Refugee policy has its roots in religion, say researchers. They note that all three of the world’s major religions – Islam, Christianity and Judaism – offer outsiders protection and refuge.
The dean of Cairo University’s Faculty of Law, Professor Abu Al-Wafa, traces the concept to Islamic values dating back 1,400 years. In addition to protection, or ijara, Al-Wafa said Islam grants asylum, or aman.
His views are part of a study by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in cooperation with the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
UNHCR spokesman Firas Kayal, who is based in Riyadh, said under Islamic law, asylum seekers in danger of persecution are allowed to stay with the host community.
The concept, he said, can be found in a Koranic story about the search for safety by the founder of Islam, the Prophet Mohammed, and his followers in Mecca. The Prophet ordered some to go to Medina and others to go to the king of Ethiopia for protection.
“The king then refused to send back those people to Mecca,” Kayal said, “and that is exactly identical to the modern refugee [legal] principles of the non-return of asylum seekers and refugees and [the provision of] protection and asylum.”
Western scholars say international law, including refugee policy, is also influenced by Christianity and Judaism, both which emphasize the right of sanctuary for those fleeing political oppression.
For example, religious scholar Ignatius Bau writes in his book, The Ground is Holy, that God told Moses to create 48 cities for the Levitical tribe. Six of them were to be cities of refuge for people who had accidently killed someone. They were protected against revenge killings before they could be judged.
Under Jewish law (or tradition), say Talmudic scholars, escorts were provided to protect the fugitives, while the mothers of the high priest were required to furnish them with food and clothing.
In recent years, US churches involved in the Sanctuary Movement have offered sanctuary to refugees of the civil wars in Central America and immigrants at risk of deportation.
The study on the Islamic influence on modern refugee policy, said Kayal, comes at a time when most of the world’s refugees are either Muslims or live in Muslim countries. And he said it coincides with a rise in extremism, racism and fear-mongering around the world that leads some people to confuse refugees with illegal migrants and terrorists. Refugees are themselves often the victims of terrorism, Kayal said, and the study asks readers to refute these attitudes.
The UNHCR provides protection to all asylum seekers, regardless of race, religion or nationality.