Gulf Countries Face Criticism For Refusing To Resettle Syrian Refugees



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Gulf states are the top donors to the United Nations, and they allow Syrians to come on work visas. But they won't resettle Syrians because the Gulf doesn't recognize the legal concept of refugees.

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An exodus from a miserable situation, but why are many of the Syrians who are fleeing their country going to Europe specifically? One possible answer is trending on Middle Eastern Twitter accounts right now. It's the hashtag #ShameOnArabRulers. It's meant to criticize Arab countries, particularly wealthy Gulf Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for not letting Syrian refugees resettle in their countries. NPR's Deborah Amos is reporting on this, and she joins us now. And Deb - all right, so we know that Syrians can't resettle in these Gulf countries, but the Gulf countries are doing something to help Syrians. What are they doing?

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Yes. They're getting hammered on this, but here's what they say. We are the top donors to the U.N. along with the United States, and this is the money that supports refugees in Turkey, in Lebanon, in Jordan. Let's remember, there are 4 million civilian refugees that are still in these places. It' a minority that's going to Europe. The UAE says, we have a hundred-thousand Syrians who have work visas who come to our country. The Saudis say, we have 2.5 million Syrians who come on work visas. That number is probably high, according to regional experts. But here is the key about these work visas. They can be canceled at any time. At the same time, Gulf rulers say it's really unfair to say, we've done nothing or zero; we've given a lot money and let Syrians work.

MCEVERS: Right. But letting Syrians come into your country and work is very different than letting them come in and actually resettle there. I mean, why are the Gulf countries letting one thing happen and not the other?

AMOS: Gulf states don't recognize refugees for resettlement because none of them officially recognize the legal concept. And the reason is, in 1951, there was an international convention on refugees, and it's a system that's with us to this day. It allowed the U.N. Refugee Agency to permanently resettle refugees. The Arabs rejected that because of the Palestinians. They wanted them not to be resettled but to return to their homes. That stands now.

At the same time, historically, Arabs, Syrians, Palestinians have come to the Gulf on work visas. These are well-educated people. They're the same class who are now trying to go to Europe. They came. They worked. They sent home money.

MCEVERS: So why wouldn't Syrians just continue to do that, to get these work visas, go to Gulf countries, make good money and support their families?

AMOS: They're much harder to get in the past year, and Syrian calculations have changed. You know, I've talked to a lot of them. And they say, you can work in the Gulf for decades, but if you lose your job or you want to retire, you have to leave. You can't belong. You don't really feel safe. Your residency can be canceled. Family reunions are difficult, and political discussions are prohibited. I talked to one Syrian who wore a bracelet when she got to the UAE, and it showed that she was a supporter of the Syrian revolt. And her relative said, you know, take that off; that's going to be trouble.

Here is the bottom line for their calculations. They now realize that they may not go home for a generation. And that means what they're really looking for now is a second passport and a chance at citizenship. And that's what Europe offers.

MCEVERS: Right. And Gulf leaders right now are still responding pretty strongly to all this criticism. I mean, why are they so concerned?

AMOS: It's a domestic audience. You know, in the Arab world, you can't escape these pictures of wretched conditions for Syrians as they're walking through Europe. Everybody is exercised about this. It's really terrible to watch. And so you can see these Twitter campaigns in Saudi Arabia. You can see them in the UAE. These citizens are saying, wait a minute, these are Muslims; these are Syrian brothers. Are we doing enough?

And so these Gulf officials have had to respond, and they have. There's been editorials in The New York Times. They have spoken out publicly - editorials in regional papers. They want to convince their own population, yes, we've been doing enough. But the question remains. Could they be doing more?

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Deborah Amos. Deb, thanks so much.

AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.