On June 18, the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) made a surprise announcement granting nationals of countries suffering from war and disasters a one-year residence visa. Although an important gesture to relieve suffering and provide temporary shelter, Abu Dhabi is not following through on a much more important and sustainable solution to these problems: the permanent resettlement of Syrian refugees from Lebanon, Jordan and other countries to the UAE.
At the New York Refugee Summit in September 2016, the UAE’s Minister of International Cooperation pledged to resettle 15,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. With that pledge, the UAE became the first Gulf state to announce a large-scale plan to extend refugee status to Syrians. Almost two years later, the first refugees have yet to arrive. Is the UAE government reneging on its commitment?
It is true that, through the June 18 scheme, the UAE intends to provide better living conditions to those affected by war, until they are able to return home. “The new decision will see nationals of affected countries granted an extendable one-year permit – regardless of the conditions of their visa – from 1st August to 31st October 2018, as well as an exemption from any imposed fines,” according to state news agency WAM.
But, in the absence of a political agreement in Syria, it is highly unlikely that Syrians who have fled the country will return in the years to come. Many Syrians may never return and will need a permanent new home — not a temporary shelter. Recent research among Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon shows that a majority are unwilling to go back “unless a political transition can assure their safety and security, access to justice, and right of return to areas of origin.”
To be sure, in the first years of the Syrian conflict, the UAE welcomed more than 100,000 Syrians, who joined another 140,000 already living in the country, according to figures provided by the UAE National Bureau of Statistics. More recent numbers are not available. Until mid-2017, the country also provided more than US$750 million to support Syrian refugees in neighboring countries — money that was used to provide food, basic health services, water, and sanitation, according to The National.
In November 2016, in preparation for resettling Syrian refugees, Emirati officials visited Ottawa to learn about Canada’s refugee system. The Embassy of Canada to the UAE provided Emirati officials with follow-up documentation and other information. Yet, since then, the UAE has taken no further action. Indeed, the UNHCR office in the UAE is still waiting to hear from government officials about launching the resettlement process.
On June 25, the UNHCR warned of a widening gap between the number of refugees in need of resettlement and the number of refugees governments are willing to take in. While a projected 1.4 million refugees will need to be resettled in 2019, the number of resettlement places dropped to just 75,000 in 2017.
Now more than ever, there is a need for countries in the Gulf to resettle Syrian refugees. The UAE government has a unique opportunity to set an example and follow through on its commitment to permanently resettle Syrian refugees.