Middle East migration patterns defy generalization

Construction workers in Dubai. The Gulf has become a labor migration hub in the region. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 05 February 2020

Middle East migration patterns defy generalization

  • Strife-torn Middle East and North African countries are one of the biggest contributors to migration flows
  • GCC countries continue to draw migrant workers with their attractive job opportunities and decent living standards

DUBAI: The Arab region has been a major contributor to global migration flows due to its history of strife and conflict. However, different parts of the same region also house a disproportionate number of the world’s migrants, refugees and displaced people.

This paradox has been underscored by the UNHCR’s “International Migrant Stock 2019” report, which shows that globally the number of migrants has touched the 272 million mark, an increase of 51 million since 2010.

Given that 272 million is the equivalent of 3.5 percent of world population, it is no surprise that migration patterns and trends have emerged as a major issue on the international community’s agenda.

As for the Arab region, it was hosting more than 38 million migrants and refugees in 2017, according to UNHCR’s latest “Situation Report on International Migration in the Arab Region,” with two out of five workers identified as migrants.

This part of the world has long been plagued by poverty, instability, droughts and conflicts. But it is also too diverse to be conveniently pigeonholed in terms of political and economic geography. 

Migrant workers continue to be drawn to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) bloc by attractive job opportunities and decent living standards, in marked contrast with high unemployment and poor living conditions in their home countries.

The UNHCR puts the total number of migrants in the GCC countries at over 25 million, making the bloc the labor-migration hub of the Arab region.

People from Jordan, Tunisia, Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq consider moving to one of the six GCC countries in the hope of a better life, according to Kimberly Gleason, associate professor at the American University of Sharjah’s business department.

She said people from North African countries, Jordanians and Iraqis are most likely to look for opportunities in the GCC bloc, “particularly in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar.”

“These countries (Jordan, Tunisia, Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq), with their flat or deteriorating economic conditions and insufficient opportunities, are pushing out an entire generation of educated males,” said Gleason.

She believes that the relatively high total fertility rates of these countries are a contributor to the unsustainable unemployment levels. The problem is compounded by weak economic foundations, which hinder the creation of jobs and opportunities for entrepreneurs.

One piece of good news is that several countries in the Arab region have been supporting workers’ rights, expanding legal protections for migrants that outlaw discrimination on the basis of race, religion or national origin.

An example is the UAE’s increased protections for domestic workers under Federal Law No. 10 of 2017, which guarantees employees 30 days of paid leave and 30 days of sick leave, round-trip tickets home every two years, restrictions on daily hours worked and the prohibition of any type of physical abuse.

But there are downsides, too. The demographic realities of the Arab region mean there is a surplus of workers, Gleason said, adding that this is at odds with the situation in Europe, for instance, where there is a need for both skilled and unskilled foreign workers.

The proportion of migrants and refugees as a fraction of the total population of the Arab region has steadily increased over the past three decades — from 6.3 percent in 1990 to 9.2 percent in 2017.

While the increase can be partly explained by inflows of economic migrants, the biggest driver of the phenomenon is all too obvious: The precarious political and security situation in Arab countries such as Libya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

The institutional shortcomings of these fragile states make it difficult for political differences to be resolved in a peaceful manner. Gleason said that the resulting violence and strife is a major generator of refugee flows within the Middle East and across the world.

In 2017 alone, more than 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict or generalized violence. In the Middle East, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey have found themselves hosting some of the world’s largest refugee communities relative to their national populations.

In mid-2018, the UNHCR said that 8.7 million out of the 20.2 million refugees under its mandate worldwide originated from the Arab region. About 29 percent (2.5 million) of these refugees stayed in the region, while close to 70 percent moved to other parts of the world.




Violence and political insecurity in Arab countries including Libya, Syria and Iraq have fueled a rise in economic migrants and refugee numbers. (AFP)

The movement of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa countries is unlikely to stop over the next three to five years, but the rate will not be the same as before, Gleason said. The factors that will come into play are the outcome of the Syrian war and impact of climate change.

“If the Syrian situation is resolved so that males can return home without being conscripted or jailed, there will be a reversal of refugee flows,” said Gleason, who described the human displacement there as “an orchestrated demographic shift by the Assad regime.”

From a global perspective, the number of migrants will increase due to geopolitical volatility and chronic instability in different parts of the world, said Laura Petrache, a senior adviser at Migrant Integration Lab.

Additionally, the world’s poorer communities will continue to be spurred into migration by dreams of a better future in foreign countries, as well as by fears of being affected by the impact of climate-change, such as rising sea-levels, extreme weather events, drought and water scarcity.

Petrache said the surge in migration is a “highly sensitive issue” that is fueling intense political and public debates, adding that the lack of adequate responses from governments has left hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants feeling vulnerable.

The problem is amplified by the fact that one out of every seven international migrants is below the age of 20, and three quarters of migrants are of working age (20-64 years).

Petrache said that the GCC bloc is at a “historic crossroads” as far as labor and migrations are concerned.

“Labor migration has played an important role in helping the countries of the Gulf grow into one of the world’s most economically developed regions.” 

Pointing out that migration and forced displacement are priority areas for many G20 countries, Petrache said: “If managed well, labor migration can still play a decisive role in the development agenda of both the receiving as well as sending countries.”

In conclusion, she added: “The need for sustainable and resilient solutions for refugee and migration issues will keep policymakers busy for years to come.”


Coronavirus: 16 killed in Iran, 95 infected

Workers disinfect Qom’s Masumeh shrine, which is visited by a large number of people, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. (AFP)
Updated 26 February 2020

Coronavirus: 16 killed in Iran, 95 infected

  • Six Saudi women recovering in Bahrain as Kingdom warns against travel to Italy and Japan

DUBAI: Two more people infected with the new coronavirus have died, taking the toll in Iran to 16, a Health Ministry official told state TV on Tuesday.

Iran has the highest number of deaths from coronavirus outside China, where the virus emerged late last year.
“Among those who had been suspected of the virus, 35 have been confirmed and two died of the coronavirus infection,” said Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour. He said 95 people had been infected across Iran.
The Health Ministry urged Iranians to stay at home.
Iran said on Monday 900 cases were suspected, dismissing claims by a lawmaker from Qom who said 50 people had died in the city, the epicenter of the new coronavirus outbreak.
Iran, which confirmed its first two deaths last week in Qom, has yet to say how many people it has quarantined, but the semi-official Mehr news agency said 320 people had been hospitalized.
Iraj Harirchi, Iran’s deputy health minister, has tested positive for the coronavirus and is now under quarantine.
Six Arab countries have reported their first cases of coronavirus, with those infected all having links to Iran. Kuwait said the number of infected people there had risen to eight.
Bahrain’s Health Ministry said 15 more people, including six Saudi women, had tested positive for the virus after returning from Iran via Dubai and Sharjah. The new cases were carried by Bahraini and Saudi nationals who arrived at Bahrain International Airport from Iran via Dubai or Sharjah.
The Saudi Ministry of Health said that it was coordinating with Bahraini health officials for the treatment of the Saudi women who had visited Iran. They will remain in Bahrain until they are fully recovered. The Kingdom has advised citizens and residents to avoid traveling to Italy and Japan.
Iranian authorities have ordered the nationwide cancellation of concerts and soccer matches and the closure of schools and universities in many provinces.
The head of Qom’s Medical Science University, Mohammad Reza Ghadir, expressed concern over “the spread of those people infected by the virus across the city,” adding the Health Ministry had banned releasing figures linked to the coronavirus.
Many Iranians took to social media to accuse authorities of concealing the facts.
Rouhani called for calm, saying the outbreak was no worse than other epidemics that Iran has weathered.
The sight of Iranians wearing masks and gloves is now common in much of the country.
Sales of masks, disinfectant gels and disposable gloves have soared in Tehran and other cities, with officials vowing to prevent hoarding and shortages by boosting production.
Iran has shut schools, universities and cultural centers until the end of the week in an effort to stop the spread of coronavirus.
The UAE has banned all flights to and from Iran. The UAE, home to long-haul carriers Emirates and Etihad, remains a key international transit route for Iran’s 80 million people.
Emirates, the government-owned carrier based in Dubai, flies daily to Tehran. Its low-cost sister airline, FlyDubai, flies to multiple Iranian cities, as does the Sharjah-based low-cost carrier Air Arabia.
The announcement came after Bahrain said it would suspend all flights from Dubai and Sharjah.
Kuwait raised the number of its infected cases to eight, after earlier raising the number to five. It said the three latest cases involved Kuwaiti citizens just back from Iran, without giving more details. The five previously reported cases were passengers returning on a flight from the Iranian city of Mashhad, where Iran’s government has not yet announced a single case of the virus.
Kuwait had halted transport links with Iran over the weekend and said it was evacuating its citizens from Iran.
An Iraqi family of four who returned from a visit to Iran tested positive for the coronavirus, the first Iraqis known to have caught the disease.
The four cases in Kirkuk province brought Iraq’s total to five after it reported its first case on Monday, an Iranian theology student in Najaf. Iraq is deeply concerned about its exposure to the Iranian outbreak, as it has deep cultural and religious ties with its neighbor and typically receives millions of Iranians each year.
The Iraqi government, which has already banned all travel from China and Iran, added Italy, Thailand, South Korea, Singapore and Japan to its travel ban list on Tuesday. Returning Iraqi citizens are exempt, as are diplomats.
Populist Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr suspended a call for his followers to hold a “million-man” protest, saying he had decide to forbid the events “for your health and life, for they are more important to me than anything else.”
“I had called for million-man protests and sit-ins against sectarian power-sharing and today I forbid you from them for your health and life, for they are more important to me than anything else,” he said in a statement. It was not immediately clear how the government’s call on citizens to avoid public gatherings would affect the strength of anti-government protests, and the response of security forces.
A Turkish Airlines plane flying from Iran was diverted to Ankara on Tuesday at the Turkish Health Ministry’s request and an aviation news website said one passenger was suspected of being infected by coronavirus.
Turkey’s Demiroren news agency broadcast video showing ambulances lined up beside the plane, with several personnel wearing white protective suits on the tarmac.
The plane was flying from Tehran and had been scheduled to land in Istanbul. Turkey shut its borders to Iran on Sunday and cut flights due to the spread of the virus in that country.
Oman’s Khasab port has suspended the import and export of goods to and from Iran from Feb. 26.