It’s unfair to label us as uncaring over plight of Syrians

Syrian children at the Al-Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Photo: Muhammad Hamed / Reuters
Syrian children at the Al-Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Photo: Muhammad Hamed / Reuters

Regular readers will know that I have a particular interest in the plight of Syrians. That’s partly a matter of humanitarian concern and partly personal: some of my wife’s family in Aleppo are mourning a recent death, while others are refugees in Turkey, waiting to hear whether a European country will grant them asylum.

Around 10.5 million people, 45 per cent of the population, have been displaced, 6.5 million inside Syria and 4 million as refugees. Around 190,000 people have been killed and 10.8 million people inside the country are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. The figures, and the suffering, are horrendous.

Last week, Amnesty International issued a report titled Left out in the cold: Syrian refugees abandoned by the international community. It makes for grim reading.

Citing UN figures, it says that only 63,170 resettlement places have been offered by countries around the world since the conflict began. In the European Union, Germany has pledged 30,000 places, nearly half the total, and Germany and Sweden together have received 96,500 new asylum applications in the last three years, 64 per cent of all such applications in the EU. The remaining 26 EU countries have pledged only 5,105 resettlement places, according to Amnesty. Britain has offered only to admit “several hundred”. Russia – an ardent supporter of the Al Assad regime in Syria – hasn’t pledged a single place.

Amnesty International should be applauded for its effort to draw attention to the issue. But, not for the first time, it appears to have an innate bias and to lack objectivity when dealing with the UAE. The Amnesty UK campaigns manager has posted on Twitter saying: “Gulf states (including the UAE) haven’t offered to take a single refugee from Syria. Heartless”. But the truth is rather more complex, as he ought to know.

By “refugee”, does Amnesty mean only those formally registered with UN agencies? It says that its figures “include UNHCR-coordinated resettlement programmes, humanitarian admission, sponsorships, family reunification and other visa regimes issued to facilitate the relocation of Syrian refugees”.

In the UAE, we have large resident communities of Syrians and Palestinians with Syrian travel documents. I know that residence visas and renewable visit visas have been granted to many family members of those who are already here. At a rough guess – and perhaps the Ministry of Interior could tell us – I estimate that thousands have been admitted to the safety of the UAE in this way, whether or not they have ever formally registered with the UN as refugees. Certainly many have not done so.

Yet the Amnesty report fails to acknowledge that the UAE has opened its doors in this manner. Why? Does Amnesty have an aversion to admitting that there is anything good about the UAE? The report’s compilers did not even consult a colleague who works on UAE issues.

The report also lists financial pledges made to the UN’s 2014 humanitarian appeal for Syrian refugees, noting that the UAE has offered a mere $10 million, accompanied by a caveat that “countries may have made other contributions to the main host countries or agencies working with Syrian refugees through other channels.” Yes, indeed.

The UAE funded one of Jordan’s largest refugee camps and has provided many more millions of dollars through the Red Crescent Authority and other channels. Yet Amnesty suggests only that the country has been miserly in its response to the misery of the Syrian people.

Valuable though it is, the Amnesty report presents an incomplete picture of the contribution made by the UAE, and perhaps by others, to tackling the Syrian crisis.

The criteria used in the report paint the UAE as uncaring, and that is, frankly, unfair. It’s hard to know whether that’s a matter of deliberate bias or just shoddy research, but it does the organisation no credit.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture

Published: December 8, 2014 04:00 AM

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