Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: A creative way to solve Syria’s refugee crisis

A refugee woman from Syria carries a bag with personal things atop her head at a tent village for migrants at the Donnersberg bridge close to the central train station in Munich on Sunday Sept. 13, 2015. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and others are still making their way slowly across Europe, seeking shelter where they can, taking a bus or a train where one is available, walking where it isn’t.
A refugee woman from Syria carries a bag with personal things atop her head at a tent village for migrants at the Donnersberg bridge close to the central train station in Munich on Sunday Sept. 13, 2015. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and others are still making their way slowly across Europe, seeking shelter where they can, taking a bus or a train where one is available, walking where it isn’t. dpa via AP

There is a fierce debate in many Latin American countries over whether to accept some of the Syrian refugees who are flooding Europe in one of the world’s worst migration crises since World War II. But there is a creative solution that could allow Latin America to help solve the tragedy.

Before we get to how Latin America could play a helpful role, let’s point out that about 366,000 Syrians fleeing their country’s civil war have already made their way to Europe so far this year, and by the end of next year their numbers will total more than 850,000, according to United Nations projections.

European countries are overwhelmed by the avalanche of Syrian refugees. Germany — by far the most generous European country this time — has already volunteered to take in about 500,000 Syrians. But other nations, such as Hungary, are calling for a wall to keep more Syrian migrants from entering Europe.

Last week, the Obama administration announced that it is planning to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. And in Latin America, where several countries have large Syrian communities, the leaders of Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Paraguay, Mexico, Uruguay and Chile have said that they will offer visas to Syrian refugees.

But Latin American asylum offers to Syrians are largely symbolic, and will at best benefit a few hundred families. Latin American economies are hurting, and there is no money for ambitious refugee programs.

Last year, former Uruguayan President Jose Mujica made big headlines when he gave asylum to 42 Syrian refugees and welcomed them personally at the airport. But the experiment didn’t end well.

Five of the Syrian families who settled in Uruguay camped out in front of Uruguay’s presidential palace last week to ask President Tabaré Vasquez for help to leave the country, saying they could not live on their meager government subsidies. Some of them told reporters they wanted to go back to the refugee camps in Lebanon from where they had moved to Uruguay.

Since I arrived here last week, I’ve heard several government critics ask, “Why don’t Saudi Arabia, or Kuwait, which are awash in oil money, take these Syrian refugees?”

Indeed, according to a CNN report, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar have not received any Syrian migrants recently. While Turkey has received 1.9 million Syrians and Lebanon 1.1 million, the figure for oil-rich Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar was zero, the report says.

Saudi Arabia claims to have received 500,000 Syrians over the past four years, but human rights groups say they have been allowed in as temporary laborers without refugee status. Saudi Arabia has also offered to build 200 mosques in Germany for Syrian refugees who have fled Europe, according to the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Middle East experts say most Persian Gulf states are not accepting Syrian refugees because their native populations are already smaller than that of their temporary foreign workers, and their ruling families fear losing political control if they accept permanent residents with refugee status.

My opinion: Saudi Arabia is the kingdom of hypocrisy. Despite its massive wealth, and the fact that it has 100,000 air conditioned tents that can house 3 million people that are used for only five days a year for the annual pilgrimage to Mina near the holy city of Mecca, it’s not giving shelter to the latest wave of Syrian refugees.

Instead, Saudi Arabia is offering to build mosques in Germany, where it can exports radical Islamic priests who spread hatred to the West, while it keeps them away from home, where they could spell trouble for the king.

And the same could be said for Qatar, which spends a fortune in sponsorships for Spain’s Barcelona soccer club and other high-profile world institutions in an effort to portray itself as a modern and generous global player, while it denies asylum to Syrian refugees in its neighborhood.

So here’s my humble contribution to help solve the Syrian refugee crisis: If Latin America is willing to take more Syrian refugees but can’t afford to do it, while Persian Gulf states can afford to pay but don’t want to accept them, have the Saudis and other Persian Gulf states pay Latin America to help resettle Syrian refugees in the region.

If Persian Gulf states can pay for mosques in Germany, they could help pay to help Syrian refugees settle in Latin America, and use the occasion to start making up for their hypocrisy and shameless human rights records.

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