Over the past year, and with increasing intensity since the Paris attacks in November 2015, debates have raged in the EU, the United States, and elsewhere as to how to address and manage the flood of Syrian refugees fleeing violence in their country – “the world’s largest humanitarian crisis since World War II” according to the European Commission on Humanitarian Aid. A recent article refers to the struggle to identify the “true” refugee in an exodus such as this. At the same time, the countries immediately surrounding Syria strain under the weight of the millions of migrants who have sought safety within their borders.
As the world struggles to address the crisis caused by 9 million people fleeing their homes in the span of four years, increasing attention has turned to the role that the oil-rich emirates of the Persian Gulf are playing – or not playing – as part of the international response.
The statistics demonstrate why eyebrows are being raised:
- 3 million: according to the European Commission on Humanitarian Aid, this is the number of Syrians who fled to the country’s immediate neighbors – Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq -since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011.
- 681,000: the number of Syrians who have arrived in Europe and applied for asylum between 2011 and November 2015 according to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, a number that grows by the day.
- Zero: According to Amnesty International, that is the number of Syrian refugees allowed into the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, UAE) since the conflict began.
Demographics and Fear of Instability Drive Immigration Policy
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have pushed back on the claims that they have stood idly by during the crisis, pointing to millions of dollars they have given to relief efforts, and asserting that they have admitted hundreds of thousands of Syrians as migrant workers.
The distinction between whether a Syrian is allowed into one of the Gulf States as a “worker” or a “refugee” may seem like an issue of semantics, but it reveals the complicated nature of immigration policies in the Gulf States.
Much of the growth and development in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States over the past decades has been accomplished through the labour of hundreds of thousands of foreign nationals admitted to the countries on work permits. In fact, foreign workers in many Gulf States are by far the largest part of the population. In the UAE, for example, foreign nationals outnumber citizens by more than five to one.
While such large numbers of foreign workers have been necessary for economic reasons, fears of political instability and demographic imbalance have made Gulf governments wary of expanding the number of work visas they will grant to workers from other Arab nations. According to rights groups, the reality is that visa restrictions make it difficult if not impossible for Syrians to enter and stay in Gulf countries, and their rights are extremely limited while they are there. Foreigners are only allowed residency if they or their spouse have full-time jobs in the country, they cannot stay in the country without work, and once their contracts are up almost all migrants are forced to leave.
Furthermore, critics also say the numbers of Syrians cited by the Gulf States as proof of their assistance with the crisis are not in fact families escaping violence and squalor but rather wealthy Syrians who can pay handsomely to sit out the war.
No “Refugees” Admitted to – or Recognised By – the Gulf States
The same fears of upsetting a delicate demographic balance and importing political instability or violence that drive the limits on foreign workers in the Gulf States also explains, at least in part, the reluctance of the Gulf States to take in Syrians as “refugees.”
But another reason is the fact that the Gulf States are under no legal obligation to assist with the crisis. Unlike the vast majority of nations, including the countries of the EU, the US, and Australia, the Gulf States are not signatories to the 1951 international convention on refugee rights which establishes the status and rights of refugees as well as the obligations of participating nations. As such, the Gulf States do not even recognise the concept of “refugees” and therefore take the approach that Syrians wanting to enter their countries must meet the same standards and comply with the same burdensome rules as any workers wishing to be admitted.
Europe and the West are Seen as the Only Options
Given both the challenges of gaining entrance to the Gulf States and the limitations on their rights if they somehow are allowed in, Syrian refugees have largely eschewed any efforts to get to the Gulf States, focusing instead on the treacherous journey to Europe or other Western countries.
While politicians and populations in many such countries have appeared less than welcoming, especially in the wake of the Paris attacks, the fact remains that the benefits available and the chances of receiving permanent asylum away from their war-torn homeland are substantially better in Europe and the West than they are in the Middle East.
Post-Paris, U.S. President Barack Obama has promised to veto proposals by Republicans to put a halt on admitting Syrian refugees. French President Francois Hollande has reaffirmed his country’s commitment to accepting Syrian migrants, and in Australia, the first of an expected 12,000 Syrian refugees have begun to arrive.
With the Gulf States giving no indication that they will be making any significant changes to their immigration or refugee policies in the foreseeable future, Syrians fleeing war will continue to focus their efforts on making it to other countries – Europe, the U.S., and Australia primarily – for safety and the chance of a new life.