The refugee crisis surging from the Middle East to Europe has ignited a heated debate over the extent to which the Persian Gulf’s wealthiest nations — namely Saudi Arabia — are doing enough to take in and help the hundreds of thousands of displaced people.
Recent weeks have spawned conflicting headlines on the question, with some of the biggest Western news organizations claiming that the Saudis have done next to nothing to help Syrian refugees.
It’s a situation that doesn’t sit well with Riyadh, which has responded with claims that the kingdom has taken in millions of Syrians and spent more than a half-billion dollars to help stem the crisis.
“The Kingdom has received around 2.5 million Syrians since the beginning of the conflict,” according to a statement posted this month on the website of the Saudi Embassy in Washington, which asserts that Riyadh also has sent some $700 million “to support and care for Syrian refugees in neighboring countries” such as Jordan and Lebanon.
While there is some confusion over the actual number of Syrians who have stayed in the kingdom and remain there, Saudi officials issued the statement roughly a week after The Washington Post ran the headline: “The Arab world’s wealthiest nations are doing next to nothing for Syria’s refugees.”
The Post article said that while Western nations face heat for failing to adequately address the surge of refugees into Europe, less ire was being directed at “Saudi Arabia and the wealthy Arab states along the Persian Gulf.” The article described the Gulf states, seen by many to be key financial and weapons providers to rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, as “stakeholders who almost certainly should be doing more” to help the refugees flowing out of the war zone.
Other news organizations, as well as some prominent Washington think tank blogs, including one published by the Brookings Institution, cited as their source a fact sheet provided by Amnesty International. The human rights organization said five Persian Gulf nations — Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain — have “offered zero resettlement places to Syrian refugees.”
Sunjeev Bery, Amnesty International USA’s Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, stood by the fact sheet Wednesday.
“The UN refugee agency UNHCR identified 400,000 refugees in the five main host countries (Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq) as the most vulnerable refugees who are in need of resettlement,” Mr. Bery told The Times in an email. “Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have failed to offer to resettle any of these refugees.”
What Mr. Bery left unsaid is that neither Saudi Arabia nor the five other Gulf nations mentioned in Amnesty’s fact sheet are signatories to the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention — the treaty that outlines a host of protections that signatory nations, including the U.S. and 147 others, must provide to refugees they take in.
Among such protections are rights to housing, education, public relief and assistance, religious freedom and, perhaps most importantly, to be issued travel documents and not be expelled except under certain strictly defined circumstances.
According to NPR, which this week updated its earlier reporting, the “fact is that Gulf countries don’t accept refugees for resettlement because none of their governments officially recognize the legal concept. Even in Jordan, Syrians fleeing the civil war are called ‘guests,’ the expectation being that they won’t stay.”