“Why don’t the Muslim countries accept Syrian refugees?”

This entry is a first in a series I am titling “Common Questions.” These will be questions I hear frequently that, while perhaps understandable, reflect the lack of knowledge that people have about refugees, immigration, and migration management broadly. So if you have one of these questions yourself or you hear other people ask them, I hope this series will be a good resource for you!

There is a very quick answer to this question: Muslim countries ARE accepting Syrian refugees. In fact, Muslim countries have accepted the MOST Syrian refugees. Muslim cultural values of extending hospitality may be part of this, but the big reason is really location. Most refugees go to the countries bordering their own. Take a look at a map and you’ll see why most Syrians have fled to another predominantly Muslim country.

The best resource for finding out where Syrian refugees are is the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)’s Syrian Regional Response. In addition to having the best count of where Syrians are, they provide a map so that you can see WHY so many Muslim countries have taken in Syrians.

Screen Shot 2015-11-20 at 10.03.28 AM

I took this screen shot of the Syrian Regional Response Map on November 20, 2015. This matters because each circle represents the proportional distribution of Syrian refugees in each country, which may change over time. That would change the size of the circles. So if you want up-to-date information on where Syrians are, you should check out the UNHCR’s Syrian Regional Response website.

As of November 17, 2015 (the most recent UNHCR update available when I wrote this entry), there were 2,181,293 registered Syrian refugees in Turkey, the most of any country. From my own personal experience living in Istanbul, there are many Syrians who are not registered with UNHCR, so this number is likely an underestimate. At a later date, I’ll write about why some Syrians don’t want to register. The reason is important for understanding refugee politics.

While Turkey has the most Syrian refugees, there are also substantial numbers in Lebanon (1,075,637) and Jordan (633,644). Smaller numbers of Syrians are registered in Iraq (244,765) and Egypt (127,681), with a relative handful in North African countries (which are also predominantly Muslim) like Libya (26,772).

In total, that comes to 4,289,792. That is vast majority of the refugees that have been displaced out of Syria.

The next question one could ask is, why can’t those countries keep those refugees? Well, since since resettlement is only an option for less than 1% of the world’s refugees, many Syrians will have to stay in the region. However, these different Muslim countries have different capacities for permanently integrating Syrians.

Take Jordan for example. Here is an aerial photograph of the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, taken in 2013:

CAPTION CORRECTION – NUMBER OF REFUGEES An aerial view shows the Zaatari refugee camp on July 18, 2013 near the Jordanian city of Mafraq, some 8 kilometers from the Jordanian-Syrian border. The northern Jordanian Zaatari refugee camp is home to 115,000 Syrians. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN/POOLMANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

This is clearly an unsustainable situation. And the problem is that Jordan has very little water, as they have experienced a devastating drought that made water scarce for their  pre-Syrian crisis population (which already included a large number of refugees, many Palestinian but also  from Iraq).

Turkey, on the other hand, is in a better position to absorb the Syrian population that they currently have. They have more natural resources, a better economy, and while it has not been without bumps the Turkish government and people have already done a tremendous job sheltering the large Syrian population that has been growing since 2011. Their camps are the best in the world, and many Turks have stepped up to advocate for the integration of Syrians.

But it is not easy for anyone. Turkey’s economy, while relatively strong, has been and will continue to be challenged to absorb the Syrians. The sheer numbers of people alone is challenging. People in the U.S. complain about the number of Mexican immigrants, but imagine if in a period of four years we had 9,160,109 Mexican immigrants cross our border. That is the equivalent refugee population Turkey has accepted proportional to their pre-crisis population. And these would not be like the largely able-bodied, hard-working Mexican immigrants looking for work that come to the U.S., but war-ravaged, injured, very old and very young, widowed and orphaned people that flee conflict. I suspect our country would be in flames over such a migration flow. The Turks have shown amazing hospitality and resilience in the face of this influx. But they can’t be expected to shoulder this responsibility alone. Resettlement is not just a way of protecting human rights; it is a release valve to the  pressures created by refugee crises. Non-Muslim countries will need to pitch in as well, the U.S. among them.


6 thoughts on ““Why don’t the Muslim countries accept Syrian refugees?”

    1. Good question! It’s true that Saudia Arabia, the UAE, and other Gulf states have not taken in any refugees, but keep in mind that these are countries in which foreigners have virtually no rights. Migrant workers are treated little better than slaves. We wouldn’t even want to consider resettling refugees there. Resettlement is designed to be a solution for permanent protection, and those states would not provide that. And since there is no easy way to get to SA or any of the Emirates (i.e. by just crossing a border without having to travel through another country, mostly through desert), none of those countries are countries of first asylum (which just means that they are going there for temporary protection until they can either return home, settle in that country permanently, or be resettled to a third country).

      The Gulf states’ inaction in the face of this crisis goes much deeper than refugees; they have a deplorable record on human rights across the board. They should be condemned for that, and they could put money towards the material support of the refugees, but no one should have any expectation that they should take in refugees; it wouldn’t be safe for the refugees! Better to work with countries like Turkey, that a year and a half ago began implementation of a new law that provides semi-permanent protection to Syrians. With encouragement and burden sharing, they could make that permanent. I have little optimism that the Gulf states will provide much help. This is why I hesitate to chalk up the welcome that Turkey provided as showing hospitality required by Islam. Turks will tell you that is why they are being welcoming (and there is not good relations generally between Turks and Arabs, so this required overcoming some cultural stereotypes and animosity on their part), but obviously being Muslim doesn’t mean you will be welcoming. Any more than being Christian does.


  1. I agree completely that many of the oil-rich states are not used to seeing foreigners as anything other than cheap labour/slaves, but the sense of “muslim brotherhood” (no – not sisterhood) is very much a part of the religion. I am disgusted by their lack of help which, despite what I have written, is rooted in their deep mistrust of non-sunni muslims.


    1. It is a part of the religion, but why then do some Muslim countries act upon it while others do not? I imagine someone has analyzed this; perhaps culture is more important than religion, with the culture of one country adopting certain tenants of a religion but not others, as the result of a complicated interaction between religion, economics, politics, and history. The Gulf states have done little to take in Palestinians, who are also Sunni.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s