The outset of the Gulf crisis in August 1990 saw a dramatic exodus of more than a million Asian and Arab workers as well as some 460,000 Kuwaitis from Iraq and Kuwait. Perhaps a million Yemenis felt compelled to leave Saudi Arabia. During the civil war in Iraq that followed the ground war, a million and a half Iraqi Kurds and tens of thousands of Iraqi Arabs in the southern part of the country fled to Turkey or Iran, or were displaced within Iraq’s own borders.

These radical mass movements of people under duress highlight two central themes about the relationship between states and people in the contemporary Middle East. First, many states in the region have come to rely on foreign labor for their development (both receiving and sending countries). The diverse origins of the foreign workers — from the Arab states, South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia — underlines the extent to which this region has been integrated into the world labor market as part of national development.

Second, national integration remains fragile, with ethnic-religious conflict capable of producing large refugee flows. Citizenship, the basis for social membership in the modern nation-state, has been stunted in the Middle East because of cultural diversity, colonially imposed borders and elitist politics. No state in the region has risked giving full and equal voice to all its population. Descent rather than birthplace has been the effective basis for citizenship, leaving those who do not qualify as stateless refugees or marginal residents. Israel’s expulsion of more than 400 Palestinians to a barren no man’s land in Lebanon, and Kuwait’s election where only 82,000 “first-class citizens” out of 700,000 Kuwaitis could vote, underline some recent manifestations of descent-based citizenship rights.

These two factors — integration into the world labor market and the fragility of integration within the separate states — largely explain why conflicts in the Middle East have in recent years produced the greatest refugee flows of any region in the world. At the end of 1991, 11.2 million of the world total of 16.7 million refugees originated in this region, from Afghanistan to Morocco and Turkey to the Horn of Africa. [1]

The World Labor Market

The integration of different regions into a world labor market and the incorporation of populations in national societies are central themes in the history of capitalist expansion. International migration has been an integral part of the process of this expansion. The development of trans-Atlantic slavery, the emergence of the indentured labor system and the massive emigration from Europe in the nineteenth century all represented stages in the expansion of capitalism and development of a world labor market.

Mercantile capital introduced slavery in the early period of European colonization of the Americas as a form of international labor transfer. Initially colonizers enslaved the indigenous American population to mine gold and silver, but the drastic decline in the population due to disease and maltreatment compelled them to organize the large-scale transportation of African slaves to meet the growing labor demands for plantation agriculture and mining. Slaving reached its peak in the eighteenth century, with more than half the estimated 10-20 million Africans shipped to the Americas transported in that century alone. [2]

The expansion of capitalist agriculture in the later part of the nineteenth century led to the introduction of “coolie” or “indentured” labor, a system of contract labor, to transfer workers between colonies. Indentured labor drew largely upon Asians who were used as a mobile work force within the new European colonial domains, predominantly in South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific. In the space of a century (1834-1937), an estimated 30 million Indian workers found themselves dispatched on labor contracts throughout the British Empire to work in the colonies of Malay, Fiji, Ceylon, British Guiana, South Africa and the West Indies. [3]

Both slavery and indentured labor systems involved the forced transfer of men and women between regions in the periphery under colonialism. The largest transfers of population to the periphery, however, were generated from the nineteenth-century industrialization of Europe. The destruction of traditional agriculture forced large populations onto the expanding labor markets of Europe and the Americas. Around 25.5 million emigrated from Europe to the United States between 1820 and 1914 alone. [4] European industrialization also stimulated immigration from its periphery. The industrialization of Britain, France and Germany depended heavily on the unskilled workers they drew from the poorer neighboring regions in Ireland, North Africa/Spain and Poland respectively.

Paradoxically, capitalist colonial expansion promoted the development of world labor and capital markets but at the same time increased the social and political differentiation of the world into national societies. Colonial territories eventually emerged as post-colonial nation-states. The descendants of slaves, indentured laborers and labor migrants generally became citizens of these new states.

It is with the formation of nation-states that immigrant labor became, in Saskia Sassen’s phrase, “a distinct category within the overall labor supply system.” [5] Borders served to create an international division of labor. The passport system introduced in Europe during World War I marked the beginning of the enforcement of borders, setting individual rights to emigrate, immigrate and return against state interests in regulating national work forces. In the 1920s, major labor exporting countries such as Italy entered into bilateral agreements with Brazil and France regulating Italian emigration in order to protect immigrant workers and establish the basis for an exchange of resources. [6] This period also saw the imposition of national origins quotas in the US. A similar pattern of legislation in Latin America and Australia excluded Asian migrants. [7]

The globalization of nationalism and nation-states brought increased restrictions to entry. At the same time, ethnic and religious conflicts sparked expulsions of unwanted women and men who did not fit the ideal of national cultural homogeneity. The twentieth century brought refugees — people made stateless by the politics of the new nationalism which generated a system of enclosed national states. Between 1912-1969 more than 100 million people became refugees, as new states evicted those they regarded unassimilable in the name of national cultural homogeneity. [8]

By the mid-1970s, labor migration to Western Europe peaked at around 7 million, or 10 percent of the total work force. High unemployment, demands for citizenship rights by workers from former colonies, racism and the realization that temporary workers were looking more and more permanent prompted restrictive immigration legislation. [9] Britain introduced the Commonwealth Immigrations act in 1962, West Germany suspended all labor recruiting abroad in 1973, and France sought to restrict new migration after 1969 by, clarifying residence status and establishing country quotas. [10]

The restrictive legislation did not reduce the number of immigrants so much as change their character. Immigrants were now more likely to be permanent settlers rather than temporary workers. They entered through family reunion rights rather than labor contracts, and an increasing number were women, reflecting the more settled character of the migrant communities. [11] Increased regulation also served to stimulate illegal migration and thereby the level of exploitation of many workers who had no legal protection in the labor market. As Saskia Sassen observes, “border enforcement is a mechanism facilitating the extraction of cheap labor by assigning criminal status to a segment of the working class — illegal migration.” [12]

Modern Middle East Migrations

Patterns of Middle East migration have followed the contours of the broader historical migration trends between peripheral colonial regions, to the European settler societies and to the European core. The main current has been the export of Middle Easterners to the Americas as workers. In the nineteenth century, they were part of the large-scale emigration of people from the Mediterranean. Officially the Ottoman rulers prohibited emigration until 1896, but this did not prevent a trickle of migration, mainly Syrian-Lebanese, from 1860 onward. [13] The official Ottoman attitude was modified by the perceived economic benefits from remittances and return migrants. Around 72 percent of “Turks” migrating to the US returned in the period between 1908 and 1914. [14] Most of these were not ethnically “Turks” but “Syrian-Lebanese” traveling on Ottoman documents. In Latin America, “Turcos” is a blanket term still in use today to refer to anyone who emigrated from what had been the Ottoman Empire.

Workers from colonial North Africa made up part of the labor migration to the European core after the turn of the century. By 1921 there were over 36,000 workers from colonial Algeria in France. After 1946, the number of Maghribi immigrants, including Moroccans and Algerians, continued to grow until it reached about 1.5 million, or 35 percent of the foreign population in 1981. [15] Indentured labor transfers between colonial regions did occur in the Persian Gulf, but this involved Indian workers, not Arabs. Some Arabs did migrate to colonial regions, usually as commercial middle men. Syrian-Lebanese migration to West Africa and the Caribbean had this character.

After World War II, opportunities for emigration to European settler societies and Europe itself increased considerably. The destinations of Middle Eastern migrants were shaped by earlier patterns of family migration, colonial ties and recruiting agents. Thus many Lebanese and Syrians went to the US; North Africans went to France; Turks were employed as contract workers in Germany. But the character of these migrants and their role in the labor market changed. They were no longer destined only for sweatshops and the self-exploitation of small family businesses. They now included increasing numbers of professionals and skilled workers. This growing donation of fully trained and internationally qualified professionals to the North has prompted concern in the South about the impact of such a “brain drain” on their own national development. Another major change has been the entry of women migrants into wage work; in many cases, they have replaced migrant men as cheap and marginal workers in the declining manufacturing and textile sectors.

The ethnic and religious diversity of the Middle Eastern diaspora communities in Europe, North America and Australia is an indication of the level of ethnic conflict that occurred in the process of carving nation-states out of a multi-ethnic empire under the impact of European colonialism. The disproportionate numbers of minority diaspora communities emphasize the role of ethnic conflict as an impetus to emigration.

The emergence of a new Ottoman nationalism in the dismantling of empire led to the expulsion of around 2 million people in the decade 1914-1923. [16] This included the expulsion and massacre of Armenians and the negotiated (but involuntary) exchange of ethnic Turkish and Greek minorities by Greece and Turkey respectively in 1923 in the name of nation-building.

Since the 1920s, when nationalist politics emerged within the Middle Eastern boundaries brokered by European colonialism, diaspora communities were actively involved in national politics. Maronite Catholics, for example, solicited support from their diaspora communities during the 1920s and 1930s in the Americas in support of the emergent Lebanese state. Lebanese diaspora communities, the majority Maronite, were included in the crucial 1932 population census which determined the Lebanese political confessional formula.

During the era of decolonization, diaspora communities provided a haven for nationalist activists and exiles. Antoun Sa‘da, founder of the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party, spent his exile during the 1930s among Syrian and Lebanese diaspora communities in Latin America soliciting support and building party branches. More recently, diaspora communities have been recruiting grounds for opposition groups and sources of financial support for struggles back in the old country. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) of Turkey has recruited support among Kurdish guest workers in West Germany. Lebanese diaspora communities provided financial support to their cohorts during the civil war. Ayatollah Khomeini mobilized anti-Shah forces from exile Iranian communities in France. The Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestine National Congress have coordinated the politics of exile Palestinian communities.

Another category of “emigrants” forced out during the process of nation-state formation have been refugees. The issue of “denationalization” lies at the heart of the most intractable conflict in the Middle East, that of Israel and Palestine. The oldest UN refugee agency, UNRWA, still functions, testimony to the chronic failure to resolve conflicts that have arisen out of the formation of ethnic and racially homogeneous nation-states. In this dispute, international migration has been central to creating the “facts on the ground” to reinforce the exclusivity of Jewish citizenship rights and limit the right of return to Jewish people only. The “stateless” Palestinians in the Occupied Territories continually face uncertainty about their right to return should they travel abroad, and the threat of deportation even when they remain.

Denationalization and dispossession, though, has not excluded refugee populations from national and regional labor markets. Lacking political rights and secure legal protection, refugees are vulnerable workers, often at the bottom of the labor hierarchy of their host societies. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan during the 1950s and 1960s became a new urban and rural proletariat housed in shanty refugee camps. International assistance from organizations such as UNRWA facilitated their social mobility through education, giving them access to the expanding labor markets for skilled and unskilled workers in the Gulf.

Since 1967, Palestinians in the Occupied Territories have found themselves increasingly recruited into the labor markets in Israel and the Gulf. In Israel they provided cheap and unskilled labor at the bottom of the Israeli labor hierarchy. In the Gulf they generally worked in skilled and professional jobs. Some observers argue that whatever the outcome of the current peace talks, Palestinians will remain heavily dependent on employment in Israel, at a time when restrictions on their mobility in the Arab world have grown more pronounced. [17]

The threat of political instability produced by refugee movements has led to a new Northern strategy of intervening in the South to keep populations within their own borders. The UN-blessed safe haven in northern Iraq to persuade the Kurds to return home from the border camps on the Turkey-Iraq and Iran-Iraq borders is one such example, taken mainly at Turkey’s behest. Intervention in Somalia is underlined by similar concerns about the political and social impact of refugees on neighboring states in a region which already has around 1.5 million refugees. Spain and France have promoted the creation of free trade zones in Morocco and financial aid from the European Community, with the purpose of keeping populations at home. The project for political and social reconstruction is beyond the horizon at present.

The recruitment of foreign workers to work in the oil-exporting countries of the Persian Gulf represents a new sort of indentured labor system. Oil wealth stimulated a new South-South migration organized on a contract labor system that treats labor strictly as a commodity. In this system, nationality is the criterion by which foreign workers are located within national labor hierarchies.

The great majority of labor migrants to the Arab oil-exporting states have been Arab male workers. Initially, they were recruited through bilateral government agreements and a laissez faire immigration policy. Iraq practiced an open door policy toward Arab workers, and had became the largest importer of Egyptian labor, even resettling whole Egyptian and Moroccan villages to provide agricultural labor.

By the early 1980s, labor migration had transformed the work forces of the Gulf states. Of total work forces, foreign workers represented 70 percent in Kuwait, 42 percent in Libya, 81 percent in Qatar, 40 percent in Bahrain, 85 percent in the United Arab Emirates and 75 percent in Saudi Arabia. [18] Non-oil exporters like Jordan found themselves having to import replacement labor because of the level of Jordanian/Palestinian labor migration to the Gulf. In the early 1980s, foreign workers, overwhelmingly from Egypt, represented around 40 percent of the work force.

The sheer size of the foreign work force in the Gulf led the oil states to minimize opportunities for permanent residence and maximize the rotation of the foreign workers. One solution adopted was to diversify sources of recruitment — to internationalize their work forces. By the mid-1980s, Asian workers from South and Southeast Asia were the fastest-growing component. First, they were regarded as a more politically compliant work force, removed from the currents of Arab nationalism and Islamism. Second, the importing states made private or national recruiting agents responsible for contract obligations. Third, the presence of non-Arab workers undermined class-based politics and accentuated the difference between citizen and non-citizen along racial and cultural lines.

Unlike the international trend toward the feminization of labor migration, the foreign work force in the Gulf has been overwhelmingly male. Gender segregation of national labor markets has limited the areas of employment to domestic service and, to a much lesser extent, health and educational services. Mostly Asian women from the Philippines and Sri Lanka, and not Arab women, have taken up these positions. Investment in export manufacturing zones, which has seen the feminization of labor migration in Southeast Asia and East Asia, is only a recent development in the Middle East. [19] The establishment of export manufacturing zones in Dubai, as well as other parts of the Middle East such as Egypt and Morocco, may yet see similar patterns of feminization of labor migration. Growing demands by women graduates in the Gulf for greater economic and political participation will also help bring about gender desegregation of the labor market.

In this new indentured labor system as in the nineteenth-century variety, these work contracts better served the interests of importing states than those of foreign workers. Foreign workers have no social rights (welfare or sickness benefits) and no political voice about the terms and conditions of their employment contracts. Legal enforcement of contracts is expensive, time-consuming and uncertain, leaving foreign workers exposed to unscrupulous employers. Asian female domestic servants have been particularly vulnerable in this regard. [20]

Foreign workers have had to rely on their national embassies for protection and assistance, but the national embassies are primarily concerned with maintaining good relations with the host governments. The recent formation of a National Contingency Plan by the Philippines government to move Filipino contract workers to safer locations in the event of another Middle East war underlines the importance of remittances and the role of national governments as protectors. [21]

The nation-states of the Middle East have become integrated into the world labor market as both labor exporters and importers. The industrialization of the oil states has created a new indentured labor system involving the transfer of labor between regions in the South. Asian labor has increasingly been substituted for Arab labor, undermining any illusions about regional integration through Arab labor migration. The organization of national labor markets on the basis of hierarchy does not augur well for political liberalization in the Gulf.

Population flows in the Middle East will continue to be shaped by dependence on labor migration and by national crises which degenerate into ethnic and religious conflict and then flight. Labor circulation will continue; only the national origin of workers may change. Neither economic recession nor war have significantly lessened the demand for international labor in the region. [22]

The crisis of the secular nation-state in the Middle East will continue as states become either politically or economically more dependent on outside protection or assistance. The challenge by Islamist movements is also likely to undermine national cohesion by politicizing religious identity. The growing number of attacks on Copts in Egypt by Islamists is just one example. The current fashion for international intervention in ethnic and religious conflicts to prevent refugee flows may in fact only serve to reinforce the very cleavages they seek to mitigate.


[1] Refugee totals from US Committee for Refugees, World Refugee Survey 1992 (Washington, DC, 1992). Gulf crisis figures (850,000 third-country nationals and 300,000 Palestinians) are from Larry Minear and Thomas Weiss, “Groping and Coping in the Gulf Crisis: Discerning the Shape of a New Humanitarian Order,” World Policy Journal (Fall/Winter 1992); the Kuwaiti figure is from Middle East International, March 8, 1992. For a detailed breakdown of the displacement, see Eric Hooglund, “The Other Face of War,” Middle East Report 171 (July-August 1991)
[2] Lydia Potts, The World Labor Market: A History of Migration (London: Zed Books, 1990), p. 41.
[3] Ibid., p. 70.
[4] Ibid., p. 131.
[5] Saskia Sassen, The Mobility of Labor and Capital (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 52.
[6] Alan Dowty, Closed Borders: The Contemporary Assault on Freedom of Movement (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987), p. 83.
[7] Ibid., p. 90.
[8] Ibid., p. 86.
[9] Stephen Castles, Here for Good: Western Europe’s New Ethnic Minorities (London: Pluto Press, 1984).
[10] Potts, p. 146.
[11] Judith-Maria Buechler, “Guest, Intruder, Settler, Ethnic Minority or Citizen: The Sense and Nonsense of Borders,” in Hans Christian Buechler and Judith-Maria Buechler, eds., Migrants in Europe: The Role of Family, Labor and Politics (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987), p. 284.
[12] Sassen, pp. 36-37.
[13] Kemal Karpat, “The Ottoman Emigration to America, 1860-1914,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 17 (1985).
[14] Potts, p. 133.
[15] Castles, p. 55.
[16] Dowty, p. 87.
[17] Stanley Maron, “The Political Economy of the Intifada,” Society 27/5 (July-August 1990).
[18] Sassen, p. 48.
[19] Ibid., p. 12.
[20] Michael Humphrey, “Asian Women Workers in the Middle East,” Asian Migrant 4/2 (April-June 1991); Raymond Bonner, “A Woman’s Place: Report from Kuwait,” The New Yorker, November 16, 1992; Nasra M. Shah, Sulayman S. Al-Qudsi and Makhdoom A. Shah, “Asian Women Workers in Kuwait,” International Migration Review 25/3 (Fall 1991).
[21] Patricia Santo Tomas and Jorge Tiguo, “Philippine Lessons from the Gulf Crisis: Anatomy of a Contingency Plan,” Asian Migrant 5/2 (April-June 1992).
[22] Gil Feiler, “Migration and Recession: Arab Labor Mobility in the Middle East, 1982-1989,” Population and Development Review 17/1 (1991).

How to cite this article:

Michael Humphrey "Migrants, Workers and Refugees," Middle East Report 181 (March/April 1993).

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