Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN  agency responsible for refugees worldwide, celebrates World Refugee Day each year on 20 June. This year, the focus is on the right of people to seek safety — whoever they are, wherever they come from, and whenever they are forced to flee.

No matter who they are or what beliefs they hold, everyone has the right to seek protection. People forced to flee should be treated with dignity and without discrimination based on  race, religion, gender and country of origin. Seeking safety is a non-negotiable and inviolable human right.

No matter where they come from, people forced to flee from war, violence or persecution should be received graciously, irrespective of how they arrive at a country’s border, whether by plane, train, boat or on foot.

No matter what they are forced to flee from, people have a right to get out of harm’s way and seek safety; everyone has the right to be protected; everyone has a right to be safe.

Kuwait faces  a multitude of challenges, including economic, political and social issues that keep the country engaged, and the people entertained as authorities lurch from one problem to another. However, despite these multiple challenges, the one complication that Kuwait does not have to confront is that of having to host refugees on its soil. Although a gracious host to people from all over the world seeking work and life in the country, the one group of people that Kuwait does not welcome are refugees seeking safety from the myriad regional conflicts.

No one can deny the generosity credentials of Kuwait; the country has for decades been a magnanimous donor and active supporter of humanitarian efforts around the world. The compassion and benevolence shown towards humanity is seen as a reflection of the generous spirit of the people, and an insignia that the country has upheld with pride over the years.

In 2014, in recognition of the role of Kuwaiti leadership and its people in extending humanitarian aid and support to nations in crises, the United Nations presented the late Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah the UN ‘Humanitarian Leader’ award, and the country was acknowledged by the world community as a ‘Humanitarian Center’.

The awards were also in appreciation of the numerous relief and humanitarian initiatives launched by Kuwait, including several rounds of donor conferences held since 2013 in support of Syrian refugees. At these annual international donor conferences, Kuwait has repeatedly and generously pledged and contributed hundreds of millions of dollars in aid for displaced Syrians.

Despite its humanitarian qualifications and its generous financial, social and moral support to displaced people everywhere, and in particular to refugees living in UN camps in countries neighboring Syria, Kuwait has steadfastly refused to host a single refugee, Syrian or otherwise, on its soil.

The UNHCR estimates that since the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 and up until the start of 2020, a total of 13.2 million Syrians had been forcibly displaced. Of these, nearly 6.5 million are displaced internally within Syria while at least 6.7 million Syrians have left the country, either seeking asylum in other nations, mostly in Europe;  or seeking shelter in UN refugee camps, located mainly in Syria’s neighboring states of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

Although more than a third of the current Syrian population of around 18.4 million have now become refugees in other countries, not a single Syrian refugee has been taken in by Kuwait, or for that matter by any of the other five Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states of Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Despite their status as fellow-Arabs who share similar linguistic affiliations and religious beliefs, the reluctance of Kuwait and other GCC states to take in Syrian refugees, raised questions among the international community, especially in  many European countries deluged by the first wave of Syrian refugees to Europe in 2011, and by the subsequent influx of refugees since then.

Experts cite many reasons for the GCC reticence towards refugees, including that the concept of refugees is not recognized or enshrined in the policies and laws of these states. The six-nation GCC bloc is among few countries in the world that are not signatories to the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention, or to its subsequent 1967 Protocol on granting refuge to displaced people.

The UN Convention on Refugees was a significant milestone achievement of the fledgling United Nations in 1951. The Convention, for the first time, defined the term ‘refugee’ and outlined the set of rights and responsibilities for host countries and displaced people alike. It also enshrined the legal obligations of States to respect and protect displaced people no matter who they were, where they were from, or what they were fleeing.

The refugee convention pivots around the three main principles of non-discrimination, non-penalization and non-refoulement of refugees who arrive at the borders of countries.

Non-discrimination emphasizes that refugees should be granted entry to a country irrespective of their race, religion, gender, or country of orgin. Non-penalization underlines that refugees should not be penalized for their illegal entry or stay in a country. And, non-refoulement asserts that refugees should not be expelled or returned against their will to a territory where they fear threats to their life or freedom. [The term ‘refoulement’ comes from the French word ‘Refoul’, meaning push or force back.]

In addition, while stipulating the responsibilities of refugees granted entry to a country, the 1951 Convention also sets the minimum basic standards for the treatment of refugees by host nations. This includes providing them with access to the courts, to primary education and health services, and to work freely, as well as  to make provisions to furnish them with proper documentation, such as issuing the refugees with a travel document in the form of a passport.

None of the core requisites detailed in the Convention were acceptable to the GCC states, many of which did not exist as independent states at the time of the Convention’s adoption in 1951. And, even after these  nations became independent entities, they were not eager or willing to ratify the Convention due to fears of real or imagined threats to their sovereignty, especially in the early years of their establishment as independent states.

Another reason often propounded for GCC countries not signing the 1951 refugee convention, is the apprehension that hordes of economic migrants from regional Arab states, posing as refugees and claiming rights enshrined in the UN Convention, could overwhelm the relatively small native populations, and begin expropriating the new founded oil and gas wealth of these nations.

Additionally, there were fears shared in some quarters that highly politicized Arabs from the region infiltrating as refugees could weaken the stability and security of the GCC states. The refugees could also instigate and promote demands to dismantle the prevailing monarchical style of governance, and demolish the existing hierarchical social and tribal structure in the Gulf states.

There were also serious concerns among many policymakers and the public that the refugees could gradually erode the national identity, deform the culture and trample on conservative traditions of local people. More pertinently, there was the growing angst that refugees allowed to settle could soon begin to demand a share of the prodigious benefits being provided to citizens by the newly minted welfare states.

More recent reluctance to take in displaced people, especially from Syria and other Arab countries, stems from unease over the inviability of sheltering large numbers of refugees, especially in the face of falling hydrocarbon prices and diminishing revenues. The authorities worry that an influx of refugees, who could potentially claim permanent settlement and demand civil rights under UN mandates, would curb the ability of Gulf states to continue providing the services and supporting the heavily subsidized lifestyle that citizens have come to consider as their entitlement.

Moreover, there continues to be the very real fear that the entry of a large number of refugees would disrupt the already lopsided demographic balance in the GCC states, where foreigners account for a large, if not the largest share of the population. The only saving grace to the current imbalance, which the authorities are reportedly keen to maintain, is that the majority of these foreigners are at present from the more docile and politically benign south-Asian countries.

Although there are a significant number of Arabs living and working in the GCC countries, they are spread among a wide spectrum of Arab nationalities. These groups are often at political odds with each other and as such do not pose a threat to the Gulf governments. The influx of refugees all hailing from a single country could upset the delicate demographic balancing act that GCC states have over the years grown quite adept at.

The GCC states also counter the argument that they have not hosted any refugees by pointing out that they have provided millions in financial aid, and extended humanitarian and social support to displaced Syrians since the start of the crisis in that country. This is no doubt absolutely true, but it is also pertinent to add that at least some GCC states bear a responsibility for the current Syrian crisis, having at one time or another aided and abetted various factions in the Syrian conflict.

The GCC states also contend that although they do not host Syrian refugees per se, there are currently over half a million Syrians employed, or living as family members, in the Gulf countries. While it is true that Syrians are currently living and working in the Gulf states, this was the case even before the Syrian crisis began in 2011. These people are migrant workers who choose to work in the Gulf states, they cannot be categorized as refugees forced to flee.’

A distinction between refugee and migrant worker is probably warranted. A ‘refugee’ has a very specific legal meaning. It is a person who is forced to flee their home because of war, violence or persecution and has crossed an international border to find safety in another country.

A migrant on the other hand is not a legal term; it is someone who chooses to seek employment or business opportunities in another country, but they are not being forced to flee their native country due to any war, violence, or persecution.

No matter what the definition, or the many valid and invalid reasons cited above that provide the Gulf states wiggle room at multilateral discussions and forums to evade their international responsibility. And, no matter that the GCC states being non-signatories to the UN Convention on Refugees are under no legal obligation to host refugees, the more pertinent question is does this absolve these states of their moral obligation and responsibility towards fellow human beings, and in the case of Syrian refugees, to their fellow-Arabs.

As we celebrate yet another World Refugee Day this Monday, maybe we need to ask ourselves, are we doing the right thing by shooing away the refugees.

The Times Kuwait Special Report

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