The GCC Must Rethink its Refugee Strategy
Fifteen years ago on this day, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution to make June 20 World Refugee Day. That day also marked the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an entity that was initially created to run on a temporary basis but is now in its 65th year of operation.
Today is also my birthday. I find the coincidence fitting and uncanny. My mother’s origin is Palestinian, a group whose refugee status has lasted generations, and my father’s is Syrian, a people who now form the largest refugee group in the world.
Regardless of our backgrounds, the topic of refugees is becoming more and more relevant to our daily lives. The tidal wave of issues impacting refugees has carried over because of the overwhelmingly globalized and connected world in which we live. More importantly for those of us living in the GCC, a rapid upsurge in the crisis is taking place mere kilometers away. I am speaking, of course, of Syria. The GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] is a regional political and economic union created in 1981 by the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. Its members are Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
It is increasingly clear that the Syrian refugee crisis has fundamentally altered the landscape of a profoundly difficult global refugee situation. Nearly half of Syria’s total population have fled their homes – approximate figures indicate that the refugee count now exceeds 11 million. Not only are we experiencing the largest number of refugees and displaced people worldwide since World War II, but the protracted conflict in Syria will mean that it may take years, even decades, before people can safely return to their homes – if they even choose to return once given the opportunity.
One needs to look no further than the history of Palestine’s refugees. Palestinians have been denied the right to exercise their inalienable right of return by Israel, and the refugee crisis that started in 1948 has forever altered their trajectory. People have missed out on economic opportunities, and a once-rich Palestinian culture has been denied the chance to flourish due to waves of mass exodus to neighboring countries.
GCC governments have reacted to the catastrophe in Syria mostly by pumping in billions of dollars in direct aid, offering financing to countries hosting refugees and extending scholarship opportunities to high-caliber Syrian students. In fact, since 2011, foreign ministers of the GCC have expressed a need for “a political solution to the Syrian crisis, and a worldwide effort to address the refugee crisis.”
But will aid really have a profound impact on refugees? Likely not. Historical and present examples suggest that aid relief is often ineffective. While in the short term it can halt the spread of poverty, in the long term it often triggers a vicious cycle that prevents refugees from climbing out of their dispossessed condition. The result is people with curtailed economic prospects whose powerlessness is perpetuated.
In fact, there is one route that the GCC has not explored – a route that is mutually beneficial for our sustained well-being and that of refugees; one that fulfills the GCC’s call for “a political solution.”
The GCC must modernize and reform its immigration policy. Not only can such reforms lead us down a more prosperous path, but they also have the potential to increase the GCC’s global political clout to end the political gridlock in Syria. European government policies are currently failing. New heroes with a fresh perspective will need to emerge. Even discounting these factors, the forces of the refugee crisis emanating from our region make it an issue that can no longer be ignored.
It is not hard to prove that taking in refugees – much like when we take both skilled and unskilled expatriates – can be good for our economy and poses little risk to our well-being as the GCC. Many reports have proved this. Meanwhile, opponents of economic integration may point to the fact that our economies are in no shape to take in, let alone sustain, refugees. After all, we are dealing with the worst budgetary crisis we have seen in the recent past, and oil, our main economic contributor, is unlikely to return to levels that exceed $60 per barrel.
But this argument has many flaws. Refugees can help jump-start our economy from its current slump and accelerate growth – and therefore should become part of our long-term strategy to create more sustainable economies. After all, in most cases one of the primary forces underlying economic growth is an increase in population, especially in the context of a developing or emerging economy. Our developing nations are still in the making and will require billions of dollars of capital and investment to reach a steady state, creating a huge need for a full spectrum of workers – from unskilled to knowledge-based employees.
It is ironic that while we are among the nations with the highest proportion of expatriates (in many GCC countries they even outnumber the local population), we have not engaged with modernizing our immigration policy, particularly for refugees. To the credit of the GCC, millions of Syrians, albeit not under protected refugee status, have entered its borders. In Saudi Arabia, more than 2.5 million Syrian nationals have been received since the start of the conflict.
However, we are continuing to operate in the same archaic paradigm with refugees, while transforming other aspects of our development. Some aspects of GCC government policies have become hallmarks of development and modernization, particularly in infrastructure, investment and labor mobility. But on the pressing issue of refugees, little has been accomplished and the value of introducing reform has been undervalued, if not misunderstood.
We have the potential to innovate and create a new sustainable and scalable approach that takes into consideration our local context and mitigates harmful aspects of the refugee predicament. To illustrate we need look no further than Jordan, our less affluent neighbor. The country has already started experimenting with new economic models that are seeing refugees gainfully employed in multi-billion dollar special economic zone (SEZ) projects.
Some critics may also argue that we are risking the safety of our borders by taking in refugees, but with all the refugees that have reached developed countries in Europe and North America, how many incidents have we seen? Being culturally more familiar and geographically closer to the countries producing refugees – mainly Syria and Iraq in our region – we are better positioned to become hosts. Assimilation is easier and there is the potential for them to return when hostilities cease.
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau summarizes this perfectly when he says, “We live in a world where there are always risks and the question is, how much do you want to live in fear of those risks? The best counter to the kind of radicalization and marginalization that we have seen in other parts of the world is to create an inclusive society where everyone, especially Muslim Canadians, have every chance to succeed.”
How can GCC governments shift the paradigm on their refugee policies?
I advocate the following three-point plan as a start.
Identify and Agree on the GCC’s Role
To date, GCC governments have had piecemeal strategies to address this. While each country is a sovereign nation, responsible for setting its own policies, it may be worth deliberating on a cohesive strategy that can address the crisis more effectively and productively. What do we want to accomplish? How? Who is accountable for what aspects?
Additionally, it is worth understanding what aspects of the crisis we want to lead and how we may want to leverage existing know-how and capabilities of governments with significant knowledge and resources.
Reform GCC Immigration Policy
The region must include a refugee component in its countries’ immigration system – whether they plan to take in refugees or not. The GCC is among a minority of nations that has not ratified the U.N. Convention on Refugees, which has governed international law on asylum since World War II.Additionally, the GCC immigration system does not recognize refugee status.
As a first step, the GCC should consider signing the U.N. Convention on Refugees. There is little risk to doing this. The signing of the convention only comes with the following three main responsibilities: states must agree to cooperate with the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) to allow it to exercise its function; states must inform the U.N. of laws and regulations they adopt concerning refugees; and finally states must exempt refugees from reciprocity – in other words, states should not consider the refugees’ country of nationality when rendering decisions on their stay.
Signing the U.N. convention would not prevent the GCC from having autonomy to set the strategy and policies that govern refugees.
Develop a New, Inclusive and Value-Added Approach
We have the track record and tools at our disposal to design sustainable and scalable solutions that fit the Arab context. Not only must we train refugees to whom we grant asylum with the skills to support our economic growth, but we must also give them the tools that will help them prosper upon their return to Syria. We must implement these policies with the regional economic stability in mind.
As the GCC, we have an economic, cultural and moral obligation to ease the current burden that less-equipped regional neighbors are bearing. We allowed expatriates into our countries because we saw how they could benefit our economy and improve the standards of living of our citizens. Not only do we require refugees’ support to continue our development objectives, but their inclusion can further bolster growth.
This growth will become possible if we open our minds enough to identify ways to leverage the influx of knowledge, tools and creative energy that people reaching our borders bring with them – in this case, the refugees. The world is changing whether we like it or not, and we must adapt to these new trends. The time to act is now.
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