Qatar has accepted 25,000 Syrians since the country’s civil war began in 2011, the Gulf state’s foreign minister has said in response to widespread criticism that it is not doing enough to help Syrians in need.
To put that number in context, the US has accepted less than 1,500 Syrian refugees over the same period and recently announced plans to accept 10,000 more over the next year.
In an interview with the New Statesman published this week, Qatar Foreign Minister Khalid Al Attiyah offered the country’s first public defense of Syria-related criticism, also highlighting how Doha has supported Syrians in other ways:
“The state of Qatar is in no way falling short in its responsibilities when it comes to the Syrian crisis. Just look at the record and the various initiatives – humanitarian, economic, diplomatic and others – supported or directly launched by Qatar,” he said.
Qatar was the first country to host an opposition-operated Syrian embassy and has repeatedly called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster.
That message was repeated by Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in his address to the UN General Assembly earlier this week:
“I call for cooperation in order to impose a political solution in Syria that would end the reign of tyranny and replacing it with a pluralistic regime based on equal citizenship for all Syrians,” the Emir said.
Meanwhile, the Qatar Red Crescent has launched a variety of programs to assist Syrians.
This summer alone, new initiatives were started to feed refugees in Lebanon, treat wounded individuals in Jordan and provide clean drinking water to Syrians still inside their country.
But those efforts have failed to quell criticism of the GCC’s response to the refugee crisis, especially after organizations such as Human Rights Watch suggested that the GCC countries have not taken in an a single Syrian fleeing the conflict:
Guess how many of these Syrian refugees Saudi Arabia & other Gulf states offered to take?
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) September 2, 2015
Qatar, like other other GCC states, is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention. Unlike some western countries, Qatar does not have any provisions that allow foreigners fleeing persecution to permanently settle in the Gulf, which opens it up to criticism that the country has accepted “zero” refugees.
The country has, however, loosened visa restrictions in recent years by allowing Qatar-based Syrians to apply to bring relatives beyond their immediate family into the country.
Once here, the Syrians receive a visitor visa that can be renewed inside Qatar, exempting them from leaving the country and coming back as many other long-term “visitors” must do, embassy officials told Doha News in 2014.
The number of Syrians living in Qatar has nearly doubled since fighting broke out in 2011 and now stands at 54,000, according to Al Attiyah. That includes 47,000 individuals who have full residency permits as well as 7,000 people who are in Qatar on renewable visitor visas, he added.
Al-Attiyah’s figure of 54,000 Syrians living in Qatar is slightly lower than the estimate of 60,000 given by the Syrian embassy in Doha in 2014.
The downside to Qatar’s approach is that individuals who are in Qatar on a visitor visa are unable to legally work here, causing financial hardship for many families.
But the strategy also means that Syrians in Qatar avoid the “stigma” of being labeled refugees, embassy officials previously said.
Nevertheless, some have questioned why Qatar – with its rapidly growing economy and need for foreign labor – wouldn’t allow more Syrians into the country.
Speaking to Doha News earlier this month, prominent Emirati commentator Sultan Al Qassemi noted:
“Numerous articles in Qatari press complain about the decrease of use of Arabic language and that Qatari culture isn’t respected by foreigners. In addition to being the ethical move Syrians are close in cultural and in language to their Qatari brethren.”
However, Al Attiyah said argued that the government needs to carefully manage its already sizeable foreign population:
“The immigration challenges in Qatar are unique. Foreign workers here already outnumber Qataris by about six to one, and a massive influx of refugees would overwhelm our native population.”
Al Qassemi has also suggested that many in the Gulf are reluctant to accept Syrians due to security concerns or are wary of “allowing a large number of politically vocal Arabs into their countries that might somehow influence a traditionally politically-passive society.”