YOUTH AND MIGRATION IN THE Middle East AND North Africa by Guita G. Hourani


The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is endowed with abundant human capi- tal; almost one in five people are between the ages of 15 and 24. A 2005 estimate of its popu- lation gave a staggering figure of 95 million youth. Low infant mortality and high fertility rates caused this phenomenon, resulting in the recently coined term, “youth bulge.” The region’s growth rates until the 1980s were at 3 percent per year while the rest of the world averaged 2 percent. Currently, the fertility rate in the region stands at 2 percent a year while the world is growing at 1.2 percent. The “youth bulge” is exercising pressure on the region’s government services, as well as on the environment.

The “youth bulge” creates large numbers of working-age youth, some of whom are educat- ed and skilled and some who are less educated and unskilled. However, all have a high rate of mobil- ity. This has resulted in abundant pools of migrants who move around within the region, especially to the Arab Gulf area, as well as outside the Arab world, mainly to Europe and North America.

Migration in the region has many causes; however, the main triggers are political instabili- ty, unresolved conflicts, poor returns on educational investments, low economic growth, increasing unemployment, and high population density in some areas which causes environmentally triggered migration. MENA labor market expansion is unable to match population growth. In other words, the labor markets in these regions are not able to absorb the mounting number of youth entering the job market every year.

While demographic expansion may be viewed as a blessing because it could be a catalyst for economic development, the lack of economic and labor policies that facilitate the entry of this excess population into the job market creates frustration. If this problem is not addressed, the re- sponses will inevitably be either a voicing of frustration or an “exiting” of the unsuitable situation, to borrow a term from Albert O. Hirschman. Many of the region’s political regimes are experiencing stalled democratic processes, which result in violent manifestations of frustration and/or political extremism. To exit is to migrate. Many of the MENA countries have eased their travel restrictions, thus increasing mobility. The proportion of young people who intend to emigrate is high. Whether effectively or nominally, emigration aspirations illustrate the inherent dissatisfaction that plagues the youth of these regions. Egypt, Morocco, and Iraq are the largest sources of emigrants, followed by Algeria, Yemen, Tunisia, and Lebanon.

In terms of destination, immigrants originating from Egypt, Lebanon, the Palestinian Ter- ritories, as well as the rest of the Mashrek, tend to head to the Gulf region, North America, and to Europe to a lesser extent, while emigrants from North Africa, mainly Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria and the rest of the Maghreb, tend to migrate to Europe, mainly to Spain, France, and Italy.

The typical emigrant from the MENA region is young, male, and unmarried, with little or no attachment to their countries in terms of land ownership, family obligations, or political affili- ation. Consequently their return might be less of a problem, especially with increased mobility, skill transferability, and access to social and financial capital. It is important to note however that female migration in some of the MENA countries is on the rise.

It can now be assumed that countries which are currently benefiting from the remittances sent by their emigrant populations will not enjoy this privilege much longer. A clear trend in the re- duction of remittances transferred to sending countries is evident. While both the emigrants’ own- ership of resources and the stock of human capital are increasing in the diaspora, money transfers toward the homeland are decreasing. This can be interpreted in many ways: an overall decrease in the will to return, settlement in the host country, or even migrating to a new destination, along with increasing investments in personal assets, education, and career development.
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Governments in the MENA region are improving their links with their diasporas, aiming mainly at increasing remittances and economic investments in the home country. Some are trying to create an environment suitable for channeling practical know-how, knowledge, and flow of ideas.

Today, technology, in particular satellite dishes and the internet, has brought the world to the most remote parts of the region. These technologies, along with education, travel, and transfer of knowledge from emigrant members to their families and the community in general, are changing the lives of the youth, thus furthering the gap between them and the decision-making elites.

The youth segment of the population is increasingly in need of access to education, jobs, and in- frastructure in order to become productive citizens. The MENA regimes will be forced for the foreseeable future to tackle unresolved political and economic issues and to address reforms in order to accommodate the growth of working-age adults, women in the job market, and expectations for improved services and a better life. These forces will result in both peaceful and not so peaceful pressures on governments to improve their delivery capabilities.

Guita G. Hourani is the Director of the Lebanese Emigration Research Center (LERC) at Notre Dame University, Lebanon. She was a Civic Education and Leadership Fellow (CELF) at the Maxwell School of Citi- zenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University in 2009-10.