11 Sep 2015

Syria: should countries outside Europe be doing more?

Pressure is growing on countries outside Europe – particularly the Gulf states – to take in more refugees from the Syrian civil war. What are the facts?

In recent months the headlines have been dominated by increasing numbers of migrants and refugees – many of them fleeing the conflict in Syria – who are attempting to claim asylum in European countries.

Record numbers of people have been crossing the borders of the European Union illegally and applying for refugee status.

Millions more Syrian refugees are living closer to home, in Turkey, Lebanon and elsewhere in the middle east.

In the last week western governments including Britain, Australia and the United States have pledged to increase the numbers of refugees they take in, although some critics say the numbers are not enough.

Now pressure is growing on other countries involved in the Syrian crisis, in particular the oil-rich countries of the Persian Gulf, Iran and Russia, to open their doors to displaced people.

Who is doing the most?

As Channel 4 News’s FactCheck blog found last week, the numbers of Syrians living in neighbouring countries, particularly Turkey and Lebanon, dwarf the hundreds of thousands who have applied for asylum in Europe since fighting broke out in 2011:

In Europe there are big differences in the numbers of Syrians claiming asylum in various countries.

The numbers range from handfuls to nearly 60,000 in Germany over the 12 months to June 2015. Britain saw just over 2,500 claims in that time.

These figures relate to people who are travelling to Europe and asking for asyum under EU rules once they arrive.

Other people are being taken directly from camps close to Syria and resettled in various countries who have offered to take in refugees under schemes run by the UN agency UNHCR.

Again, the numbers different countries have pledged to take in vary wildly, from handfuls to tens of thousands. And since these figures were published, some countries have increased their quotas.

The Gulf States

UNHCR figures suggest none of the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – has pledged to take any refugees under UN schemes.

And the numbers of people applying for asylum in the Gulf Arab states appear to number in the handfuls too.

But these figures could be misleading. None of the GCC nations are signatories to the 1951 UN convention on refugees, so there may be people in those countries who have been given shelter but are not classed as refugees.

GCC delegates (Reuters)

Reports suggest large numbers of Syrians may have migrated to the Gulf countries, with some sources estimating a Syrian population of 500,000 in Saudi Arabia.

But it is unclear how many of these people fled after the uprising of 2011, or what their legal status is. There are reports of Gulf states introducing more lenient visa conditions to make it easier for Syrians to stay and work.

UNHCR documents say donations from the Gulf – both from wealthy individuals and non-governmental organisations – have been generous.

A report published in May 2014 said: “The Syrian crisis has been a turning point in the history of humanitarian enterprise in terms of the increasing role assumed by Arab donors.

“Not only did Arab funding increase considerably, but the Gulf States have taken a leading role in organising fundraising events for the response.”

It added that Gulf donors and NGOs contributed nearly £600m to the Syrian crisis in 2013 alone. More recent figures are not available.


A key ally of the Assad regime, Iran appears to have pledged no assistance for Syrian refugees under the UN scheme, despite being a signatory to the UN conventions.

The Islamic Republic is already home to one of the biggest refugee populations in the world, with more than 900,000 people – mostly Shia Muslims – having fled to the country from Iraq and Afghanistan.


Despite its historic role as a leading ally of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and a major arms supplier to the regime, Russia recently said it is not prepared to take in refugees.

Asked if Russia had been asked to take part in EU plans to resettle more Syrians, Kremlin Dmitry Peskov said: “We expect that for the most part that expenditures (for dealing with refugees) will fall on the countries linked to causing the catastrophic situation.”

Mr Peskov added that it was unlikely Russia would take part in any programme to help refugees from Syria.

Figures for how much humanitarian aid Russia has given to Syria are complicated by uncertainty over how much of the assistance is in fact military equipment.

Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed this week that Russian flights to Syria which had previously been described as “humanitarian” contained “both military equipment in accordance with current contracts and humanitarian aid”.