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Open wallets, not doors; why Gulf states sit out migrant crisis

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Western countries, having absorbed hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria, Iraq and Libya over the last year, are indicating that their days of open border generosity may be nearing an end. With resources stretched to their limits and massive political backlash building, what recourse is available to refugees from those crisis-hit countries?

At least a few names that can safely be scratched off the list as potential harbors for migrants are the Gulf States. Since 2011, the lion's share of the more than 4.3 million migrants that have fled conflict-torn countries have managed to find shelter in places like Europe, Turkey, Egypt and Jordan. Yet critics have questioned why wealthy countries such as Bahrain, Qatar and United Arab Emirates have largely sat on their hands.

To be sure, Gulf countries have provided about $2 billion in humanitarian assistance and bilateral aid for various programs and charities since 2012, according to United Nations figures. That said, very few have opened their borders to the countless migrants fleeing terror, and are unlikely to alter their stance as countries like Norway and Germany — which has absorbed at least 900,000 refugees — pull back on their commitment to take them in.

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"They have contributed large sums toward humanitarian aid and investments they make in several places in the region," said Demetrios G. Papademetriou, a former U.S. Labor Department official and co-founder of the Migration Policy Institute, in an interview. "They are M.I.A. when it comes to refugee resettlement, but not for investment."

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees data provided to CNBC showed that Kuwait has donated more than $120 million to the organization for the Syrian refugee crisis, making it the UNHCR's second largest donor for that project behind the U.S. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE are among UNHCR's top 25 donors for the Syria crisis, it added.

Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE have growth rates well above 3 percent, compared to less than 2 percent in Germany and France — both of which are taking in migrants by the tens of thousands.

All of which raises anew the question of why Gulf States — with their comparatively stronger growth prospects — have yet to accept large numbers of migrants.

"These places, wealthy though they may be and [because of] internal security and religious issues, decided to get out of the business of taking in refugees," Papademetriou said.

'Passions and entanglements'

According to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, millions of migrant workers from places such as Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and the Philippines, among others have flooded Gulf countries over the decades. It underscores how the migrant policies of the region are driven primarily by economic and security concerns, rather than human rights.

"If you travel to any of those places, the services industry and medical personnel come from Southeast Asia. Now they have developed [decadeslong] relationships, and those migrants are more controllable, and don't have passions or entanglements" as refugees from conflict regions, he added.

Similar, if not identical, worries about migrant assimilation and homegrown security risks have reverberated across Western countries, with political ramifications. Anti-immigration parties have gathered momentum across Germany and France, while security concerns have taken a prominent role in the 2016 race for the White House.

Meanwhile, fears abound that operatives associated with, or sympathetic to, Islamic State (ISIS) have infiltrated the droves of migrants seeking shelter, and that the process for screening them is inadequate given the magnitude of the situation.

In response to an inquiry from CNBC, a spokesperson from the United Nations high commissioner for refugees said that the organization "would like all countries around the world to do more to accept Syrian refugees."

The UNHCR acknowledged that the Gulf "hosts relatively small numbers of Syrians on the books as refugees," it added that several countries have relaxed work requirements, and helped facilitate access to health-care and education aid. "This is the worst humanitarian tragedy of our time and it is a global responsibility to give support to humanitarian programs, the key hosting countries, and to accept refugees," the organization added.

View of Doha's skyline
Getty Images
View of Doha's skyline

However, the Migration Policy's Papademetriou noted that most Middle East countries are not parties to human rights conventions that oblige Western governments to accept displaced citizens. "Countries in the region don't endorse" the idea of refugee resettlement, he said. "This is a Western democracy concept."

Religious and sectarian tensions — which have roiled countries like Iraq, Turkey and Egypt — mean that Gulf governments are trying to manage a "very delicate balance … and the potential of additional instability is the last thing they want to import," Papademetriou said.

"You're not going to see the kinds of things the west is expecting them to do. We can pressure them to dig deeper into their pockets and put more money in the table, but this is the time they're going to be tight with money because of the price of oil," he said.

The swoon in global crude prices has heaped domestic pressure on governments like Saudi Arabia, which uses oil wealth to spend generously on social welfare.

All of which means that as instability mounts across Syria and Iraq — and domestic worries hamper efforts by Western countries to absorb fresh waves of migrants — resettling refugees may be an increasingly tougher sell in the U.S. and Europe.

The migration crisis means "you will have a number of people already disaffected, and carry the potential to do some damage and do some terror," Papademetriou said.