ABU DHABI // More than 600 people in the UAE are seeking asylum status from the United Nations, the UN refugee agency has reported.
Figures in the agency’s latest Global Trends report, a survey of global of displacement, showed that 612 individuals in the country are asking to be designated as refugees by UNHCR, hoping to be resettled.
“These are people who have a fear of returning home and say they will be persecuted upon their return,” said Toby Harward, head of UNHCR Abu Dhabi.
The majority of those requesting UN refugee status are from either Syria or Iraq, comprising nearly 90 per cent of the asylum seekers, while citizens of Afghanistan, Palestine and Sudan make up the rest of the list.
If it grants asylum status, the UNHCR seeks one of three permanent solutions for refugees – to have them voluntarily return to their own country, to integrate them into the country in which they are seeking asylum or to resettle them in a third country.
For the majority of cases in the UAE, which mainly involve Syrians and Iraqis, refugees are resettled in about 30 countries accepting refugees, as the agency is unable to safely repatriate them or integrate them, because of current UAE laws on asylum, Mr Harward said.
The UAE is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and is not legally bound to accept refugees. However, last year the Government pledged to take in 15,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years, joining the more than 238,000 Syrians already living and working here – more than half of whom have been admitted since the Syrian crisis began.
“We have found the UAE authorities very cooperative and helpful when we have approached them to help us,” said Mr Harward.
Mr Harward said a good example was when UAE authorities helped a 27-year-old Palestinian-Syrian who was not being admitted to any country because he held only held a Syrian travel document and had no passport.
“The authorities played an important humanitarian role by allowing him to be sponsored by his father, which gave us breathing space to find a solution,” said Mr Harward.
He said finding permanent solutions for refugees had become difficult, after the US – which had been accepting the largest number of displaced under the UNHCR’s resettlement programme – banned the entry of Syrian refugees this year.
Compounding the difficulty was was refugees being displaced for longer periods of time due to new and protracted conflicts around the world.
“If you are a refugee, you are likely to be a refugee for 17 years,” Mr Harward said. “For someone displaced for that long, you cannot just give them a tent and shelter.
“They need education, a chance to work, to build their skills and potential.”
He said UNHCR is trying to shift aid from relief to developmental response focused on education and employment while providing opportunities to host communities’ own citizens and residents.
“You cannot take away opportunities from host communities and give them away to refugees,” he said.
The agency’s report found that 2.8 million persons were seeking asylum globally at the end of 2016.