Gulf states take a bad rap on Syrian refugee issue

Defenders argue the influx of asylum-seekers to the GCC outnumbers those in Europe.

Saudi women journalists raise their hands to ask questions at a press conference held by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir at King Salman Regional Air Base in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, last month (photo credit: REUTERS)
Saudi women journalists raise their hands to ask questions at a press conference held by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir at King Salman Regional Air Base in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, last month
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As the debate surrounding migrants in Europe intensifies, the Gulf states continue to face harsh criticism for their refusal to accept Syrian refugees.
Unlike Lebanon and Jordan, which took in some 1.5 million Syrians so far, Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and the UAE have been accused of having accepted very few, if any, asylum seekers. Human rights activists have been sternly critical of Gulf leaders, blaming them for turning their backs on their Arab brothers.
“Gulf states haven’t accepted a single refugee,” says Bassam al-Ahmad from the Violation Documentation Center, a Syrian NGO documenting human rights violations in the civil war. “We hear about some European countries helping out, but nothing from the Gulf,” he told The Media Line.
Other activists have raised similar concerns. Spokespersons from dozens of organizations, from Amnesty International to Human Rights Watch, have lashed out at Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council for their inaction. Infographics and tweets carrying such messages proliferated on social networks over recent weeks, gaining traction and popularity.
Critics claim that demographics play a huge role in the Gulf’s apathy towards refugees, since most of the Gulf economies are heavily reliant on foreign laborers.
In some of them, foreign tenants constitute as many as 80% of the total population. An influx of refugees, authorities fear, would destabilize the already- volatile demographic base.
At the other end of this debate, Gulf leaders have grown increasingly defensive about what they deem to be “false accusations.”
“European and US officials [are] shedding crocodile tears over the plight of Syrian refugees,” tweeted Nasser al-Khalifa, a Qatari diplomat and a former ambassador to the US. Like his colleagues in the Gulf, Khalifa accused the West of politicizing the migrant crisis in order to deflect responsibility away from Europe and demonize the GCC.
Nadim Shehadi, the director of the Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies at Tufts University, is also skeptical of Europe’s sincerity in this debate.
“There is absolutely no doubt that more Syrians have made their way to the Gulf than to Europe,” he told The Media Line. “The Europeans talk a lot but do little; Gulf states talk little, but do a lot,” he added.
According to Shehadi, figures used by the Western media are deceiving, as they rely on data received from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which does not keep track of Syrians in the Gulf.
“Gulf states are not signatories of the Geneva Convention, so they are not included in the refugee counting mechanism,” Shehadi explains. In 1951, when the Convention was adopted, most of the world’s refugees were Palestinian.
From a political standpoint, Gulf states could not agree to the resettlement of Palestinians outside Palestine, so they opted out of the treaty.
“This is why Gulf states supposedly don’t have any refugees. It’s a technical mistake,” he says.
Sources in Riyadh report that Saudi Arabia now hosts half a million refugees, most of whom arrived in the country since the beginning of the Syrian civil war five years ago. This represents a sharp increase from the 100,000 Syrians estimated to have lived there in 2011.
According to Shehadi, these figures are uncertain. But one thing, he claims, is sure: “The percentage of Syrian refugees out of the total population is much bigger in the Gulf than in Europe.”
Françoise De Bel-Air, a demographer from the Gulf Research Center in Geneva, is also skeptical of these figures. However, she agrees that some degree of policy relaxation may have taken place in countries such as Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
“In some cases, ad hoc opportunities for family reunion seemed to have been provided,” she told The Media Line.
“By and large, GCC countries claim that they refrain from deporting Syrians in irregular situations, unless they were convicted of some criminal offense,” she explained. “But no formal governmental schemes to receive refugees were implemented.”
Gulf states have also been involved with the Syrian civil war on other fronts. Riyadh has long been supporting armed rebel groups fighting within Syria. According to several experts, this support includes the shipment of hundreds of armaments and advanced anti- tank missiles to anti-Assad forces in the country. “It is no secret that these [weapon] shipments take place,” says Ahmad. “They [Gulf states] are very rich countries, and they can afford to do so,” he claims. This wealth also allows GCC governments to assist refugees outside their borders. “Large donations are made on behalf of the Gulf states to aid Syrian refugees in third countries” De Bel-Air explains.
However, the situation on the ground remains grave. Ahmad from the Violation Documentation Center does not adhere to the belief that the Gulf states are doing enough to help. “Yes, more people have reached the Gulf. But those Syrians who end up there are wealthy individuals who can afford to enter as tourists,” he told The Media Line.
“What we are concerned with are people who are running away from bombings and shelling, after losing everything they had. They cannot apply for a residency permit in the Gulf, let alone travel there.”
According to Al-Ahmad, the Russian campaign in Syria has only made the situation on the ground worse, with ever-growing numbers of people driven out of their homes in past months.
“I have seen many women and children arrive at our refugee camps, after losing everything they ever had,” he told The Media Line from Turkey.
“They simply want to survive; why aren’t we doing more to help them?” Similarly, Shehadi claims that European leaders must stop criticizing the Gulf and start taking action themselves.
“How can the Europeans criticize the Gulf while the UK accepted only 270 refugees so far?” he asked.
“This is absolutely cynical. Instead of pointing fingers at the Gulf, it is time the EU devise its own solutions,” he concluded.
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