International Migration In The Middle East Research Paper

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In this research paper, the Middle East is defined to include primarily the Gulf oil-exporting countries and Israel, and the Mediterranean basin is defined to include the countries surrounding the Mediterranean sea. The types and volumes of international migration experienced by these regions during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s are quite different from one another. To the Gulf countries, temporary labor migration has been the predominant type and has been large enough to constitute a major migration system measured on a worldwide scale. Migration to the Mediterranean region has been relatively smaller and includes permanent settlers, temporary workers, and asylum seekers.

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1. Data Availability And Quality

Lack of reliable and valid data are frequently a hurdle in correctly documenting the stocks and flows of international migrants. For the Middle East, several advances have been made in establishing data gathering institutions in the major sending countries, especially in South and Southeast Asia (Appleyard 1998, Arnold and Shah 1986). Information about the non-national population is also gathered by the receiving countries and is published regularly (ESCWA 1997). One weakness of the annual flow data from several sending countries is the high percentage of persons who are not reflected in official statistics. In some cases the annual flow may be twice as high as the recorded level.

Data on some countries of the Mediterranean region (France, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Turkey) is available from the annual statistics of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development as part of its continuous reporting system on migration (OECD 1993, 1998).

2. The Middle East

Six oil-rich Gulf countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) predominate as major receivers of migrants in the area. Migrants to the Gulf originate in many parts of the world, and some countries are host to over 100 nationalities (Serow et al. 1990).

Major features of the receiving countries that underlie the migration process are as follows. Oil is the major source of revenue for all the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. All of them are governed by kings or emirs who are regarded as benevolent patriarchs, and who generally share a policy of providing to their subjects free or highly subsidized social welfare services such as education, health care, housing, and employment. All but Saudi Arabia have small indigenous populations. A unique feature of their populations is the extremely high percentage of non-nationals, especially in their labor forces (Table 1). All have high birth rates, which they want to maintain, resulting in young populations and rapid rates of labor force growth.

International Migration In The Middle East Research Paper

2.1 Volume And Characteristics Of Migration To The Gulf

Labor migration to the Gulf dates back to the 1930s when oil was discovered and the oil industry began to be established. A remarkable upsurge in such movement occurred after the 1973 oil embargo, which resulted in a dramatic rise in oil prices. The additional income led to ambitious development programs of the Gulf countries that had become rich in capital but were short of labor.

The majority of the migrants to the Gulf are either Asian or Arab, with a larger percentage of the former. Among Arabs, Egypt is currently a major sender. Yemen and Jordan have also been important countries of origin during 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Among non-Arabs, four countries in southern Asia (Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) and two in Southeast Asia (the Philippines and Indonesia) supply most of the migrants. Less than five percent of all migrants are from European or American countries.

The Gulf War of 1991 played an important role in restructuring the nationality composition of migrants in the Gulf. Kuwait banned the return of five nationality groups whose governments had supported Iraq during the Gulf War, namely, Iraqis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Yemenis, and Sudanese. About 800,000 Yemenis were expelled from Saudi Arabia, and about 350,000 Palestinian Jordanians left Kuwait, mainly for Jordan. The persistently high outflows from the sending Asian countries suggest that the trend towards Asianization has been maintained steadily. In Kuwait, for example, the expatriate labor force in 1988 comprised 66 percent Asians, 33 percent Arabs, and only 1 percent other nationalities.

The number of migrants can be estimated in terms of the stock at any point in time or annual flows. The stock of workers from the four major southern Asian senders was estimated to be 4–5 million in 1994–5. Data on annual flows from selected countries are shown for the latest available year in Table 2. Since these data reflect only the documented migrants, they are likely to be an underestimate of the real numbers, probably by 30–50 percent.

International Migration In The Middle East Research Paper

Among the receiving countries, Saudi Arabia is the largest recipient and therefore holds special importance. During the late 1990s, about one-third of the Sri Lankan, one half of the Pakistani and Bangladeshi, and 63 percent of Indian migrants headed annually for Saudi Arabia.

The majority of migrant workers from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are male. However, 75 percent of migrants from Sri Lanka, about two-thirds from Indonesia, and half from the Philippines were female during the 1990s. One major reason for the feminization of the migrant workforce is the increasing demand for housemaids. Published data actually underestimate the number of female workers from some countries (e.g., India) who do not allow this type of migration because workers therefore move illegally and are missed by official statistics.

Among the male workers, especially those from South Asia, more than half consist of unskilled or semiskilled workers employed as laborers, servants, cleaners, and gas station attendants. Less than 10 percent are professionals.

2.2 Working And Living Conditions Of Migrants

Surveys of migrant workers and returnees indicate that for a large majority, labor migration to the Gulf is a positive experience (Gunatilleke 1992). Despite the downward trend in salaries, migrants are able to earn wages that are several times higher than possible in the home country. A majority would like to stay as long as possible, and try to bring in as many of their friends and relatives as they can. For workers and their families who have become used to higher levels of income, there seem to be no better alternative than to keep their Middle East jobs by whatever means possible. The workers themselves are willing to undergo a fair amount of hardship for the sake of their families. In about 70 percent of cases the migrants are married but are not accompanied by their families since the rules often do not allow it. Absence of the migrant has been found to create marital and social problems only in a minority of families.

2.3 Reasons Underlying The Large Flows To The Gulf

In the sending countries, several political, demographic, and socioeconomic factors serve as push factors, while the large wage gap between the sending and receiving countries is a major pull factor that motivates labor migration in the region. Poverty in the sending countries is the single most important push factor. According to the UNDP, South Asia has the largest number of people in income poverty. Its human poverty index shows that 48 percent of Bangladeshis and 47 percent of Pakistanis faced various forms of deprivation in 1997 (UNDP 1997). The rapidly growing population and consequently the expanding labor force, in several countries, exacerbate the level of poverty. Other factors that have contributed to poverty are political conflicts and natural disasters.

Labor migrants often do not come from the poorest or most destitute groups. They are the relatively more enterprising and ‘fit’ individuals who can afford the ever-increasing financial cost of migration, and many are employed before migration. However, high unemployment rates in the sending countries are also push factor in many cases.

A major facilitator of migration is the formation of informal networks of friends and relatives, making it a self-perpetuating phenomenon. This also results in the formation of migration pockets in the sending country. Some surveys show that friends and relatives arrange work visas for 34 percent of respondents (Shah 1998). In the receiving countries, several factors perpetuate the demand for foreign workers. The major ones are the small indigenous population and labor force, limited skills among the national workforce, the abundant and cheap supply of expatriate labor, its willingness to work in 3D (dirty, dangerous, and demanding) jobs that nationals shun, and the relatively low participation of women in the workforce in some countries. In addition, the profit that accrues to a fairly large number of intermediaries is a factor. It is well known that labor is sometimes brought in not to satisfy genuine demand but to earn transfer fees. Another important factor is the structural imbalance in the host country labor force. Nationals are employed overwhelmingly in the public sector, about 94 percent of them in Kuwait and 93 percent in Saudi Arabia. Nationals prefer to work in the public sector where work is less arduous and less competitive, and remuneration is generally as good as in the private sector.

2.4 Policies Of Sending And Receiving Countries

Governments of the sending countries are highly proemigration (United Nations 1998). Most South and Southeast Asian countries have revised their emigration rules and procedures and developed administrative machineries to regulate the outflow, ensure worker welfare, and promote further worker emigration. However, countries differ in the degree of aggressiveness with which they promote manpower export. Bangladesh, for example, has successfully found a new market for labor export, Malaysia.

Remittances from overseas workers have been a lifesaver for the economies of several countries and continue to be a powerful force in shaping government policies (Amjad 1989). In 1994, remittances from overseas workers accounted for 34 percent of the revenues earned from all goods and services exported from Bangladesh. In the case of India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, this percentage ranged from 14 to 17 percent. For several Arab senders, remittances have been an equally important source of foreign exchange earnings.

In the receiving countries, the major thrust of the current policy is to reduce the percentage of expatriates. One of the major government policies is therefore to encourage employment of nationals in the private sector. A related policy is to restrict the employment of expatriates in the public sector. A third policy is to curb the visa trading that encourages the import of workers. A fourth policy consists of the crackdown on illegal migrants.

2.5 Becoming Illegal And Amnesty Return

Before the mid-1990s, illegal migration was not a major issue in the Gulf. With the worsening economic situation of the host countries, and the increasing level of unemployment among the nationals, the GCC countries have made concerted efforts to reduce the number of illegal residents. Two ways that a migrant becomes an illegal resident are as follows. The first way is if the migrant takes a job without having the appropriate visa. This happens if a person works for an employer other than the one who sponsored the work visa, or the type of visa is different from the one required for that work. Second, the migrant becomes an illegal resident by overstaying the permitted duration. Many Gulf migrants are in an illegal status, especially of the first type.

Punishments for living in the Gulf illegally include fines ranging from US$240 in Oman to several thousand dollars in Saudi Arabia, and jail terms ranging from one to six months in different countries. In response to illegal migration, from mid-1996 to mid-1998, all the six countries declared periods of amnesty during which they allowed illegal workers to leave, or regularize their stay, without paying fines or being jailed. It is estimated that more than one million persons were repatriated during the amnesty periods.

2.6 Protection Of Workers’ Rights And Of The Most Vulnerable

The Gulf migrant needs protection in the sending as well as receiving country. When abuse occurs, recruitment agents and employers are the two major violators of the migrant’s rights. Recruitment agents who arrange the employment for a majority of workers sometimes charge up to ten or fifteen times more than they are allowed officially. In some cases, the workers are abandoned in the host country or a third country of transit. Rules and procedures exist for punishing fraudulent agents. Yet, many loopholes remain. What is reported to, and handled by, the protectorate offices in sending countries is only the tip of the iceberg.

In demanding the rights of their workers in the Gulf, sending country governments are usually quite tolerant of occasional mistreatment. The relationship between the sending and receiving country is not equitable; the former is in a clearly weaker position. In the receiving country, the embassy of the home country typically intervenes only in cases of dispute with the objective of achieving reconciliation rather than promoting the rights of workers. Egypt and the Philippines are known to demand the protection of their workers’ rights more actively than other sending countries.

The labor laws of some host countries (e.g., Kuwait) do not cover certain categories of workers, such as housemaids, a fact which implies that this group requires special protection. Even though a large majority (about 80–85 percent) of the housemaids appear to be satisfied with their migration experience, abuse of housemaids is a reality. Among the countries that export female domestic workers, only the Philippines collects and publishes systematic data on the types of abuse suffered by housemaids reporting such violence. The usual complaints are nonpayment of wages, long working hours, and general mistreatment. However, cases of physical assault, verbal abuse, and rape are also known. Runaway maids present a special problem. The embassies of some countries have set up shelters in the host country for temporary accommodation of runaway maids.

2.7 Migration To Israel

Since its creation in 1948 as a homeland for the Jewish people, Israel has been a destination for Jews from many different countries, the major ones being Poland, Romania, Iraq, Iran, Morocco, and Tunisia (Appleyard 1991). In the latter years of the twentieth century, many Soviet Jews have migrated to Israel as a result of the relaxation of emigration restrictions. In 1989–96, an estimated 669,000 persons from the former Soviet Union were admitted to Israel (Zlotnik 1998).

Different origins and phases of migration have resulted in a society with distinct ethnic groups, varying in degree of social status and access to resources and power. European Jews (Ashkenazi) are at the top of the hierarchy while Arabs and some other groups, particularly recent arrivals, are at lower levels in the social and political structure.

During the 1990s Israel experienced a new type of migration, namely, one of foreign workers. Since its occupation of large amounts of Arab territory in 1967, Israel had depended on Palestinian workers to fill certain positions at the lowest end of the labor force. These workers often had work permits, but some were illegal. In 1993, the government announced a closure of the Palestinian territories and the supply of such workers became intermittent, depending on the degree of restrictions on work permits. The demand for workers in the construction and agricultural sectors necessitated the import of non-Palestinian foreign workers. In 1996, the government had issued 104,000 work permits to employ foreigners who came mainly from three countries, Romania, Thailand, and the Philippines. Together with legal foreign workers, an upsurge in illegal workers has occurred. It is estimated that there may be as many as 100,000 illegal foreign workers in Israel (Bartram 1998). In 1998, nearly 5,000 illegal workers, most of whom were overstayers, were deported.

3. The Mediterranean Basin

The countries surrounding the Mediterranean basin have experienced different magnitudes of migration. Three types of migrants can be considered as typical, namely, permanent settlers, temporary foreign workers, and asylum seekers.

3.1 Volume And Types Of Migration

The percentage of foreign-born persons in the population of a country provides one indicator of migration. For seven countries in the Mediterranean basin, these percentages during the 1980s and 1990s were as follows:

France (1990) 6.3 percent

Italy (1996)               2.0 percent

Turkey (1980)           1.9 percent

Greece (1981)            1.9 percent

Spain (1996)             1.3 percent

Tunisia (1984)           0.5 percent

Morocco (1982)        0.3 percent

In March 1990, France had 3.6 million foreigners in its population. Of them, 1.5 million were foreign workers. Major countries of origin were Portugal, Algeria, and Morocco, each of whom had more than half a million nationals living in France. Other countries that had 200–50 thousand nationals in France were Italy, Spain, Tunisia, and Turkey.

Italy was host to about 1,095,000 foreigners in 1996, coming from over 170 different countries. The largest number was from Morocco (120,000). Albania and the Philippines had 64,000 and 57,000 nationals, respectively, in Italy. The above data are based on stock estimates and do not provide an indication of annual flows. Foreigners residing in Italy can obtain nationality after 10 years of residence.

Turkey has been a country of both emigration and immigration. In 1991, about 2.8 million Turkish nationals lived abroad, the largest numbers in Germany (1.8 million), and The Netherlands (0.21 million). Regarding immigration, around 1.6 million ethnic Turks have migrated to Turkey since 1923, mainly from Bulgaria, the former Yugoslavia, Greece, and Romania. Turkey has also provided asylum to refugees from the former Yugoslavia and more recently to Kosovars from Yugoslavia. It has also sent contract migrant workers to the Gulf states and several other countries, especially Saudi Arabia.

Spain had been an emigration country during the last few decades but in recent years has received increasing numbers of immigrants. Between 1989 and 1996, the foreign population increased from 250,000 to 539,000, originating largely in Europe and America. Several measures have been introduced to tighten migration inflows, especially from North Africa.

3.2 Current Issues

Preventing the entry of illegal migrants is a major issue in most receiving countries. Several Mediterranean countries have signed the Schengen Agreement, which provides guidelines on border regulation and works toward preventing the entry of undocumented and unwanted migrants. Restrictive efforts have had limited success, however, and trafficking of migrants is a booming business. Turkey and then Greece (a European Union member) are among the main routes for people from developing countries into Europe. Spain is also considered a possible corridor for immigrants to reach northern Europe (Huntoon 1998).

General anti-immigration sentiment and xenophobia in Europe have been on the rise. Some extremeright politicians in France are trying to promote a ‘national preference law’ that would advocate the repatriation of Arab and African immigrants and give a preference to French citizens in housing and jobs. At the same time, however, concerted efforts are being made to regularize the stay of illegal workers and address the issues of naturalization and integration. Several new laws to this effect have been passed recently.

4. The Outlook For The Future

With budget deficits and unemployment among nationals of the immigrant-receiving countries, a slowdown in demand for foreign workers is imminent in the Gulf. Rising unemployment among nationals has raised difficult political questions about the wisdom of importing large numbers of foreign workers. Forceful actions to expel illegal workers are a vivid reflection of the changed mindset. The six GCC countries plan to ‘replace 75 percent of foreign workers with their own citizens by 2020’ (CISNEWS 1998). If the receiving countries are actually able to implement their restrictive policies, migration to the Gulf will be reduced markedly. The persons most affected by these policies will be the unskilled and semiskilled. However, the demand for such workers will be conditional on the profit accruing to the intermediaries and employers, and on the possibilities of replacing expatriates with nationals. It appears that the demand for housemaids and some types of service workers will continue unabated in the near future.

Policy makers in sending countries will need to recognize the changing attitudes and plans of the Gulf countries. They will also need to plan for the returnees and encourage their entrepreneurial abilities fully. In the long run, sending countries cannot regard migration as a substitute for development at home. It is only through an improvement of its economic and social sectors that the sending country will gain any leverage in the migration process.

Adequate protection of migrant workers remains a difficult issue. There is a need to devise and implement protection through policies such as a guaranteed minimum wage and adequate living and working conditions. However, instituting such policies is at odds with the labor market realities, where the employer decidedly has the upper hand and final word.

In the Mediterranean region, too, immigration policies of the receiving countries are becoming more restrictive. Illegal migration and trafficking are issues of major concern. In terms of border controls and harmonization of their policies, European Union members are faced with many difficult points, especially in dealing with family reunification and integration.

A general policy that may be recommended for both regions is the facilitation of social and economic development of the countries where migrants originate. In the meantime, mounting evidence shows that restrictions inevitably result in exploitation of migrants. The goal should therefore be to address the root causes of migration and reduce inequalities in standards of living between countries so that migration results from choice, and not compulsion.


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