UAE expands Syria aid with offer to host 15,000 refugees

Minister of state Reem Al Hashemi says UAE will roll out places over next five years in response to global refugee crisis

The UAE has pledged to host 15,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years, becoming the first GCC state to commit to opening its doors to those fleeing conflict in the Arab country.

In a speech to the United Nations, minister of state for international cooperation Reem Al Hashemi said the UAE had taken in more than 123,000 Syrians since civil war began there in 2011, as temporary guest workers, but recognised the refugee crisis had reached a critical point.

“The number of refugees and displaced persons is the largest in modern history,” she said in a speech addressing the UN summit in New York on Tuesday. “We must offer a source of hope for displaced persons that allows them to maintain dignity, return home, reintegrate themselves into their societies and rebuild their countries and their lives.”

Nearly 5 million Syrians have fled the country, and some 8.7 million have been internally displaced during the more than five-year conflict, making Syria a primary driver of the more than 65 million people who were uprooted worldwide last year.

“In today’s world, the conflict in Syria is taking the greatest number of lives"Turkey hosts more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees, Lebanon more than 1 million – almost 70 per cent of whom live under the poverty line of $3.84 per person, per day - and Jordan more than 650,000. Thousands more cluster in Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere.

“In today’s world, the conflict in Syria is taking the greatest number of lives and sowing the widest instability,” UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon said in his farewell address to the general assembly on Tuesday. “I appeal to all those with influence to end the fighting and get talks started.”

The wealthy GCC has faced scrutiny in recent years for its refusal to formally host refugees or asylum seekers. The six Gulf states, which are not signatories of the UN convention on refugees that has governed international law on asylum since World War Two, say they have in fact taken thousands of Syrians, just not as refugees. Syrians who have fled the war instead gain entry as foreign workers, following the same process as other expatriate residents.

The Gulf states have also given billions of dollars in funding to supporting refugee camps in neighbouring Arab countries, including Lebanon and Jordan. The UAE alone has donated more than $750m to support Syrian refugees, Al Hashemi said, and spent more than 1 per cent of its annual gross national income since 2013 on foreign aid.

“The UAE believes that we must not just meet the basic needs of refugees, but we also maintain their dignity and offer hope for their future,” she said.

A US-led coalition of 50 countries on Tuesday unveiled a series of measures aimed at tackling the global refugee crisis, including doubling the number of resettlement spots available to refugees to 360,000, increasing humanitarian aid to refugees by $4.5bn, and providing education to 1 million more refugee children. Countries also pledged to assist in helping 1 million refugees to work legally.

The US President Barack Obama hosted the summit during the annual UN gathering of world leaders, and countries could only attend if they made a pledge.

“We are facing a crisis of epic proportion,” he said. “We cannot avert our eyes or turn our backs. To slam the door in the face of these families would betray our deepest values.”