Why Aren’t Gulf Countries Taking in Syrian Refugees?

The answer lies in wider fears about recognizing the concept of refugeehood.

Expert comment Published 8 September 2015 Updated 10 May 2023 3 minute READ
Foreign labourers work at the construction site of the al-Wakrah football stadium, one of the Qatar's 2022 World Cup stadiums. Photo by Getty Images.

Foreign labourers work at the construction site of the al-Wakrah football stadium, one of the Qatar’s 2022 World Cup stadiums. Photo by Getty Images.

As the majority of refugees coming to Europe by sea are from the Arab world, the question is being asked: why don’t the richest Arab countries take in refugees?

Most of the people desperate enough to try and enter Europe by boat come from countries in conflict, rather than being purely economic migrants. The incentive to escape must be high for people to take the risky journey: an average of 11 people have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean every day in 2015 so far. Of the third of a million people who have arrived by sea this year, most are from the Arab world: half are from Syria, while Iraq and Sudan are also among the top 10 countries of refugees’ nationality.

The Gulf countries, the wealthiest states among the Arab world, are among the largest donors to Syrian refugees. But they do not take in refugees to their own countries: none of them officially recognize the legal concept of refugeehood. This is not a specific issue of hostility to Syrian refugees: the six Gulf monarchies have never signed the international conventions on refugee rights and statelessness, which began to be established after the Second World War.

This legal position seems anomalous given the view of key Gulf leaders that they can increasingly provide regional solutions to regional problems, their growing role in international institutions and their role in contributing to aid for refugees around the world. Kuwait has stood out as the largest donor, delivering nearly one-third of all aid pledged to the Syrian crisis through the UN, or $800 million since 2012, while the UAE has given $364 million. These sums are lower than the $1 billion from the UK or $3 billion from the US, but considerably higher as a proportion of GDP. Although the Gulf countries are usually perceived as very rich, this is largely because their wealth is concentrated among small populations of citizens (less than three million in most cases, except for Saudi Arabia, which is the only one to stand among the world’s 20 largest economies). Migrants make up the majority of the workforce in all the Gulf countries; and in Qatar and UAE, more than 85 per cent of the population.

It is this population and resource structure that makes the GCC states such demographic protectionists when it comes to refugees. The vast majority of migrants stay for only a few years, and are assumed to be returning home afterwards. The lack of recognition for refugees has far less to do with attitudes to the Syrian crisis than with the potential claims that could arise from larger migrant populations – many of whom come from unstable or repressive countries – and the general reluctance of Gulf governments to give permanent residency to anyone beyond a small pool of citizens, with few exceptions. Thousands of Syrians fleeing the war have been accommodated in the Gulf, and many provided with benefits not usually available to migrant workers, like free access to healthcare and education. But they are on visitor or work visas because there is no legal category of refugeehood. And there are suggestions these visas are increasingly hard to obtain too.

Changing policy?

But as scrutiny of this issue mounts, there may be more pressure on the Gulf countries to rethink their policies. Inside the Gulf countries, on social media, in newspaper columns and in satirical cartoons, some citizens have voiced calls for their leaders to open their doors. In the last few days, the issue has also been picked up in the European and US media, as the photo of one dead child, Aylan Kurdi, caught the public imagination in the way that thousands of other deaths had not.

The GCC countries could immediately make more work visas available to Syrians, and give them the right to bring their families. They could help meet some of the massive deficits in the regional aid needs: the UN’s appeal for the Syrian crisis is still only 37 per cent funded. Lacking funds, the World Food Programme has dropped a third of Syrian refugees from its food voucher programme this year.

Beyond this, the Gulf countries should start assessing ways in which they could begin to integrate with the international refugee system. Within the UN system, Sheikha Jawaher, wife of the emir of Sharjah, is the UN’s Eminent Advocate for Refugee Children, and Kuwait’s emir was honoured by the UN for his role in convening three major intergovernmental fundraising conferences for Syria. Local opinion-formers could start to build a case for becoming a full part of the international refugee system.

Linking to a European response

For Europe, it is important not to turn a time of soul-searching into finger-pointing. The vast majority of refugees from Syria’s civil war remain in the countries that neighbour Syria: 1.9 million in Turkey and 2.1 million in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt combined. (This is on top of nearly 8 million internally displaced within Syria.) For many in the region, European public opinion is waking up to this crisis too late. A reason more Syrians are coming to Europe is that these host countries – especially Jordan and Lebanon, which have small populations and scant natural resources – are running out of capacity to accommodate them. In Lebanon, one in six people is a Syrian refugee – proportionally equivalent to the UK taking in 12 million.

Syria is a European neighbour, recognized as such in the European Neighbourhood Policy. Damascus is closer to Greece than it is to Muscat and Sana’a. Syria’s civil war is an international crisis. European countries like Sweden and Germany which have taken large numbers of Syrian refugees themselves are best placed to advise others, including the Gulf, about their options for doing more. There is also scope for creative ideas for mobilizing more Gulf support for a longer term response to what is likely to be a protracted refugee crisis. Such ideas could potentially include Gulf aid contributions to housing and training projects for Syrian refugees not only in Jordan and Lebanon, but for refugees settling in European countries.

The Chatham House project Syria and Its Neighbours explores the strain the conflict has placed on neighbouring states and the social, political, economic and security effects.

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