Migration is key issue facing Middle East
Among the issues that will shape the Middle East in 2022 is migration. While the level of violence in several conflicts has diminished, a rising sense of desperation threatens to drive more people to find opportunity outside of their home countries.
The Middle East is a major global destination for migrants. According to the International Organization for Migration, 15 percent of the world’s migrants live in Arab countries. Some come from outside the region, often drawn by economic opportunity, especially in the Gulf states. The GCC had the highest proportion of migrant workers as a share of the national workforce worldwide in 2017, according to the IOM.
There also is significant migration within the Middle East. The IOM has noted that half of migrants and refugees originating from Arab states stay in the Arab region. Furthermore, the Middle East and North Africa have the world’s largest numbers of internally displaced people forced to move within their own country.
Migration out of the region is another trend. This year’s Arab Youth Survey suggested that 33 percent of young Arabs want to emigrate or have considered it. Furthermore, some migrants, especially Afghans, transit through the region while trying to reach Europe.
There is a pull and push to migration in the Middle East. Parts of the region, especially the Gulf, offer economic opportunity that draws people from the region and beyond. Other parts of the Middle East have strong push factors. The region lacks enough jobs for its large cohort of young people. Many young people in the Middle East see migration as the only way to pursue the type of work that might provide them with a decent future. Some look to migrate within the region, while others look elsewhere, especially to Europe.
Several countries in the region are experiencing more severe push factors. Violent conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya have forced many people to move within their country and even to flee across borders. In particular, the Syrian civil war led to a huge wave of refugees, and Syria now is the world’s largest source of refugees and internally displaced. Today, Turkey hosts the largest refugee population in the world, at 3.7 million, many of them Syrian. The Syrian refugee crisis spilled into Europe, with widespread political and socioeconomic consequences.
Statistics on refugees in the Middle East usually exclude Palestinians, who receive assistance from UNRWA. There are 5.7 million Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA, displaced by an Israeli-Palestinian conflict for which no resolution is in sight.
The pull of economic opportunity and the push of conflict, economic stagnation, unemployment, and other drivers will continue to shape migration in the region in 2022. Specific drivers to watch include events in Afghanistan, other conflict zones, Lebanon, and Turkey, as well the impacts of the pandemic and climate change.
Fear of the Taliban and economic collapse in Afghanistan are driving many Afghans to flee. Many are going to Iran, which already has more than 3.5 million Afghan migrants and refugees and has faced an additional influx of thousands of Afghans each day since the NATO withdrawal. Iran has increased deportations of Afghans and is making border crossings more difficult, but Afghan desperation is intense. In the next year, Iran will have to manage a migration crisis, and more Afghans in Iran are likely to try to travel to Europe or other destinations.
Years of war, instability, economic recession and stagnation, unemployment, corruption, and other factors have led many young people to believe that their only hope lies outside their own communities and even countries.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
While the wars in Syria, Yemen, and Libya have somewhat cooled, the destruction of housing and infrastructure, economic ruin, and the continuing risk of violence is fueling a sense of desperation that drives people to grab any opportunity — no matter how risky — to seek a future elsewhere. This is particularly true for Syria, where poverty levels have hit 90 percent.
Lebanon is experiencing economic collapse and heightened instability, which has raised concerns about the potential for a new wave of emigration. Lebanon also hosts 1.5 million Syrian refugees, which contributes to strains on the country and the pool of potential people who might try to migrate further.
Turkey is another key country, hosting many Syrian refugees and facing potentially more Afghan migrants attempting to transit through Turkey to Europe. Turkey previously weaponized migrants to pressure Europe, and much will depend on Turkey’s policies in 2022 — and on its current financial crisis.
The pandemic and climate change are two global factors that will affect migration in the region. COVID-19 has complicated crossborder travel but also increased the squeeze on regional economies. Climate change is exacerbating environmental problems, such as extended droughts and water scarcity; these concerns have already intensified internal migration in the region and are likely to increase.
More broadly, numerous polls and studies suggest that many people in the Middle East are feeling an increasing sense of desperation — a fear that there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Years of war, instability, economic recession and stagnation, unemployment, corruption, and other factors have led many young people to believe that their only hope lies outside their own communities and even countries. Some will try to move within the region, while others will embark on dangerous and expensive trips to try to reach Europe or elsewhere.
If the sense of hopelessness increases in 2022, the region will be at risk of intensifying migration crises. Governments should prepare for increased migration while also working to provide young people with a sense of stability and opportunity.
• Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 18 years of experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Twitter: @KBAresearch