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Cotton Introduces Religious Persecution Relief Act to Protect Syrian Religious Minorities

March 17, 2016

Contact: Caroline Rabbitt (202) 224-2353

Washington, D.C.- Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) today introduced the Religious Persecution Relief Act, legislation that would grant religious minorities fleeing persecution at the hands of ISIS and other groups in Syria priority status so they can apply directly to the U.S. resettlement program. The bill will also set aside 10,000 resettlement slots annually that must be devoted to Syrian religious minorities. Overall, the bill will allow Syrian religious minorities, who fear registration with the U.N. refugee agency, to circumvent the U.N. process and it will fast-track the U.S. review process that confirms they are victims of genocide and persecution.

"The Islamic State is seeking to eradicate Christians, Yazidis, Turkmen, Sabean-Mandeans, Jews, and other religious groups it sees as apostates and infidels. The United States cannot stand idly by and allow this persecution to continue. We must not only recognize what's happening as genocide, but also take action to relieve it," said Senator Cotton. "This bill will help save ancient faiths from genocide by allowing the United States to identify persecuted people to whom we can grant safe haven. And it will maintain the same security vetting process experienced by all other refugee applicants ensuring that the safety of the American people is protected."

Earlier today, Senator Cotton spoke about the persecution of religious minorities in Syria and Iraq as well as this legislation on the Senate floor. A transcript of his remarks can be found here and the video of his remarks can be found here.

A fact sheet on the Religious Persecution Relief Act can be found here.

Background: Since 2011, UNHCR has referred approximately 20,000 Syrian resettlement applications to the United States, and 2,147 of those referred have been resettled. 18,000 applications await review. The U.S. relies almost exclusively on UNHCR referrals for all resettlement applications from Syrian refugees, yet they remain underrepresented in the UNHCR registration system. This bill would attempt to mitigate that problem by extending priority refugee status already offered to other religious and ethnic groups under the Lautenberg Amendment / Specter Amendment / Kennedy bill to Syrian religious minorities. This would prioritize them in the U.S. resettlement review process. The 1989 Lautenberg Amendment created a refugee category for certain Soviet and Indochinese nationals that would be entitled to priority status-known as "P-2 status"-in the U.S. resettlement program and was extended by Senators Spector and Kennedy to apply to other minorities. This bill would also add 10,000 resettlement spots per fiscal year that are dedicated to Syrian religious minorities, and require this for five years. The total resettlement target number is 50,000.