Hard to get a straight answer

Amid the coverage of Europe’s refugee crisis has emerged a counter-criticism: why won’t those rich Gulf Arab states take in any Syrian refugees? Now, to a certain extent, this question is deliberately misleading and intended to steer the conversation away from the shamefully inadequate response to the refugee situation. The Gulf states have taken in Syrians, but because none of those states have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, they a) don’t have the same legal obligation toward refugees that signatories like the U.S. and the E.U. nations have, and b) they don’t bother distinguishing “refugees” from other categories of migrants. They’ve also contributed a lot of money to the upkeep of refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. Still, while this criticism is misleading, it’s not unfair, and you won’t catch me saying that those countries couldn’t do more.

But hey, maybe they are doing more! After all, the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs says that Saudi Arabia has taken in 2.5 million Syrian refugees over the course of the war. That’s more than any other country, including neighboring Turkey and Lebanon! What a humanitarian gesture! There’s just one teeny problem, as the Middle East Institute’s Michael Collins Dunn notes:

The true nomadic and seasonal transhumant elements among these tribes have routinely crossed map boundaries with near impunity. So my question is: what proportion of the Syrian refugees in Saudi Arabia are Bedouin who simply moved across the border to escape the war in Syria by joining their tribal kin in Saudi Arabia, or perhaps even migrating to their seasonal grazing pastures?

The northern Saudi desert is home to several large Bedouin communities that don’t recognize the region’s national borders because those borders run right through their ancestral pastoral territories. They migrate between Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan on a regular basis, and absent any compelling reason for the governments of those countries to monitor and/or restrict their movements, the tribes are pretty much left to their own devices. So when the Saudis talk about taking in millions of Syrians, are they counting these nomads, who routinely pass between the two countries anyway? Who knows?

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