dominated Crimea with their own rich language, cultural identity, and the adoption of Sunni Islam.
Following the Ottoman Empire’s loss of Crimea in the Russo-Turkish War (1774), the Russian Empire issued its first major deportation of the Tatars to Western Ukraine. Under the USSR, the Tatars were ruthlessly suppressed, killed, and forcefully deported to Siberia and Uzbekistan. Russian Slavic and Ukrainian Cossack were encouraged to settle in Crimea and eventually became the majority of the population.
Following the end of the Soviet Union, Crimea briefly celebrated its independence but under the population and culture of Ukrainian and Russian Ethnic Groups. Thousands of Tatars returned from Siberia and Central Asia – some walked all the way home! For a couple of decades Crimea remained autonomous under Ukrainian rule, and the important port of Sevastopol was split between Ukrainian and Russia naval forces. But the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 put an end to Tatar autonomy.
The Tatar language and culture is on the brink of extinction as they only represent about ten per cent of the Crimean population. The Mejlis, a body that represents the Tatar people to the greater Crimean and Ukrainian governments, has been outlawed by the Russians for allegedly inciting ethnic nationality and religious extremism.
The Uighurs are an indigenous minority from the Xianiang region in Western China. A Turkic ethnic community, their history has spanned four thousand years, with a strategic role as the interface between East and West on the Silk Route consolidating their importance. Islam was adopted by the Uighurs in the tenth century and a sophisticated high culture that celebrated the arts and learning flourished until the Manchu invasion of 1884 signalled a decline. In 1911, the repression of the Chinese government triggered a bitter struggle for autonomy. They were designated as ‘separatists’ and brutally suppressed. In 1949, East Turkestan state briefly enjoyed independence, but it was short-lived as Xinjiang formally became part of Communist China.
The Chinese government has systematically discriminated against the Uighurs. During the Mao regime, the Uighurs were violently victimised. After 9/11, Uighurs were labelled as ‘terrorists’, and religious oppression was justified as ‘anti-terror measures’. President Xi Jinping has placed curbs on religious practice under the guise of guarding ‘against foreign infiltration by religious means’. Muslim names for babies are banned, and a whole range of religious conventions such as wearing of burkas or sporting ‘abnormal’ beards are barred under the guise of ‘extremist’ behaviour. Refusing to take part in state-sponsored cultural activities can land the Uighurs in prison. In addition to religious oppression, there are reports of large-scale torture, execution, forcible disappearance and a raft of systematic human rights abuses.
The Romani or Roma are a traditionally nomadic ethnic group originating from Northern India over a thousand years ago, who are now dispersed across Europe. Sometimes referred to, pejoratively, as ‘Gypsies’, the Roma people were first thought to have arrived in Europe via the Balkans in the twelfth century. The community has frequently been subject to slavery and persecution, with genocide perpetrated by the Nazis estimated to have resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of Roma during the Holocaust. Sterilisation of Romani women was carried out by Czechoslovakian authorities in 1973 and the Italian government declared Italy’s Roma community a national security risk in 2008.
The Romani people now represent one of the largest ethnic minorities in Europe but continue to be economically, culturally and politically marginalised. There is widespread public perception that Roma are associated with increased levels of crime and anti-social behaviour but these are not borne out by the statistics. Instead, Roma are subject to shocking levels of discrimination and suffer reduced life expectancy, worse health and lower literacy rates.
8. The Australian Aborigines
In 2016, leaked footage from inside the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in Darwin, Australia, summed up the decades of abuse and repression that the Australians have meted out to the Aborigine people. The images of the treatment of Aborigine children, locked up for minor offences, compared to the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Since the British first landed on Australia, way back in the 1770s, the colonists have been violently persecuting the indigenous population. They have been infected with smallpox and other diseases, their villages have been obliterated, their land stolen, and they are marginalised and discriminated against in modern Australia. Their population dropped from 1,250,000 in 1788 to 50,000 in 1930. They were not entitled to labour or voting rights until the 1960s. Their property rights were not addressed by the Australian courts until 1992 – the law being inherently racist against the Aborigine. A 1999 referendum to include Aboriginals in the Australian Constitution failed.
Unlike other colonisations, no treaty was agreed between colonists and the Aboriginals. Thus no authorisation was allowed for the colonisation and no rights to property were granted to Aboriginal tribes. The Aborigine identity is intrinsically linked to their land, which they can navigate through songlines, or dream track; their paths recorded in songs, dances and stories that date back thousands of years. By removing them from their land, settler Australians effectively killed the identity and culture of the Aborigine people – leaving them rootless in the land of their birth.
Discrimination against the Aborigines is continuing and rampant. However, there has been some noted improvements; the most recent being the ban on climbing the Uluru Landmark considered by the Aborigines as sacred.
9. The Ahmadiyya
A minority Muslim sect, the Ahmadiyya are seen by the majority Sunni and Shia orthodox as heretics. They accept all the basic injunctions of Islam, recite the Shahada (the declaration of faith), observe the five pillars of Islam, follow and draw their inspirations from the Qur’an and the sayings and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, and follow the Sharia (Islamic law). But they also regard their nineteenth-century founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, as a God-appointed Messiah. This doctrinal difference has enraged many self-appointed guardians of Islam. Pakistan declared them as non-Muslim in 1974; in 1984, they were forbidden to call themselves Muslim or describe their mosques as such. Since then, their mosques have been attacked and burned, their villages raided and the villagers driven out. In Bangladesh, Ahmadiyya have been put under house arrest, their mosques occupied and members of the community have been killed. The last decade has seen systematic persecution of the Ahmadiyya in Malaysia, Indonesia, Algeria and Saudi Arabia.
10. The Shia in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf
According to a fatwa issued by the Supreme Cleric, the late Shaikh bin Baz, in 1988, the Shias are apostates! Ten years later, another cleric made the logical connection: their killing and murder are justified. The Shias in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are methodically discriminated against in education and employment and in the justice system. Indeed, their religious persecution and total marginalisation from all state-based activities can be described as a form of apartheid. Shia religious ceremonies such as Ashura are banned. Shia religious shrines and cultural property has been wilfully destroyed. Several Shia scholars have been gunned down in broad daylight. Or executed by the State: the most famous incident was in January 2016 when Sheikh Nimr and 14 other Shia citizens were executed for joining a pro-democracy demonstration. Teenage boys have been imprisoned, tortured and lashed.
‘Each community has its own direction to which it turns: race to do good deeds and where you are, God will bring you together’.
— The Quran 2: 128