The State of the Evidence in Religions and Forced Migration

Professor Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh

University College London

Susanna Trotta

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

This blog series is introducing and summarizing every chapter of the JLI’s 2022 Edition of the State of the Evidence in Religions and Development. The full report and chapters are available at their dedicated web page. This is the sixth blog post, which focuses on religions and forced migration. The first blog that introduces religions and development evidence in general can be found here; the seconds blog on religion, development and health is here; the third blog on religions, development and the environment is here; the fourth blog post, which focuses on religions and ending violence against children, can be found here; and the fifth blog post, on religions, gender, and development can be found here.

Over the last two decades, the intersections between religions and migration have increasingly been discussed in humanitarian and development circles. Initially, debates focused on religion as a cause of displacement. Subsequently, academics and practitioners started concentrating on the role of religions and religious networks at different stages of migrants’ experiences. Increasing attention has also been given to faith actors’ engagements in supporting migrants and refugees through material and immaterial resources. In the last five years, migrant and refugee communities have been acknowledged as involved in, and leading, responses to migration, including through their religious networks.

Religious persecution has historically been one of the most common causes of forced displacement. It is therefore not surprising that religion is recognized as one of the main reasons for persecution by the Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. At the same time, it is also arguably one of the most disputed issues in Refugee Status Determination (RSD) processes. Key legal questions in this area concern the boundaries between religious

discrimination and religious persecution, the definition of religion as a cause for persecution, and how to determine an applicant’s credibility as regards their religious affiliation. The subjective nature of assessments and a lack of adequate religious literacy when examining religion-based claims are well documented in several countries, including the UK and the US. The issue of credibility assessment in religion-based claims is particularly crucial in cases of religious conversion. There is evidence that states are often not well-equipped to examine these cases without drawing on pre-existing ideas about migrants’ identities, as in the case of an asylum seeker from Iran who converted to Christianity after her arrival to Germany

and was denied protection. In other examples, RSD officials have rejected people’s claims for asylum due to their assumption that it is not possible to be simultaneously LGBTIQ+ and, for instance, a practicing Catholic or Muslim.

A special issue of the Journal of Refugee Studies in 2002 helped establish some of the main arguments around spirituality in displacement. It found that: 

  1. Forced migrants resort to religious and spiritual coping when they experience displacement-related trauma and suffering.
  2. Religion and spirituality travel with migrants and contribute to identity- and community-making processes in displacement.
  3. It can be challenging for displaced people to keep their spiritual and religious practices alive due to societal and cultural factors in the country of settlement.
  4. The spiritual/religious and gender dimensions of forced migrants’ experiences are often intertwined, and displacement processes affect these links in multiple ways. 


Since another special issue of the Journal of Refugee Studies on faith and displacement in 2011 there has been growing attention to the diverse ways that religious communities and organizations support migrants. This has been partly reflected in the inclusion of faith actors as stakeholders in the UNHCR 2018 Global Compacts on Refugees and for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. Faith-based private sponsorship resettlement programs to Canada and humanitarian corridors to Europe have long expanded access to protection through safe and legal routes to sanctuary, although in limited numbers. The history of sanctuary traditions in relation to asylum are intimately linked to religion, constituting the base for modern grassroots movements and initiatives in support of forced migrants, including those who are described as “irregular”.

Religion is also mobilized by people as they face barriers to migration, non-arrival (including death during transit), immigration detention, and the decision either to return or not return. For instance, internally displaced Machazians in Mozambique felt able to return to their homes only after rituals had been performed to disperse the loose spirits of soldiers who had died during the civil war and had not been buried. There is evidence that some communities engage in  traditional rituals to address immigration detention, as in the case of Ghanaian migrants in the Netherlands who asked their families in Ghana to participate in prayers and fasting camps and to donate to their religious community on their behalf, in an effort to solve their legal issues.

In transit and/or settlement countries, religious beliefs and practices are often linked to migrants’ agency, directed at fostering processes of empowerment and at improving their living conditions. For undocumented migrants in South Africa, strategically highlighting their Muslim religious affiliation, or even pretending to be Muslim, can be a key strategy to access support from Islamic humanitarian organizations and mosques. There is also evidence that unaccompanied male minors fleeing war in Sudan converted to Christianity while in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, where Christian organizations developed a strong presence. In a similar and yet opposite way, the Polisario Front – the political and military group representing Sahrawi refugees in their Algeria-based refugee camps – has strategically downplayed Islam in the Sahrawi camps to match the expectations of Western, secular donors. These examples show how the religious dimension of displaced peoples’ experiences is deeply intertwined with their decisions and how they navigate their status and improve their situation in their specific contexts.

Faith actors can also directly and indirectly provide spiritual and psychosocial support to migrants, mobilize material and immaterial resources, and make use of trust, reach, and networks to respond to the needs of displaced people and to support social cohesion. For example, in Colombia, small Pentecostal congregations in Bogotá mobilized to support the resocialization of desplazados (internally displaced Colombians). Before and during the holy month of Ramadan, long-term residents of Baddawi camp in North Lebanon collect zakat donations from other refugees to prepare and distribute iftar food baskets with which families ‘in need’ can break their fast. La 72 in Mexico – a migrant and refugee shelter founded in 2011 by the Franciscan order in Tenosique, Tabasco – not only provides accommodation and food to migrants and refugees, but also promotes respect and support for diversity and inclusion across age, gender, sexual orientation and religious denominations.

There are also documented instances of religious groups and faith-based organizations becoming complicit with the detention and deportation of migrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees. Yet, in many contexts, religious organizations often support migrants’ and refugees’ social struggles and their quest for social and economic justice. 

In conclusion, the evidence demonstrates that religion is often a key dimension of migratory processes. Faith actors, including transnational networks and refugee and migrant communities, are often involved in responses to displacement. Yet there remains a need to further explore the nuances of religion-related power dynamics, including in terms of gender relations and of social justice, and research and policy on religions and forced migration needs to have a broader focus which includes non-mainstream religious groups and traditional beliefs.


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