No (Gulf) Country for Syrian Refugees

The Kafala System and the Migration Crisis

A Syrian refugee girl stands behind a door at a makeshift settlement in the village of Ketermaya, south of Beirut January 8, 2015. Ali Hashisho / Reuters

A common reaction to the ongoing migrant crisis has been to blame Europe: how can the wealthy nations of western Europe allow such a tragedy? More recently, however, media and popular scrutiny have turned back toward the Middle East—not to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria or the Islamic State (also called ISIS) but to the wealthy petro-states of the Arab Gulf. The Chicago Tribune asks, “Why don’t Gulf states accept more refugees?USA Today reports, “Gulf states idle as migrant crisis swells in Europe.” The most direct accusation comes from The Washington Post: “The Arab world’s wealthiest nations are doing next to nothing for Syria’s refugees.”

Gulf governments and citizens have largely dismissed the criticism, citing the more than $2 billion they have donated in humanitarian aid and the tens of thousands of Syrians—not to mention Egyptians, Yemenis, and other Arabs—who have found political and economic refuge in the Gulf (even if not as formal refugees) since the region started to destabilize in 2011. Yet even in their rejection of critics’ specific claims, many Gulf representatives have acknowledged that their countries are more inclined to help from a distance than to open their tightly restricted borders to migrants, Arabs or not. “Our countries are only fit for workers,” as one Kuwaiti official put it in a candid discussion with France 24television on September 2. “We don’t want people who suffer from internal stress and trauma in our country!”

Observers have been quick to point out the unfortunate irony of the situation: Gulf leaders are unwilling to risk their own political and economic stability by taking in individuals displaced by the very conflicts and proxy wars they themselves continue to fuel with money and arms. Or less cynically, Gulf leaders are limited by the legal ambiguity of refugees in the Gulf countries. None of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—is a signatory of the 1951

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