DUBAI — As thousands of refugees try their luck in the sea to flee to Europe, many people in the rich Gulf states feel shamed by the official silence of Gulf’s affluent monarchies on the ongoing crisis.
“It gives us a glimmer of hope after these recent drowning episodes to see broad campaigns of sympathy and solidarity with the issue of Syrian refugees by governments and peoples in some European countries,” wrote Zeid al-Zeid in a column for Kuwait’s Al-An newspaper on Sunday, Reuters reported.
“But it makes us sorry and makes us wonder about the absence of any official response by Arab states … we’re seeing a silence that’s scandalous.”
Some 350,000 migrants have made the perilous journey to reach Europe’s shores since January this year, according to figures released by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) on Tuesday.
The IOM said more than 2,600 migrants had drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean in the same period.
A photo of a three-year-old Syrian toddler lying face down on the beach, after he and his family drowned, has sparked worldwide outcry over this week.
Feeling unsure with the official reaction, many in the Gulf states feel uneasy, apparently clear in paintings and cartoons of the young boy’s death which crowded Arab social media. One of those cartoons depict little Aylan Kurdi’s corpse laid out before an open grave with inert figures in traditional Gulf Arab cloaks and robes holding shovels.
Another showed the toddler’s head slumped toward a tombstone marked “the Arab conscience”.
“The Gulf states often complain that the Arabic language is underused and that our culture is under threat due to the large number of foreign immigrants,” Sultan Sooud al Qassemi, a commentator in the United Arab Emirates, said.
He suspected Gulf States were wary of allowing in large numbers of politically vocal Arabs who might somehow influence a traditionally passive society.
“Here is an opportunity to host a group of people who can help alleviate such concerns and are in need of refuge, fleeing a brutal war,” al Qassemi added.
Another Kuwaiti analyst shocked audience by saying in a TV interview that refugees were better suited to poorer countries.
“Gulf countries clearly can and should do an awful lot more,” said Oxfam’s Syria country director Daniel Gorevan.
He called on Gulf states to “offer up work places, family unification schemes, essentially other legal avenues for them to get into Gulf countries and to be able to earn a living.”
Away from rich Gulf monarchies, people in other parts of the Arab world have immense sympathy for Syrians, but mixed views on the feasibility of helping.
“Tunisia is not able to welcome any refugees. We cannot accept Syrian refugees. After the revolution of 2011, Tunisia was the first to pay the price in terms of refugees,” Boujemaa Rmili, a spokesman for the Nidaa Tounes party which forms part of the governing coalition.
“We have welcomed 1.2 million Libyans and that has cost us a lot.”
Migrants from Syria and Sahel countries into Algeria are estimated at 55,000, a source from Algeria’s Red Crescent told Reuters.
“We have done what we can to offer them the basics including food, medicine, host centers, and we have allowed the Syrian kids to study in our schools,” the source said.
For those defending Gulf policies, billions donated to Syrian refugee camps were enough.
“Qatar has provided over $2 billion in aid to the Syrian people in addition to the $106 million provided by Qatar’s semi-governmental institutions,” a Qatari diplomat said. Yet, many were far from being satisfied, feeling Gulf states should do more.
“(The Gulf) should accept Syrian refugees. Saudis and Syrians have always been brothers and sisters. Aside from the fact that our religion requires us to do so, helping refugees should be a natural reaction to what we have seen in the media,” 22-year old Saudi student Noor Almulla said.
Another Saudi student, Sara Khalid, 23, said Gulf Arab states “as their neighbors and fellow Muslims” had a greater responsibility to Syrian refugees than Europeans.
The closed borders have traumatized many, who felt that Arab countries do not welcome them.
Iyad al-Baghdadi, a Palestinian blogger and activist deported from the UAE last year, has criticized the response of the Gulf states and laments the closed borders and repression.
Recalling time spent in a Norwegian refugee camp with Syrian refugee friends, he said on Twitter: “Something about this felt absolutely alien – three grown Arab Muslim men who were made homeless and are seeking refuge in… Scandinavia.”
“The Arab world is 5 million square miles. When my son was born, among the worst thoughts was how it has no space for him.”