Graphic by Daniel Obaji/The Gazelle

The Migrant Crisis: Where are the refugees in the Gulf?

The mass movement of refugees from the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa in the past year has been described by journalists and politicians as ...

Sep 19, 2015

Graphic by Daniel Obaji/The Gazelle
The mass movement of refugees from the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa in the past year has been described by journalists and politicians as Europe’s Migrant Crisis. With strongly-worded headlines and poignant photographs, media coverage has provoked an emotional international reaction.
It is just Europe’s crisis, though? The need for more international responsibility has been highlighted in recent weeks, and media focus has narrowed in on the role of Gulf nations in accepting refugees from neighboring countries.
The New York Times ran a recent article titled Wealthy Gulf Nations Are Criticized for Tepid Response to Syrian Refugee Crisis on Sept. 5. Days later, on Sept. 8, The Atlantic followed with Migrant Crisis: Where Have the Gulf States Been?
Both articles mention that although Gulf states are among the top donors to humanitarian aid organizations, none have opened their borders to asylum seekers.
“The Saudi, Emirati and Qatari approach has been to sign a check and let everyone else deal with it,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch for its Middle East and North Africa division, in The New York Times. “Now everyone else is saying, ‘That’s not fair.’”
Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE Ambassador to Washington, strongly contested such claims in his Sept. 11 letter to the editor in response to The New York Times article.
He wrote that the UAE was one of the first nations to respond to the Syrian humanitarian crisis and, since then, has continued to undertake significant measures to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people.
Al Otaiba cited the 530 USD million in direct aid that has been donated through the Syria Recovery Trust Fund, which promised 100 USD million in January of this year and the funding of refugee camps in Jordan.
“The Emirates’ per capita commitment to the Syrian crisis exceeds virtually every other country’s participation,” concluded Al Otaiba.
Al Otaiba also mentions that more than 100,000 Syrians have moved to the UAE since the crisis began in 2012. The BBC, however, argues that although Gulf nations have allowed in Syrian nationals, these individuals are coming in primarily as migrant workers, and no policy change has been made to accommodate refugees arriving en masse without employer sponsors or work permits.
Georgi Derlugyan, professor of Social Research and Public Policy at NYU Abu Dhabi, highlighted the political considerations of accepting large numbers of refugees in the Gulf.
“There is a very clear concern, as you can understand, with controlling the numbers of citizens and of citizenship,” said Derlugyan, referring to the national-to-foreigner demographic ratio in GCC countries. Nationals only make up 9.5 percent of the total population in Qatar, for example, and 11.3 percent in the UAE.
“These are very fragile political systems,” said Derlugyan. “On the one hand, of course, skilled labor is needed. On the other hand, no one discusses the problems that migrants can pose on politics.”
In particular, he mentioned the concern that refugees would bring their political inclinations with them and, by power of sheer numbers and unbalanced ratios, pose a challenge to the status quo.
“Nowhere in Europe do migrants constitute a homologized and separate political force,” said Derlugyan. “In a kindred Arab country, they actually bring their politics which could be nationalist, which could be sectarian, which could be something like Muslim Brotherhood politics."
"So there is, I think, a grave and pretty justified worry about the inevitably political impact of accepting Arab [refugees] as migrants [in the Gulf]," he added.
Other countries in the region that may face similar political concerns, however, have been more open to receiving refugees. Jordan hosts 600,000 UN-registered Syrian refugees while estimates for actual numbers of non-registered refugees is double that. Likewise, there are approximately 1.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey and 1.7 million in Lebanon.
As Amnesty International pointed out, it is not just GCC states that do not have refugee resettlement plans; other high income countries such as Russia, Japan, Singapore and South Korea have also offer zero resettlement places for refugees.
Derlugyan said that the global migrant crisis is not just an issue of where to resettle refugees, however.
“Think about this in less usual terms than just accepting the migrants here [in the Gulf] now,” concluded Derlugyan. “Could it be that it would be more productive to fix the countries from which they are coming?”
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