As Western nations have begun making efforts to relocate some of the 9 million Syrian refugees displaced by the civil war, critics are questioning whether Arab governments have done their part to help resolve the issue.
The focus of the criticisms has been on the Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the UAE). The international community has questioned the GCC countries’ contribution to resolving the Syrian refugee crisis in countless social media posts and discussions.
According to a 2014 report entitled “Left Out In The Cold” by human rights organization Amnesty International, the GCC had not officially resettled a single Syrian refugee since the crisis began in 2011.
Similar reports began circulating the web last month, and some countries in the region took exception to allegations that they were not pulling their weight. The Saudi Press Agency, citing a source in the foreign ministry, said their leaders believed it was “important to clarify these efforts with facts and numbers in response to media reports, which included false and misleading accusations about the kingdom.”
Raed bin Khaled Grimly, the Saudi Ambassador to Rome, supported his country in astatement saying that as many as 500,000 Syrians are living in Saudi Arabia and benefitting from free healthcare and education via the country’s work residency program. Elsewhere, the government has claimed that it has taken in 2.5 million Syrians since the beginning of the conflict. It should be noted, however, that Françoise de Bel-Air of the Migration Policy Centre said that official population figures from Saudi Arabia’s Central Department of Statistics did not reflect the actual number of refugees entering the country.
The reason it’s difficult to establish just how many refugees are being hosted by countries in the GCC is because they do not officially recognize incoming asylum-seekers as refugees. Since the GCC is not a signatory of the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention, they are not bound by law to provide these people with the standard treatment and rights typically afforded those seeking refuge in a new country.
Admittedly, while the Arab states of the GCC might not have officially resettled any of the Syrian refugees, it would be incorrect to say that Arab states have not received any of the millions of Syrians who have been displaced since the civil war began.
The problem is that being an official refugee and being a guest of a GCC work-sponsorship program are not one and the same. The most significant difference is that official refugees in countries that have agreed to the 1951 Refugee Convention areeligible to become citizens after a certain period of time.
In addition, under Saudi Arabia’s work sponsorship system, most migrants are not allowed to change jobs or exit the country without their employer’s permission–regardless of the working conditions or treatment to which they are subjected. The Human Rights Watch organization has reported that it is not uncommon for migrant workers in Saudi Arabia to be suddenly rounded up and deported back to their home country without the opportunity for a hearing or to seek asylum.
“Many of the hundreds of thousands of migrants Saudi Arabia has deported in the last year and a half have been sent back to places where their safety is threatened,” said Sarah Lee of the Human Rights Watch organization. “Saudi Arabia should treat all migrants with respect and decency, regardless of their status, and provide a fair legal process, including the right to challenge their deportation.”
The mass deportation of workers is considered to be a result of the region’s reportedattempts to prioritize giving employment opportunities to their local citizens. There is also widespread perception that Syrians wishing to seek refuge in the Gulf states are unlikely to be granted a visa in the first place.
To the GCC’s credit, their countries have been among the most generous contributors to Syrian refugee relief funding. The Saudi Embassy’s website noted in a press releasethat Saudi Arabia has contributed an estimated $700 million towards the cause.
But is monetary aid really what the displaced Syrian people need? Funding refugee camps to provide sanctuary to the Syrians has become an outdated and unsustainable project. People living in the refugee camps often live in overcrowded, dangerous, and unsanitary conditions.
The Arab states of the GCC are firm in their belief that they have done their part to alleviate the crisis, and I certainly believe that they have helped to some degree. But they also must be able to understand that there is a reason the vast majority of Syrians prefer embarking on a dangerous trip across the Mediterranean to seek refuge, rather than traveling just 2,000 km to seek a work residency permit in a country like Saudi Arabia.
The Syrian people themselves have taken notice of the West’s efforts to accept refugees with open arms. The “Syrian Community in Denmark” Facebook pagerecently shared a video depicting migrants being allowed to cross into Austria from Hungary, which prompted one member to ask the question: “How did we flee from the region of our Muslim brethren, which should take more responsibility for us than a country they describe as infidels?”
The GCC must remember what these people are running from. These are innocent people who were forced to leave behind everything they knew because of the violence and uncertainty that threatened their families. They need more than just a temporary work permit that can be revoked at any moment. They need a true home–a stable environment where they can raise their families without fear of persecution or sudden relocation. The difference between a “refugee” and a “migrant worker” is more than just semantics.
While it’s unlikely that the Arab states of the GCC are going to change their stance on providing official asylum to those who seek it, we will always hold out hope that compassion for our fellow humans will prevail.