Syrians in the Gulf: kept at an arm's length
Each Syrian in the Gulf has a tale to tell about the trials and tribulations they, or a friend, have faced in trying to bring someone to the safety of nations like Kuwait, Qatar, or Saudi Arabia. When asked to share their stories with Al-Akhbar, many strongly insist on anonymity. They are concerned that their attempts to obtain residency permits for themselves or family members would be affected negatively.
O.D. is a young Syrian mother of two currently residing in Kuwait. Speaking toAl-Akhbar over the phone, she explained that her mother and brother were injured in the summer of 2012 when they tried to evacuate al-Hamah. The small village west of Damascus was being shelled by the Syrian military.
Weeks later, her brother passed away from injuries, while her mother was left partially paralyzed. O.D. was successful in bringing her and her father to Kuwait solely because they were Syrians with Jordanian passports, but she has plenty of stories of Syrian families denied entry into Gulf states.
“Syrians simply couldn't get in. My uncle, for example, has a Syrian passport and he has had a residency permit in Saudi Arabia for 30 years. He owns a contracting and investment company. When he wanted to visit my parents this past autumn, the Kuwaiti authorities did not allow him,” she said.
In May 2011, Kuwait implemented a ban on all types of visas for Syrians. This ban was only somewhat eased a few weeks before it held an international donor conference on Syria at the end of this past January. Now, according to authorities, daughters under the age of 15 and sons under the age of 10 are allowed.
One of the most absurd cases shared with Al-Akhbar involved a Syrian couple who had worked in Kuwait for years. The pregnant wife traveled to Syria during the first month of the uprising to give birth in the presence of family. When the couple attempted to return to Kuwait, they were notified by the authorities that the newborn would not be allowed back despite the fact that both parents had valid residencies. It took over a year of the husband utilizing all forms of wasta, or connections, before the baby was allowed to enter the tiny Gulf emirate.
Al-Akhbar contacted the family to gain further details about their extraordinary case, but they quietly declined to comment.
Limits of Gulf Support
In September 2012, at the 67th UN General Assembly, the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, declared, “We urge all countries that believe in the cause of the Syrian people to contribute to the provisions of all sorts of support to this people until it gains its legitimate rights.”
Qatar, like virtually all other Gulf Arab states, has firmly opposed Bashar al-Assad’s regime ever since the Syrian uprising erupted more than two years ago. The Gulf Arab states' strategies have ranged from politically isolating the Syrian regime to calling for direct military intervention.
Crucially, Gulf states have pursed a unilateral policy of exporting funds and arms to certain anti-regime armed groups in an effort to hasten the downfall of the regime.
Despite these gung-ho political and military pursuits, it is the humanitarian front where the compassion of Gulf states seems to reach its limit.
According to UNHCR statistics, 1.4 million registered Syrians have fled the country and 3 million are registered as internally displaced. By the end of 2013, it’s expected that more than half the population of Syria will likely need aid.
In January 2013, $1.5 billion was pledged by various countries at a conference in Kuwait to address the growing humanitarian crisis. Out of all the Gulf countries, Kuwait is the only one that has fully honored its pledge, recently giving $300 million to various multilateral aid organizations involved in helping Syrians. The other Gulf states have either provided a small fraction of their initial aid promises or have announced that they will distribute funds directly to “the Syrian people” without much elaboration.
But it is the system of restricting visas to Syrians desperately seeking to join their families and spouses living in the Gulf that adds further doubt to the Gulf authorities’ proclaimed concern towards the well-being of the Syrian people.
Blue and White Collar Refugees
In the first few months of the uprising, Gulf countries like Qatar, the UAE, and Kuwait implemented their own versions of security screenings and visa regulations for Syrians. Recently, Saudi Arabia has joined the fold by curtailing the numbers of Syrians seeking refugee.
“For the UAE, they've been allowing parents, children, spouses. Brothers and sisters are allowed with some difficulties. Extended family members is simply not easy,” said H.R., a Syrian engineer working in Dubai.
“The authorities say they will give visas for 'humanitarian situations,' but they tend to look at possible salary rates that Syrians seek in terms of work before letting them in,” she further said. H.R. elaborated that Syrians seeking blue-collar jobs in Dubai tend to be denied entry. Even those already in the country might be denied visa extensions or suddenly have their residency revoked for any political activity in support of the Syrian uprising.
The UAE, it should be noted, is rumored to have allowed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's sister Bushra and her family, as well as Rami Makhlouf, the notoriously hated billionaire and cousin to the Syrian president, to reside freely in the country.
Dysfunctional SNC Doha Office
Saudi Arabia, along with Qatar, has been at the forefront of condemning the Assad regime. The Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz bin Saud was one of the first world leaders to publicly condemn Syrian military violence, calling for the end of the “killing machine” in August 2011.
Unlike other Gulf countries, Saudi had been initially lenient in allowing Syrians into the country, but all that has changed in the past few months.
Presently, Syrians are being denied religious pilgrimage visas to the Saudia Arabian cities of Mecca and Medina. Al-Akhbar contacted a number of Beirut travel offices that deal with such documents. When asked about the ability for Syrians to receive such a visa, the response was immediate and firm: “Sorry, no visas for Syrians.”
“Saudi is no better than Kuwait,” said O.D. “They are doing the same thing. For the past six months, they have stopped family visas, and at times opening it for certain jobs like medicine and only if the Syrian is going to a certain city like Riyadh.”
And what of Qatar, the home of the Syrian National Coalition and the first country to hand the group the reigns of the Syrian embassy?
“Nothing has changed. There are the same horrible standards,” said M.E., a Syrian teacher in Doha. “Any visa has to go through the coalition now, we have no choice about it. Unless you can get a hold of a sheikh or a minister, even if you oppose the regime or not, you have to go through the coalition.”
“[The coalition] seems disorganized. It doesn’t know what to do. The process takes a long time and you tend to need wasta to get anything done...Today, no one can tell you how to do the documents. It seems like everyone is secretive about the process,” he said.
M.E. has been living in Qatar for about three years. His mother and brother are still living in the Muhajireen district of Damascus. She is physically ill and he has been trying to get her to Doha for half a year now.
“The law states that parents, single daughters, sons and brothers under the age of 18, and wives are allowed. But when I tried to get the paperwork done for my mother, it's been pending without any explanation,” he said.
According to him, the coalition office at first took in documents with no conditions. Over time, the office began to implement restrictions like denying unskilled labor.
D.S., a Syrian journalist who also coordinates humanitarian work for Syrians based in Doha, affirmed M.E.'s experience.
“The office for the coalition is very rudimentary. It hasn't done anything, doesn't present complicated services. It simply takes in documents and checks if this person is linked to the regime in some way,” he said.
“Specifically for Qatar, visas tend to be easier for women, but it’s generally difficult – even if a person is a skilled worker. People are going through the coalition. They have thousands of documents pending and they cannot do anything. It is not in their hands, it is in the hands of the Qatari government,” he added.
In a last ditch effort to bring his mother to Doha, M.E. went to the UN offices in Doha. They told him to contact the main UNHCR regional office in Riyadh. He did so, asking if he could be considered a “refugee” and therefore be provided protection.
“The official told me that the refugee status is only for those in tents and I was not in a tent,” M.E. said.
Bound Hands of UNHCR
“Officially, there are no Syrian refugees in the Gulf, only in neighboring camps,” said an anonymous UN official in Kuwait.
She explained that the Gulf states are not signatories of international refugee laws and conventions, and therefore aren’t obliged to receive refugees or offer resettlement solutions.
“What they do instead is offer the UN a little space to do work for people that are here legally and want to be resettled in other countries,” she said. “Syrians in general have great restrictions in terms of resettlement, except for those who are directly threatened by persecution.”
“‘Legal' Syrians worried about their families are restricted from bringing them to this region. Stories of babies, sick, elderly being denied entry are true,” she said. “UNHCR has tried to open the doors for these cases by linking them to the concerned authorities. We have limited power to convince, and people have come to the UN for help, but [our] hands are simply tied.”
But why aren't Syrians, particularly the exile political organizations linked with Gulf authorities, complaining and standing up to these policies?
“Where are they going to put these people?” D.S. answered, “Look, it is wrong, I'm not going to tell you otherwise. It should be less restricted. But from their [Gulf authorities'] point of view, its security. They are worried that the Syrian regime somehow using refugees against them, perhaps by sending infiltrators. They [Gulf states] are really defensive and watching out for this.”
“The may have a point, but ethically it's just wrong,” he concluded.
Repeated attempts by Al-Akhbar to seek comment from the UNHCR regional office in Riyadh on the cases of Syrians in the Gulf were not answered at the time of this writing.
Furthermore, Al-Akhbar attempted to contact the Syrian National Coalition for comment on this issue. They have yet to reply at the time of this writing. Out of the other major Syrian opposition groups contacted to comment on the difficulties faced by Syrians in the Gulf, only the Local Coordinating Committee, which is based within Syria, responded. Below is their reply:
“We are surprised that the Gulf States, which claim to support the Syrian Revolution, would restrict Syrians who are fleeing the Assad regime's brutality. We hope to be able to count on our supporters to demonstrate more willingness to support Syrian civilians both in terms of relief and in terms of temporary visas.
The vast majority of Syrians who have been forced to flee are eager to come back home and begin rebuilding their country. We are grateful to those states that have hosted our people, and encourage Arab countries to do the same as we move forward during this very difficult period.”
Numbers of Syrians in the Gulf
The exact number of Syrians living abroad has always been difficult to pin down, mainly because the Syrian government itself did not keep adequate records of them.
However, a report by the Consortium for Applied Research on International Migration conducted by the European University Institute, conservatively estimates that 415,745 Syrians, or 1.9 percent of the total Syrian population, were living abroad as of 2010.
The report notes that 28.9 percent, or around 120,000, of this total emigrant population are living and working in the Gulf, with Saudi Arabia marked as the top destination for Syrians.
These Syrian emigrants are almost split evenly in thirds between low (37.6 percent), medium (31.3 percent), and high (31.1 percent) education and thus are involved in a variety of blue and white collar jobs.
By: Yazan al-Saadi