Ethiopia, UAE and Bangladesh: Sanctuary from the heart?

It’s obvious the Emiratis are responding to a difficult situation in the only humane way possible.
Tuesday 24/07/2018
UAE State Minister for International Cooperation Reem Ebrahim al-Hashemi speaks during a press briefing in Abu Dhabi. (AFP)
Fresh hope. UAE State Minister for International Cooperation Reem Ebrahim al-Hashemi speaks during a press briefing in Abu Dhabi. (AFP)

Something quite remarkable with respect to refugees may be quietly under way in parts of the non-Western developing world.

The Ethiopian government has assured Eritrean refugees they would not be forced to return to their country now that a peace deal has been signed to end the 20-year state of war. International law gives the Eritreans the right to be in Ethiopia, Addis Ababa said, and the law must be respected.

In June, the United Arab Emirates regularised the residency status of Syrians who had escaped the horrors of the 7-year-old war. Legally present or not, all Syrians in the UAE would be entitled to a 1-year residency visa, which could be extended as needed.

Last August, poor, populous Bangladesh built camps for hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina offered the refugees words of comfort and a quiet promise her country would do what it reasonably could.

In October, Hasina doubled down on her pledge to look after the more than 700,000 Rohingyas camped out in Cox’s Bazar in eastern Bangladesh. "If needed, we will eat a full meal once a day and share the rest with them," she said.

The Ethiopian, Emirati and Bangladeshi response to uninvited migrants stands in stark contrast to that of richer countries. As the Western world throws up ever more barriers -- physical, psychological and of process -- to asylum seekers, is another pattern emerging elsewhere?

Might the West’s increasing hostility to the voluntary obligations imposed by the 1951 UN Refugee Convention be prompting, perhaps even compelling, countries that are neither rich nor traditional sanctuaries to consciously and deliberately take on more of the task?

It certainly looks that way, though Ethiopia and Bangladesh have long hosted refugees, often sullenly and against their will.

Ethiopia is Africa’s second largest refugee-hosting country, after Uganda. In January, it had close to 900,000 refugees, mainly from South Sudan, Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia. Bangladesh has had hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas since the 1970s, managed to repatriate most to Myanmar within three decades but is once again responsible for large numbers.

As for the UAE, it is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention and has not conspicuously welcomed asylum seekers in the nearly 47 years since it was established as a federation of seven emirates. That makes the September 2016 announcement by International Cooperation Minister Reem Ebrahim al-Hashemi particularly striking.

Mentioning “the global wave of xenophobia,” she said the Emirates would take in 15,000 Syrian refugees over five years. Last month, came the promise of a UAE residency visa for Syrians already in the country.

It’s obvious the Emiratis are responding to a difficult situation in the only humane way possible. With millions fleeing a war in the area, the relentless demonisation in the West of migrants and Muslims and the very words “Syrian refugee” all but a term of abuse in Europe and the United States, it behoved a rich country in the region to open its doors. And perchance its heart?

Perhaps that’s the key takeaway from the Ethiopian, Bangladeshi and Emirati response to refugees. Sanctuary from the heart.

Of course, Bangladesh originally said it would not recognise the Rohingya as refugees as it seeks their return to Myanmar within two years. However, since June, it has been working with the UN refugee agency to provide the Rohingyas credit card-sized plastic identification. For many of these stateless people, the cards will be their first individual identity document.

Ethiopia has problems of its own, not least high rates of youth unemployment. Booting out the Eritreans might have been an easy way for Ethiopia’s new young Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to show his commitment to his own people.

The United Arab Emirates, like the other Gulf Cooperation Council countries, rarely grants citizenship to foreigners and has never been comfortable with bestowing refugee status.

Clearly, none of these countries wanted the thousands of desperate people who sought refuge but that they are taking them in -- with kindness -- offers a lesson in grace and generosity, a reminder of our shared humanity.