Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Europe is the New Mecca—for Refugees

Refugees waiting to take a bus that will eventually take them to Germany
Syrian refugees try to get the Istanbul bus terminal to go to Germany through Greece, Turkey, on 15 September 2015. Photo Isa Terli / Anadolu Agency

The Mediterranean has, since time immemorial, been a place of migration. In modern times, with the globalization of the concept of the nation state and the establishment of protected and defined borders, migration has become more structured, and migrants require papers and authorizations to move and to work, but migration continues. Migrant workers from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) helped build present-day Europe and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Most twentieth-century Mediterranean migrants have been pushed out of their countries by economic forces. Things were not good enough at home, and they wanted to move to a better place. Many of them became European and a smaller number citizens of the Gulf states.

Since the Arab Spring in 2011, however, a new wave of refugees has fled from war and death in the Greater Middle East (GME) region. They are mainly from Syria and Iraq, where assassinations, bombings, and kidnappings are daily trials. Some of them come from as far away as Afghanistan.

Syria and, to a lesser extent, Iraq and Afghanistan—predominantly Muslim countries in the GME—are the main sources of refugees in the region. The war in Yemen has so far produced mainly internally displaced refugees, but it is widely feared that it will, if it continues long enough, give rise to the next great international refugee crisis. The wars tearing these countries apart have been fuelled, to a large extent, by the GCC countries, whose funds were allocated to weapons, humanitarian aid, and extensive media coverage. The official GCC argument for such foreign intervention is to stop the human crisis.

It would thus be logical for war survivors to seek shelter in the GCC, but they do not. The corridors of migration start in MENA and end in Germany and other European countries. Hundreds of thousands are crossing lands and seas in 2015, braving neo-fascism and storms, entering a different cultural sphere, and leaving everything behind, but only a few consider the easier trip south, to wealthy and brotherly Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or the UAE.

In a sick blame-game that raged in September 2015, after the picture of a drowned Syrian Kurdish boy filled the front pages, European countries are criticizing the rich GCC, accusing them of doing too little, while the GCC regimes are offering excuses and returning the blame.

From the Western point of view, GCC countries are directly responsible for what happened to the Syrians, and, as Arabs and Muslims, the refugees are their close brethren. The GCC countries are rich and are, in essence, nations of immigrants, with a lot of empty land much of it is uninhabitable and low unemployment. They can afford to host thousands of refugees.

GCC-funded media, however, often claim that Europe’s colonial policies are at the core of the problem, which worsened with the recent Western push for democratic change in the region. Hence, according to the GCC countries, Europe is responsible for the fate of Syrians, and Europeans claim that they respect human and refugee rights and that they act according to their ideals and so should bear the burden. But, while the GCC states claim that they do host refugees (up to 2.5 million in Saudi Arabia, according to some sources), it is a fact that the refugees themselves prefer Europe.

Nation states are new in the Arab World, and international boundaries are not yet securely fixed. In the Gulf region, borders run across deserts and are hard to monitor and control. Moreover, thousands of workers from poorer Arab countries work on and off in the GCC, making it possible to cross borders without being checked and registered, while many workers—the ones from war-torn countries—have decided to stay, even when their residency permits expired. There are hundreds of thousands of Syrians (and Yemenis, Afghans, and others) in the Gulf region, and, because they can no longer return to their home countries, it is possible that the numbers of refugees that the GCC countries claim to host are correct.

The status of refugee does not, however, exist in the Gulf states or any other Arab country. It is a European concept that was not adopted by the newly created, postcolonial MENA nations. Those who find refuge in the Gulf are therefore treated as second- or third-class residents; if they do not find jobs, good luck to them. There are no social services provided for them or their families, and the best they can hope for are sun-baked camps with few amenities, while they are waiting to be transferred elsewhere or to return home. Palestinians know this fate well.

In the GCC, few people have the status of citizens. Unlike Saudi Arabia, which has a citizen population estimated at 20 million, most of the other emirates have few citizens of foreign origin. Foreigners in the GCC, especially poor workers from Arab and Asian countries, are similar to the metics of ancient Greece, second-class residents who will never acquire the status of citizens.

Security is tight in the Gulf, making every arriving refugee feel unwelcome and unsafe. Applications for visas and authorizations are commonly refused, and the distressed arrivals can expect primal xenophobia. The state provides minimal public services and expects the workers to labour and leave and the refugees to wait…and leave.

For these reasons, the GCC wants Europe to take the refugees, while the latter prefer Europe to the Gulf countries. Muslims make their annual pilgrimage to Mecca, but today, at least for the Syrians and other Muslims and non-Muslims in need, the qiblah is Europe.

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