The US, France, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other countries critical of the Syrian regime have loudly stated their support for the uprising and announced aid to the opposition. But they quietly refuse asylum or a change in visa policy towards Syrian refugees.
On August 10, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said, "The people of Syria cannot wait indefinitely...the Syrian people need urgent help.” With that he commissioned an extra five million British pounds in non-lethal aid to opposition groups.
The next day, at a press conference held in Istanbul, Hillary Clinton praised Turkey for its assistance to the Syrian refugees. But she failed to mention that although the US has extended the visas of Syrians living in its territories, it actually hasn’t changed its visa policies towards Syrian refugees attempting to flee from the civil war.
The United Nations' refugee agency says nearly 150,000 people fleeing Syria have sought its help, a figure expected to rise significantly. Jordan hosts more than 45,000 refugees, Lebanon over 36,000 and even Iraq (a country still considered to be war raven) has some 13,000 refugees. This civil war has witnessed the death of roughly 26,000 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Ironically, although many Arab countries have become more wary of accepting Syrian refugees as well as altering visa policies, Syria happens to be the only Arab country where no Arab national is required to have a visa to pass through its borders.
Karim (the name has been changed to protect his identity) is a young graduate who after completing his masters in London returned back home to Syria. Last October, he began protesting against the government along with other young Syrians in Damascus. In November, the infamous Shabiha caught up with him and for no reason, except his protesting, held him for a week, returning him back home with a broken skull and his clothes drenched in blood. Within 24 hours his family, paralysed with fear, packed his bags and sent him to Lebanon. As his residency in London was still valid, he continued his journey on to there. After a two-month stay, Karim managed to successfully apply for a job in a software company in Dubai. A job in Dubai automatically gives you the right to a resident visa.
“I bought a visa to Dubai for a month, I stayed for two months in hope of getting my work visa, so then I went to the Labour Office, when I asked them why I still haven’t received my work visa, they said they have rejected my visa. Why? I asked them, ‘because you are Syrian, there are no visas for Syrians,’” he said.
The software company then told Karim that he must leave Dubai – they would send him to Qatar in the meantime. The Qatari government refused and closed the doors for all Syrians applying for visas – unless you happen to be a politician or a military personnel defecting from the regime.
So instead Karim left to Turkey, “Syrians don’t need a visa there,” he said. After some time, his residency was finally approved.
“There are no rules,” he says. “They can open the door one day but close the door the next day.”
The Qatari government supports the revolution and has publicly stated that any Syrian politician who defects will find refuge in Qatar. Unfortunately for an ordinary Syrian citizen seeking sanctuary from the civil war, the approach isn’t as welcoming. Syrians applying for asylum or a visa can only enter Qatar if they have a Qatari sponsor, who will act as their guardian and pay for their visa.
In Kuwait doors are firmly shut. No refuge or asylum is given to Syrians. Normally, you can easily get a visa at the airport.
In Saudi Arabia procedures are similar to Qatar, however, they have recently been more lenient in providing visit visas to family members of Syrian expats working in the country. Visit visas are granted easily for mothers but this still relies on the type of profession one has in Saudi. All white-collar professions can obtain a visit visa, whereas most blue-collar professions are rejected.
I spoke to a Syrian expat Mustafa (his name has been changed to protect his identity), who is currently working in Saudi Arabia. He left Syria during the early stages of the uprising to work and in hopes of bringing his family there eventually. He was more successful with the former than the latter.
This personal ‘mission impossible’ began four months ago as he desperately tried to apply for visit visas for his family. None of his family members have been granted a visit visa or asylum in Dubai, Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. The first time, the Saudi immigration office refused to provide Mustafa with any visit visas, they also refused to offer an explanation. He applied several times over the next few months - all applications were rejected. He added that his Syrian friends working in Saudi had suffered the same fate, as they too attempted to apply for visit visas for their families.
On a recent trip from Dubai to Turkey, Mustafa was stopped at the airport. The immigration officer took one look at his passport, and pointed to the security office. After a half hour security check, his passport was stamped, reviewed and approved.
On the plane, he ironically was seated next to another immigration officer who he recognised from the Dubai airport.
“I asked him, why is this happening to Syrians? He gently told me ‘you know Dubai now it’s a place for tourists, they don’t want Syrians to come to Dubai, and make problems.’ And I said to him we wouldn’t make a revolution; people are trying to escape from a war. You know what he said, he said ‘it’s not personal.’”