By Shruti Sonal:
“You have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.”
These lines from a heartbreaking poem ‘Home‘ by Warsan Shire sum up the events of the past week, highlighted by the viral spread picture of a Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi lying face down on a Turkish coast as the boat that was supposed to take his family to Greece capsized. Simultaneously there surfaced pictures of a train filled with refugees stopped in Hungary, as a standoff with the police took place. Snapshots of refugees being marked with numbers on their wrist evoked the horrors of Holocaust and pricked the European conscience. As they began walking towards the Austrian border, the Hungary government finally provided train and buses to Vienna and Munich.
European governments across the region responded in various manners. While Germany and Austria opened their borders to the refugees, right wing government of Hungary irked many by warning that absorbing too many Muslim refugees will distort the “Christian character” of Europe. David Cameron, under criticism for Britain’s inadequate role in sheltering these refugees, promised to take in “thousands more“. Banners were put up across European football stadiums saying “Refugees Welcome“, along with pictures of volunteers welcoming them with food supplies, train tickets and toys. Even as the debate over whether European Union should have binding requirements in order to ensure an equitable distribution of refugees rose, a question remained: Where was the Arab World in this time of need?
As Amnesty International pointed out, the 6 Gulf countries (Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain) have offered to resettle zero refugees. Having the highest standards of living and vast amount of resources at their disposal, their role in the crisis has been next to nothing. Moreover, they cannot claim to be silent spectators in the crisis. As Washington Post pointed out, “To varying degrees, elements within Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the U.A.E. 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.” Further these states are signatories of UN’s Refugee Convention that obligates them to safeguard them.
However even as “Welcoming Syria’s Refugee is a Gulf Duty” trended on Twitter, little change in their stance could be seen. In a premature move, the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia announced that the adoption of Syrian orphans was banned in the country, prompting Saudi newspapers to publish this news that was widely shared on social media. It is baffling that the Gulf region, especially UAE, which thrives on migrant labour and is the religious centre of Islam has turned a blind eye to providing opportunities to the refugees. Gulf officials and commentators however rejected the criticism, arguing that their countries have generously funded humanitarian aid and given Syrians the ability to work. “If it wasn’t for the Gulf states, you would expect these millions to be in a much more tragic state than they are,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political science professor in the United Arab Emirates, which he claimed has taken in more than 160,000 Syrians in the last three years.
Another question to keep in mind is whether the refugees are looking towards the Gulf in the first place. Till now, out of the 4 million refugees that have been displaced in the Syrian conflict, 2.1 million have been in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, while another 1.9 million remain in Turkey. As these regions get saturated and U.N bodies working in these regions run out of funds, the refugees have been forced to look for other destinations. As it becomes clearer that the end of war is nowhere in sight, the search for places to settle for a long-term has begun. In this scenario, they tend to avoid the Gulf countries that require visas which are rarely granted, involve a costly process and numerous unwritten restrictions. As BBC pointed out, the only Arab countries where a Syrian can travel without visa are Algeria, Sudan, Mauritania and Yemen, which obviously aren’t bright prospects for a settlement. Further, with limited means, the sheer physical distance between Syria and Gulf is a barrier.
Another point to keep in mind is the intense sectarian division in the Gulf that might discourage the refugees from seeing it as a preferred destination. On the other hand, people have seemed to finally save up enough money to sponsor their family to cross Greece and enter Europe. Last summer, Syrians also found the Balkan route to Europe. Even though the journeys remain risky, and in many cases fatal, it seems like a better and more certain alternative than the gulf.
It is up to the Arab World and Europe, along with the rest of the world, to tackle this crisis together. While Europe must find a feasible mechanism to give a unified response, the Gulf region must utilise their vast resources to provide rehabilitation. We must not wait to take action only when refugees are walking towards the border, or infants are dying off the coast. Most importantly, one must remember, that the only permanent solution to the crisis is the end of the war itself, an outcome that will need the major players to keep aside their vested interests and think with compassion.