Beirut (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Images of Syrian refugees crowding border posts and railway stations, or cramming buses and trains, not to mention the picture of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach, have sparked a worldwide outcry. However, despite cultural, religious and linguistic proximity, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have by and large kept their doors closed to Syrian refugees.
At a time when the crisis is getting worse, the West is trying to figure out how to respond to the emergency caused by the war, a war in which some European countries and the United States are active belligerents. By contrast, Arab countries have shut their borders to avert "an invasion".
At the individual level, Arabs have shown great generosity towards Syrian refugees. Individual charitable collections have totalled hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some workers at some national companies, like Qatar Petroleum, have made a monthly donation deducted from their pay.
However, for Michael Stephens, from the London-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), “providing food and shelter for people living in camps was a solution for yesterday's problem. The most pressing issue is now finding hundreds of thousands of people somewhere to live”.
In a piece published on the BBC News website, Stephens said that the Gulf States lack an "explicit policy" vis-à-vis refugees; only migrant workers with work permits have been able to enter these countries.
Although Saudi Arabia says it has let in 500,000 since 2011 when an uprising against President Bashar al Assad broke out, not much has been done for refugees. “The policy has not yet changed, with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE in particular extremely concerned about the potential for Assad loyalists to strike back.”
What is more, “the influx of thousands of Syrians at once” is seen as a threat to “a highly delicate demographic balance that the Gulf states rely on to keep functioning.”
Places like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Emirates operate on the basis of “a high turnover of low and high skilled labour, which allows the native Gulf Arab populations to maintain their dominant status without being overrun by Arabs from other countries, or South Asian labourers.”
Hence, “the idea of thousands of foreigners coming in, without employment or any definite return date, is deeply uncomfortable for Gulf states.”
At the same time, Gulf elites blame the mess on the West for not doing “something sooner to deal with Mr Assad and his regime.” In view of this, “Pleas from Western diplomats are likely to fall on deaf ears.”
For his part, the UN special envoy for Syria warned Monday that many thousands more refugees would flee to Europe if the international community fails to reach a peace accord.
"Why are people leaving? Because they have lost hope after five years of endless conflict and they see only one winner, Daesh," said UN envoy Syria Staffan de Mistura, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
De Mistura said up to one million more people could be at risk in western Syria, potentially adding to the flood of refugees already seeking safety in the European Union.
Some 11 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes by the conflict, which began in March 2011, with four million becoming refugees. The conflict itself has now claimed nearly 250,000 lives.
"It is time to find a solution,” De Mistura said; “otherwise there will not be any Syrians left."