Why Are Gulf Countries Turning Syrian Refugees Away?

by Amrit Anand - Sep 10, 2015 12:31 PM +05:30 IST
Why Are Gulf Countries Turning Syrian Refugees Away?

. . . and how they can be convinced to accept the refugees.

The sight of a dead Syrian child on a beach in Turkey shifted the focus of the whole world towards one of the most acute refugee crises of recent times. EU and its member countries, where Syrian refugees were headed to in search of a better life, were questioned for insensitivity towards the plight of the refugees.

But the role of the Gulf countries was not questioned until a hashtag in Arabic started trending on Twitter, which when translated to English would mean “#Hosting_Syria_refugees_is_a_Gulf_duty”. It was only when uneasy voices from the Muslim population living in the Gulf region started to question themselves that the world media started to embrace this fact. Since then, many have begun to question the role and primarily the duties of the rich Gulf countries towards the Syrian refugees.

The questions needless to say, are legitimate and are guided by reason.

According to a UNHCR Report, the number of Syrian refugees has crossed the 4 million mark. Majority of these live in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and other parts of North Africa. Their numbers are negligible in the oil-rich Gulf countries situated in the south of Syria: namely Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and UAE.

So the question arises, why have the rich Gulf Nations not accepted any refugees? “The Gulf countries are not signatories to the international conventions on refugee rights that Western countries and indeed most world countries have signed up to.” says Jane Kinninmont, deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House in London.

Even though the Gulf countries have been solely dependent on the migrant labourers from south-east Asia to act as the workforce in their countries, they have never awarded permanent citizenships to these labourers. They are granted temporary visas and are made to leave once they are not working anymore.

A similar attitude has been shown towards the refugees, which have made their way into Qatar and other Gulf countries, where they have been provided with temporary visas.

According to Amnesty International the Gulf countries have offered “zero” resettlement places to the Syrian refugees.

But the Gulf countries have tried to balance the whole thing by being on both sides of the crisis: on the one hand by providing the anti-Assad rebels with weapons and money and thereby trying to strengthen the Sunnis positions in the Shia-ruled Syria, and on the other hand by providing monetary aid to the refugees affected by the Syrian civil war.

Instead of sharing the burden, they are trying to yet again sneak out of the situation through petro-dollars. Both Qatar (Doha News, Sep 4) and UAE (statement via e-mail by a government official to Bloomberg) have resonated the same view that it’s in the long-term interest of the refugees that they not resettle them, but to provide monetary and humanitarian assistance, wherever they are settled at this point in time.
What it actually means is that the refugees should stay in cramped, inhuman camps of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and it is only there that they will receive the monetary and humanitarian help.

But we need to understand that the situation in these camps is so horrendous that the refugees are ready to undertake the risk of crossing the violent seas in small and overcrowded boats to reach the shores of Europe in search of a better future. Therefore, it is not the humanitarian and monetary help, which the refugees are seeking right now; rather it is the pursuit of a “normal life”, which they have been forcibly made to leave in the face of a civil war. The war has entered into its fifth year, and people have started to lose hope that this war is going to come to an end anytime soon.

But since the Gulf countries are not signatories to the international conventions on refugee rights, they cannot be legally held accountable for their act, although morally they have already been found guilty.

So, is there any way in which they could be held accountable and pressurised to provide permanent settlement to the Syrian refugees?

Yes. And it is here that the role of OIC comes into play. All the rich Gulf Nations are members of Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and signatories to the OIC Charter. Although the word “refugee” does not find any specific mention in the charter, but Article 1.2. clearly demands to “unify the efforts of the Member States in view of the challenges faced by the Islamic world in particular and the international community in general”.

The 57 member organisation has been the rallying point for “almost” all the countries, where there is a sizable Muslim population. OIC has been used in the past as a political tool to raise issues concerning the Islamic world on international forums like the United Nations, like the Kashmir issue, Rohingya crisis, Palestine problem and many other issues.

But rarely has OIC talked about the responsibilities (in practical terms) of OIC members in the wake of a crisis. But in response to the Syrian refugee crisis, the Secretary General of OIC Mr. Ameen Madani in a written statement on OIC website said: “I call on all the Members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the international community as a whole to put aside their differences, and mobilize all their efforts to help the Syrian people and refugees.” He further states,“I wish to remind all nations of their moral and legal obligations under the international law to help those desperate refugees” and acknowledges the need “to facilitate the successful settlement, resettlement and integration of the Syrian refugees in places where they can live in peace and dignity”.

Breaking away from its traditional view of just providing monetary and humanitarian help to the refugees, which is the view of the Gulf countries as well, OIC has for the first time accepted the need of settlement/re-settlement of the displaced Syrian refugee population.

Something which OIC still lacks is the moral courage to directly engage with the Gulf countries and ask them to do the needful. In his statement, the OIC Secretary General applauds the efforts of Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and other OIC members involved in the settlement of Syrian refugees, but shies away from confronting the Gulf countries, who have a moral and legal obligation towards “the Islamic world in particular and the International community in general” to fulfil as OIC Members and signatories to the OIC Charter.

Amrit Anand is a PhD scholar at JNU.
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