IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2005


Panorama : The Mediterranean Year


New Migration Trends in the Mashreq Region

Riad al Khouri

Middle East Business Associates (MEBA wll), Jordan

The Mashreq in 2004 remained both a recipient and exporter of migrants. The largest groups of migrants in the region are from Sudan, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Yemen. In terms of origin, the majority are from Sub-Saharan Africa, and South- and Southeast Asia. A part from the Sudanese living in Egypt, Indians, Pakistanis and Filipinos form the largest group of third country nationals in the region. Egyptians and Jordanians mostly move to Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, while Iraqis move mainly to Jordan and Syria.

The gender dimensions of migrants are increasingly important in the Mashreq, with the feminization of migration creating new economic and social realities. The last few decades have witnessed a growth in female migration to the region, as Mashreq countries have undergone economic expansion and restructuring and the majority of female migrants work in Jordan and Lebanon. The demand for female migrants in the Mashreq has increased, particularly in the service industries, through the creation of low and unskilled jobs that migrant women are willing to take while the local population is reluctant to do so. These jobs are filled by women from the developing countries of Asia, principally Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. The majority of them tend to work in private households as domestic workers and also in the hotel and entertainment industries.

Irregular migration occurs throughout the Mashreq, with all countries involved as origin, transit and destination points. Furthermore there is evidence that both smuggling and trafficking of people occurs regularly and on a large scale. Comprehensive research is needed to fully grasp the magnitudeof these phenomena, but the table below shows the region’s key smuggling routes, as derived by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) from cases of apprehensions documented by governments and the media.

TABLE 1 Primary Smuggling Routes from and through the Mashreq

OriginAreas of TransitDestinations
Iraq  TurkeyEurope, Indonesia, Australia
Palestine  Lebanon, TurkeySouthern Europe
China, Eastern Europe  EgyptIsrael
Turkey  JordanIsrael
Syria/Turkey/Iran/Iraq  LebanonEurope (especially Cyprus, Greece, Italy)
Nigeria, Senegal  EgyptLebanon, Saudi Arabia, Western Europe

Migration within the region is also important. For example, many Egyptian migrant workers – as well as those of other Mashreq nationalities – are also working in Jordan illegally and this is an issue that the Jordanian Ministry of Labour has been trying to address. The Ministry, which has been getting tougher on fore ign labour in the past few years, tightened procedures further in 2004, when it started inspecting the country’s private sector establishments more rigorously to check on their compliance with the labour laws and regulations. Nearly 100 inspectors were assigned to the campaign, which covers more than 55,000 companies and factories in the country.

Meanwhile, for many Egyptians at home, the unemployment problem continues. It has been estimated that Egypt needs to achieve a sustained real GDP growth rate of at least 6% annually for joblessness to decline to manageable levels, but such expansion has not been regularly forthcoming. For the time being, however, remittances by expatriates are among Egypt’s largest foreign-revenue earners, with nearby Jordan remaining a destination favoured by Egyptian migrants. At the same time,Jordanians working abroad have played a key role in the Jordanian economy. Jordan ranks in the top ten largest recipients of remittances among developing economies, after such countries as Lebanon, Turkey, and Egypt. Remittances sent home by Jordanian expatriates are the equivalent of between a fifth and a quarter of GDP. This percentage is the highest in the Mashreq region, followed by Lebanon with a seventh. Mashreq governments’ efforts at Diaspora management and the degree to which remittances are actually or potentially contributing to unemployment mitigation are considerable and increasing. Egypt has an active Diaspora management strategy, as does Lebanon and more recently, Syria.

As Gulf economies have been growing at high rates in the past two years and are forecast to do well in 2005, demand for Mashreq labour in the Gulf is therefore likely to rise for the rest of the decade. However, this will only happen if regional stability is maintained. Otherwise, the delicate balance of the segmented labour markets, which brings prosperity to the Mashreq and the Gulf countries alike, through specialization and maximizing comparative advantages, will go into reverse and lead to serious economic disruption in the Arab region and beyond.

With these complex migration patterns in such a volatile region, a policy framework to manage regional labour mobility becomes necessary. Mashreq countries have experienced increasing cooperation with international agencies, in order to achieve this kind of migration management, but it is still mostly on a case-by-case basis, dealing with crises or responding to disasters outside a regionally coordinated strategic framework. Whatever happens to the labour markets in the Mashreq and the Gulf over the next few years, a deeper, cross-border, strategic approach to migration is needed, preferably involving international organizations, as well as regional bodies such as the League of Arab States.

At about 15%, the Mashreq has a high unemployment rate, about three times the global average. Job creation, although rapid in some Mashreq countries from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, has not matched the growth in the work force. Population growth is adding millions of labour-force entrants every year and this flow is proportionately greater than in any other region in the world. Since the unemployment rate is also one of the highest among all regions, the task of job creation is probably more formidable than in any other.