GCC: International community needs to do more for refugees
LONDON - As the Syrian refugee crisis grows, international media and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have accused the oil-rich states that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) of not hosting any refugees.
GCC foreign ministers, following a September 15th meeting in Riyadh, called for a worldwide effort to tackle the refugee crisis and to seek a political solution to the Syrian conflict.
GCC ministers appealed to “the international community to assume its responsibilities to help Syrian refugees” and stressed the GCC had accommodated “Syrian brothers, who are treated like residents and benefit from free health care, education and the right to work”, since the civil war began.
Since the heart-breaking image of toddler Aylan Kurdi dead on a Turkish beach went viral and thousands of refugees have flocked to Europe, the plight of Syrians displaced by the long civil war has become a priority for the international community.
Due to the public outcry, a number of European leaders have softened their stance regarding the refugees. That includes British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose government announced that it would host 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years.
Feeling unfairly labelled by media reports and statements by a number of global NGOs, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia defended their response to the Syrian refugee crisis, particularly with regards to a report by Amnesty International which singled out Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain for “having offered zero resettlement places to Syrian refugees”.
Mohammed Abu Asaker, the UAE-based spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), confirmed there were Syrian refugees in the Gulf.
“There are thousands of Syrian refugees in the Gulf but we don’t know exactly how many,” Abu Asaker told The Arab Weekly. He said only the GCC governments could give an accurate estimate.
According to an Emirati government statement, the UAE has extended residency permits to more than 100,000 Syrians who have entered the country since 2011 and that more than 242,000 Syrian nationals currently live in the country.
“The UAE has made it one of its foreign policy priorities to address this issue in a sustainable and humane fashion together with its regional and international partners,” the statement said.
Moreover, the UAE has provided more than $530 million in humanitarian aid and development assistance in response to the Syrian crisis since 2012. Part of that aid goes to fund the Mrajeeb al-Fhood refugee camp in Jordan, which houses more than 4,000 refugees.
Saudi Arabia has hosted about 2.5 million Syrians since the start of the civil war, according to its Foreign Ministry, which emphasised that the kingdom does not consider the Syrians “refugees” and does not house them in camps to “ensure their dignity and safety”.
Syrians in Saudi Arabia have been granted legal residence permits, full freedom to travel inside the country and are allowed to study in Saudi schools as per an order issued in 2012 by the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
The ministry revealed that 100,000 Syrians are registered in public schools, all Syrians in the kingdom receive free medical treatment and are allowed to work in the private sector like other expatriates.
Syrian National Coalition Ambassador to the Gulf Adib Shishakli said Saudi Arabia’s concern for the Syrian people’s cause is clear and can be seen in its provision of humanitarian assistance to Syrian migrants and refugees.
An anonymous Syrian wrote recently in a Facebook post, “Saudi has no refugees but it hosts a million Syrians on visitor visas, in addition to the Syrian residents, (and) they get their health care and schools, and in some cases their rents from charities.
According to the UN refugee agency, more than 4 million refugees have fled Syria since 2011. Saudi Arabia and other GCC state are not signatories to the UN refugee convention, which means that refugees living in the GCC are not classified as such.