It’s not just Europe that has a duty to help Syrian refugees

It’s not just Europe that has a duty to help Syrian refugees
Image: AP Photo/Santi Palacios
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The international community has been furiously critical of European governments for their failure to adequately address the ongoing refugee crisis spilling out of Syria. Germany shocked the world by announcing plans to resettle as many as 500,000 refugees a year; but calls persist for countries with a direct hand in the ongoing Syrian conflict—Britain, France, and the United States, for example—to take a wider share of migrants. The brunt of the situation has still fallen on Syria’s neighbors—in particular, Turkey and Lebanon, hosting more than one million displaced Syrians each as of Aug. 2015, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan are each hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees; and the rest of North Africa has collectively accepted roughly 24,000. The only players in the Arab world not offering to resettle (even temporarily) those fleeing the Syrian collapse are actually the region’s most financially well-equipped: Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

“The six Gulf countries—Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain—have offered zero resettlement places to Syrian refugees,” Amnesty International recently pointed out.

It’s worth noting, however, with regards to Saudi Arabia, this may not be entirely correct. “There are 500,000 Syrians in Saudi Arabia, according to Nabil Othman, acting regional representative to the Gulf region at the UNHCR,” Bloomberg News reports; but as Saudi Arabia is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention, so any displaced persons residing within the kingdom are not technically classified refugees. Still, given Saudi Arabia’s massive population and national wealth, calls for it to resettle a broader share of the refugee population persist.

Some say Europe’s obligation to refugees out of Syria is greater than the Arab world’s, citing inaction and/or incompetence with regards to the civil war against dictator Bashar al-Assad. But “these countries aren’t totally bystanders,” The Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor writes. “To varying degrees, elements within Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, and Kuwait have invested in the Syrian conflict, playing a conspicuous role in funding and arming a constellation of rebel and Islamist factions fighting the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.”

Political obligations aside, these are countries infrastructurally prepared to deal with an influx of temporary residents. “The region has the capacity to quickly build housing for the refugees,” Bobby Ghosh writes for Quartz. “The giant construction companies that have built the gleaming towers of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh should be contracted to create shelters for the influx. Saudi Arabia has plenty of expertise at managing large numbers of arrivals: It receives an annual surge of millions of Hajj pilgrims to Mecca. There’s no reason all this knowhow can’t be put to humanitarian use.”

However, it’s not difficult to see why those fleeing Syrians haven’t headed southward en masse. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states aren’t exactly famous for their hospitality toward low-income foreign nationals.

And some Syrians may simply see no viable economic future in these notoriously nativist countries. “In terms of employment, the trend in most Gulf states, such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE is towards relying on migrant workers from South-East Asia and the Indian subcontinent, particularly for unskilled labour,” the BBC reports. “While non-Gulf Arabs do occupy positions in skilled mid-ranking jobs, for example in education and health, they are up against a ‘nationalization’ drive whereby the Saudi and Kuwaiti governments in particular are seeking to prioritize the employment of locals. Non-native residents may also struggle to create stable lives in these countries as it is near impossible to gain nationality.”

Of course, the situation in Syria—and on the road into Europe—is so dire, some Syrians might welcome relative discomfort and/or exclusion in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf states, compared with outright persecution in ISIL-occupied regions of Syria. Certainly, inaction on the part of regional powers highlights a distinct hypocrisy, as noted by Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth:

Unwillingness of the wealthiest Arab states to resettle Syrian refugees sheds light on another hypocrisy; for is it not justified primarily on humanitarian grounds—the treatment of Palestinians—that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states refuse to recognize Israel? How can such objections, many of which are wholly legitimate, be taken seriously when it appears humanitarianism is only a priority when politicized?

By no means are the Saudis, Qataris, Kuwaitis, and Emiratis the only ones sitting on their hands. Relatively progressive North African states like Tunisia and Morocco—hosting paltry numbers of Syrian refugees as of Aug. 2015—could do far more to alleviate the pressure on water-strapped Jordan, for example. Even India and Indonesia, though far from the Middle East and Mediterranean, could pitch in on the principle of already boasting some of the largest Muslim populations in the world.

Responsibility might also be shared across hemispheres. Brazil, home to an historic Syrian diaspora community, is already pulling more than its weight. The United States and Canada (the latter having a long tradition of offering displaced peoples second chances) could up their share of global responsibility. States such as Minnesota and Maine have similarly proud traditions of opening their doors to refugees: chiefly Somalis and Hmong, groups driven from their homes by conflicts in which the United States military played a significant hand. How are the Syrians of 2015 any different?

Europe can do better. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states can do better. But this is a global catastrophe, and as such, requires a global response. The whole world must do better.