Frank Elbers, National Post Staff
Monday, Oct. 26, 2015
TORONTO • As the Syrian refugee crisis escalates, some eastern European countries — notably Hungary — are being cast as villains for turning their backs on desperate men, women and children with nowhere else to go.
But the spotlight is also turning to another group of countries that critics accuse of failing to pull their weight.
The Gulf states, from Saudi Arabia to Qatar, have helped sponsor the rebellion against Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad. These countries, especially Saudi Arabia, are now under growing pressure from human rights groups, think-tanks and people in the region to do more to welcome refugees.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch criticized the Gulf states for having offered zero resettlement places. On social media the Arabic hashtag #Welcoming_Syria’s_refugees_is_a_Gulf_duty has been used more than 50,000 times on Twitter since late August, illustrated with pictures of Syrian refugees drowned at sea and children being carried over barbed wire.
That pressure is set to intensify as Europe closes its borders to the flood of refugees, and winter weather makes the trip to Europe even more hazardous.
A closer look, however, suggests that the Saudis and Qataris may be playing a more constructive role than their critics give them credit for.
While few Syrians have found sanctuary as refugees in the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia, by far the largest of the six Gulf states with a population of 30 million, has allowed hundreds of thousands to enter as migrant workers.
The Saudis claim that they have accepted nearly 2.5 million Syrians since the start of the civil war in 2011 and have issued 100,000 residence permits, as well as providing US$700 million in aid. Although the figure of 2.5 million could not be confirmed, a significant number of Syrians have managed to make their way to Saudi Arabia.
None of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – has ratified the UN convention on refugees that has governed international asylum since the Second World War. Notwithstanding, there were 128 Syrian refugees registered in the GCC states in July, according to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.
“In addition to those registered as refugees with UNHCR there are approximately 5,000 Syrians, mainly women and children, that have been recorded with UNHCR and receive assistance,” said Aurvasi Patel, Senior Resettlement Coordinator at UNHCR.
Most Syrians admitted to the Gulf states arrive on visas that allow them only to work or study. The Central Department of Statistics & Information estimates that 100,000 Syrians who participated in the annual hajj (pilgrimage) have overstayed their temporary visas and live in Saudi Arabia without documentation. They often end up staying with relatives, who help them integrate into Saudi society.
Under the kavala or sponsorship system, employers can apply for temporary visas for foreign workers. An estimated 400,000 well educated and skilled Syrians have thus found jobs in Saudi Arabia since 2011, particularly in the Eastern Province. The United Arab Emirates have welcomed more than 100,000 Syrians, who have joined another 140,000 already living in the country, according to figures provided by the UAE National Bureau of Statistics.
“Syrians are generally highly respected for their education and work ethic,” says Mohamed Qadri, Gulf migrant rights researcher at Amnesty International. According to Qadri, the fact that they speak Arabic makes integration easier than for migrants from non-Arab speaking countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan or Philippines, many of whom work in the booming construction and oil sectors.
The migrant worker visas offer some protection for refugees. Even so, the permit system used by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, falls short of the security provided by refugee status. “Under refugee status you have effectively taken someone in without strings attached”, according to Qadri.
Syrian migrant workers are still at risk of being deported once they lose their employers’ sponsorship. “What happens if they lose their jobs? Will they get the protection they need?” asked Qadri. Details of how many Syrians have lost their sponsorship or been deported are not available.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have yet to offer any formal refugee resettlement programs. Qadri takes the view that “given their size, and the large size of their non-national population, it is understandable that the Gulf states are hesitant to have resettlements.” But he notes that there may be other options: “Resettlements could take place on a proportional basis, for example.”
Andreas Needham, communications officer for Asia, Yemen and the Gulf at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, says “the UNHCR has called on all states to contribute as much as they can — be it through financial contributions, offering resettlement or opening borders.”
Since the start of the Syrian civil war, Saudi Arabia has boosted its contributions to UNHCR from US$200,000 in 2010 to US$90 million in 2015. This money is mostly used to support refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey. Kuwait’s contribution increased from US$50,000 in 2010 to US$26 million this year. With a contribution of US$112 million, Qatar is the number one donor per capita.
“Saudi Arabia plays a vital role in helping Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon through humanitarian aid including food, medical treatment, medicines and clothes”, said a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Riyadh.
Qadri agrees that “the Saudis and other Gulf states deserve praise for their significant financial contributions.” But, he adds, “so far they have really failed to provide leadership in what may well be the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.”