I write this week from New York, where some European officials have raised the issue of Syrian refugees at the United Nations Generally Assembly. The impetus is clear: Europe is unwilling to take in the trickle of refugees who have managed to make it to its borders despite the obstacles. However, instead of admitting their own shortcomings, those officials lashed out against other countries for failing the refugees, such as GCC countries. In their rush to divert attention from the obstacles European countries are raising to stop the flow of refugees, they have not bothered to ascertain the facts. Some conventional and social media repeated the baseless charges without much investigation.
Feeling guilty and embarrassed by the baring of its xenophobia, Europe was trying to blame other regions and the refugees themselves for the problem. Never mind that European boats have been patrolling the Mediterranean for years to stop refugee boats, turning them around and causing the death of countless thousands, and that some countries have used violence to stop refugees from reaching their shores and land borders. Some European leaders have not hidden their racism toward the refugees, most notably Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban. He raged against the refugees, whom he crudely accused of “threatening Europe’s Christian culture.” In an OpEd he wrote for a German newspaper, he defended his equally crude actions to drive away refugees “to keep Europe Christian.” He is now building a 175-km-long fence along the border with Serbia.
Orban is not alone, but he clearly embarrassed more moderate leaders, especially after he appeared in public in Brussels with Donald Tusk, head of the European Council, which represents Europe’s top leadership. Seemingly oblivious to the negative implications of such appearance, Tusk instead thanked Orban for “securing” Europe’s borders. Tusk later lashed out against GCC countries and in his speech before the UN last week again tried to parcel out blame to “rich” countries.
At the same time, the European Union failed to reach agreement on a plan to distribute 120 thousand refugees among its 28 member states, a relatively miniscule number considering the size of the refugee population, but the maximum the EU appears willing to consider. In the third EU ministers of interior meeting on the subject, held in Brussels on Sept. 23, Hungary, Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia opposed the plan and threatened legal action to block its implementation.
A small number of EU countries have acted on their own to accept Syrian refugees, most notably Germany, which has been the most generous, in part because of its labor shortages, but mainly because of its own checkered history with refugees during WWII.
There were others, beside Donald Tusk, who claimed that GCC countries have failed Syrian refugees despite their geographic proximity. The repeated criticisms moved GCC foreign ministers to clarify what their countries have done for Syrian refugees since the start of the crisis in 2011. According to a statement issued at GCC foreign ministers’ meeting held in New York on Sept. 27, GCC countries received around 2.8 Syrians since the crisis began, many times more than what Europe is willing to consider. However, instead of dealing with them as refugees and confining them to isolated camps, GCC countries allowed Syrians freedom of movement. Those who stayed on were granted lawful residence, entitling them to access the labor markets and free public education and health services; free seats were reserved for Syrians in public universities.
As for financial assistance, Kuwait hosted three international donor conferences in 2013, 2014 and 2015, generating $7.6 billion, all of which dedicated to humanitarian assistance to Syria’s refugees internally displaced. Since 2011, all together GCC countries have contributed around $4.3 billion to help Syrian refugees and displaced. The funds came from governments and private charities, and were distributed to the refugees directly or through international or local organizations.
In addition to financial assistance, GCC countries have provided assistance in kind in refugee camps: Schools for children, shelter, food and health care, including field hospitals, specialized clinics, vaccines and medicines, and medical evacuation for difficult cases.
While humanitarian aid from GCC countries will certainly continue, the real cure for the refugee problem is a political solution to Syria’s crisis, something GCC emphasized in all their meetings with world powers in New York. While almost everybody agreed that the UN process based on the Geneva Communique are the only way out, Russia cynically and suddenly escalated its military support last week for Assad, deeming a political solution a more distant prospect, but that is the story for another day.