Commentary | 09 September 2015

Refugee crisis calls for regional response

Refugee crisis calls for regional response

Rodger Shanahan

The Australian

9 September 2015


Refugee crisis calls for regional response

Rodger Shanahan

The Australian

9 September 2015


Executive Summary

The Syrian humanitarian crisis has been described as the worst of its kind since World War II.

And while the neighbouring states of Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan have valiantly hosted millions of Syrian refugees, none of these refugees will be allowed to resettle in these countries.

Nor will they be resettled elsewhere in the Arab world, even in the mega-rich states of the Persian Gulf, if current national policies remain.

At the same time the development of cheaper and safer routes to Europe and the lack of hope for the future has meant the human tide of Arab misery has begun to seek out routes to the West, where they hope to claim protection and start a new life.

The Pope recently asked parishes in Europe to each provide shelter to a refugee family. Such an outcome raises the question as to why an Arab regional problem has resulted in Europe, rather than wealthy Arab states, becoming the focus for refugee movement.

The enormous wealth they possess and consequent rich economic opportunities that the Gulf states present to Western companies often has inured them from scrutiny as far as their regional humanitarian responsibilities have been concerned.

The enormity of the Syrian ­humanitarian crisis and the Gulf states’ lack of engagement with it, however, may provide a unique opportunity for the global community to encourage the Gulf Cooperation Council to confront the previously unthinkable — a resettlement program that treats refugees as being worthy of citizenship and a permanent place in the host Arab states’ societies.

The contrast between regional Arab states’ ostentatious displays of wealth and selective conferral of citizenship and the bleak prospects of Syrian refugees perhaps finally is beginning to attract adverse media attention.

The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Economist have highlighted the anomaly between the extreme wealth of the Gulf states and their extreme reluctance to address the humanitarian crisis faced by Syrians. And some cartoons in Arab social and print media have contrasted their societies’ continued comfortable lifestyles and lack of sympathy towards Syrian refugees with that of the West.

But such mild rebukes appear to have had no effect. During his visit to Washington last week, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman booked out the entire 222-room Four Seasons Hotel for his entourage. The joint press statement following his meeting with President Barack Obama made no reference to the Syrian refugee crisis other than a vague determination to end the Syrian conflict to “end the suffering of the Syrian people”. No mention of resettling any Syrians within a kingdom that employs 1.5 million people as domestic help.

The United Arab Emirates, with the world’s tallest building gracing the Dubai skyline, an indoor ski field not that far away from the tower and just over 10 per cent of its population having Emirati citizenship, cannot find any room in the country to resettle refugees.

Even the less affluent Gulf states can find room for domestic help rather than refugees. Last year Bahrain, for example, issued 33,000 visas for housemaids but didn’t resettle a single refugee.

That is not to say the GCC lacks generosity. It has contributed in financial terms to the countries in the region that host those who have fled the civil war in Syria. It also has allowed some Syrians to remain in their countries past the expiration of their visas.

But this financial assistance and temporary residence needs to be weighed against the role that the Gulf states and individuals within them have played in backing various political and military factions in the Syrian conflict, thereby prolonging the misery of the Syrian people.

That is not to say the Syrian government does not also bear responsibility for the conflict; rather it points to the willingness of the Gulf states to involve themselves in the Syrian conflict but an unwillingness to deal with its human consequences. Arab solidarity and Islamic unity are used selectively in the Arab world when political circumstances suit participants.

It is a feature of what academic Bernard Lewis meant when he spoke of the region’s multiple identities.

These identities even act as the common bond that ties some nations together in multilateral forums. The Arab League is based on ethnic identity, for example, while the Organisation of Islamic Conference is based on religious identity. None of these identities however, resonate when it comes to dealing with Syrians, most of whom are Arab and Muslim. Neither organisation has called on its members to resettle any refugees, even though the Arab League praises leaders of Gulf states for their humanitarian leadership because they donate money.

Australia is debating how many thousands of Syrians to resettle and whether they will be part of our normal intake or additional to it. In many ways it is a relatively academic exercise — with more than four million refugees, the figures proposed are minuscule and can never hope to meet the demand. The same holds true for the European intakes. The real answer to the refugee crisis requires a political solution to the Syrian conflict, and that doesn’t appear to be on the horizon.

As insoluble as the conflict may appear, it has presented an opportunity for the global community to look more critically at the responsibility of regional states in the resettlement of refugees.

Rather than the usual suspects such as Canada, Australia, the US, Europe and Scandinavian countries being expected to shoulder the burden of resettling refugees alone, more emphasis should be placed on regional states to set up mechanisms by which they accept and resettle refugees.

With common language and cultural links, the shock of resettlement should be lessened. And the enormous financial capa­cities and demand for labour required by some of the Gulf states present a similarly good opportunity for regional refugees to be integrated into their host economies.

What is disappointing in the Australian debate regarding the Syrian refugee crisis is the way in which the lack of regional responsibility is neatly sidestepped. As one of the top three countries for refugee resettlement, Australia has a proud record of achievement.

That should give us credibility when we, along with other refugee resettlement countries question regional Arab states why they refuse to do the same.

Australians like to pride themselves on being straight talkers — as part of the discussion on Syrian refugee resettlement we should be prepared to call to account regional states who fail to embrace a concept that should be a fundamental human right, to be protected and resettled.


Rodger Shanahan is a research fellow at the Lowy Institute and associate professor at the National Security College at the Australian National University.