Late last year, it took an image of a drowned toddler for Western media to finally start covering the refugee crisis in more depth. However, the focus lies on Europe, with both the efforts and struggles of Hungary, Austria, Germany, and Sweden in the spotlight. This angle leaves the public wondering: why aren’t the Arab countries doing anything to take in Syrian refugees? Especially the ‘super rich Gulf states’, where reports show that they have taken in zero refugees; why aren’t they helping their neighbors? Many of these questions are products of misguided conceptions, with the issue being a much more complex one that concerns the very notion of what it means to be a refugee.
While it is true that Europe hosts a third of a million refugees, the countries that accommodate the largest numbers are actually Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, and Syria itself. Within Syria, about seven million people are internally displaced. In Lebanon, one out of six people (of the total population) is a Syrian refugee. Turkey has accommodated over 2.7 million Syrian refugees. The other countries combined accommodate 2.1 million Syrian refugees. Clearly, these countries are contributing the most to relieve the crisis.
However, these neighboring Arab countries receive support from international origin and from the rich Gulf states. Kuwait’s donations account for nearly one third of all pledged aid to Syria through the United Nations, while the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has also donated $364 million. While these sums are lower than the billions of aid given by the United Kingdom and the United States, they represent a much higher portion of the GDP’s of these smaller countries.
Why do the Gulf states not take in any of the refugees? The issue at hand is more complicated than it appears. Surely, the Gulf states are the richest of the region, but their wealth is concentrated among small populations of citizens, which amount to less than three million in most cases (the exception being Saudi Arabia). In these small countries, the majority of the workforce is composed of foreign labor. In Qatar and the UAE, migrants share of the workforce make up more than 85% of the total population. Their status is highly regulated, allowing them only to stay in the country for a few years before having to return to their home country.
This social and economic situation is the reason for almost all of the Gulf states not having any type of official refugee status in their legislation. There are no refugees in these states, simply because they do not recognize this status or have such a legal category. This policy is maintained not out of disrespect or specific attitudes towards the Syrian refugee crisis, but more to maintain the current population and resource structure. In countries where only very few are granted residence, recognizing refugee status and refugees from unstable countries with long-term visas would have considerable implications.
Nonetheless, thousands of individuals fleeing the crisis have been accommodated in the Gulf on visitor or work visas, with Kuwait even relaxing its visa regulations for Syrians in the country. However, it has been noted, that in the last few months, these visas have been harder to obtain.
Will this position change? The efforts and effects of local and international campaigning on social media and in newspapers is being felt throughout the region. The Gulf states could make more work visas available to Syrians, allowing them to bring over their families. The countries in question could also take steps to integrate with the international refugee system, which local opinion leaders can support and push for. Efforts in this direction are already underway, with Sheikha Jawaher, wife of the emir of Sharjah, UAE, being the UN’s Eminent Advocate for Refugee Children and Kuwait’s emir convening three major intergovernmental fundraising conferences for Syria.
Written by Marie Luise Schwarzenberg and published on 16-April-2016