Drivers of Youth Irregular Migration: Evidence from the MENA Region

Faculty members of the Department of Economics at the Adnan Kassar School of Business examine the push and pull factors in irregular migration pre- and post-Arab Spring.

By Dana K. Haffar

“The study provides concrete evidence for public policy on what should be done to stem irregular migration amongst the young,” says Dr. Dibeh.

The scale of irregular migration increased considerably in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the political upheavals that followed. But the MENA region has also been at the receiving end of mostly transient refugees from Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Africa.

While labor migration has been the subject of extensive research, extant studies rarely consider the factors in the home countries that push the youth population to irregular migration.

To that end, Professor of Economics and Associate Dean for the Adnan Kassar School of Business Ghassan Dibeh, along with Chair of the Department of Economics Ali Fakih and Professor of Economics Walid Marrouch set out to examine the drivers of irregular migration among the youth from the MENA region in a paper published in the Journal of Industrial Relations.

Irregular migration is defined by the International Organization of Migration (IOM) as the “movement of persons that takes place outside the laws, regulations, or international agreements governing the entry into or exit from the State of origin, transit or destination.” So, what factors impel individuals to choose the illegal rather than the legal route? 

The study “unveiled many drivers of youth migration in the MENA using a unique dataset from the SAHWA Project, an interdisciplinary cooperative research project led by the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB) and funded by the European Commission on Youth in the Arab world,” said Dr. Dibeh.

Focusing on the role that the labor market, economic constraints related to wealth, and institutional factors played in pushing the youth to migrate, the research relied on the aforementioned dataset that was collected from youth in five Arab countries – Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco – for the year 2016.

“We specifically found that mainly labor market drivers such as unemployment, social security and contract type are of great importance along with, to a certain extent, the quality of institutions or governance,” he added. “In a wider economic context, the lack of wealth and economic opportunities also contributes to the youth’s willingness to engage in irregular migration.”

For example, youth who receive financial support from their parents, belong to the upper social class, and have wealth accumulation prospects are unlikely to risk irregular migration. The same applies to unemployment and job stability circumstances as unemployed youth and those in unstable job environments – with no contracts and/or no social security – are more likely to take the irregular channel. 

Because of the high unemployment rate in the MENA region, migration in general and irregular migration, in particular, occur in response to the dismal labor market at home. Those who had previously been to other countries and can adapt, are more inclined to take risks, especially when they are encouraged by their social network abroad.

Institutional factors also come into play as youth are prone to emigrate if they have no confidence in the legal system at home. By contrast, lack of confidence in the European Union is a deterrent. 

While the perception of economic exclusion held no importance in the pre-Arab Spring era, it increased the tendency to migrate irregularly post-Arab Spring. Paradoxically, the perception of political exclusion after the Arab Spring decreased the readiness to migrate irregularly, which was not the case before the Arab Spring.

Furthermore, the perception of poor governance in the home country can be a push factor, and that of good governance in the host country a pull factor to migrate.

“In addition to encouraging more research in the area,” said Dr. Dibeh, “the study provides concrete evidence for public policy on what should be done to stem irregular migration amongst the young. Policies, like providing employment, job stability and more economic opportunities to the youth, would help in this respect.”

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