On a brisk autumn evening in 2010, male coffee shop patrons in the upscale Cairo neighborhood of Zamalek were treated to the sight of young Chinese women in miniskirts circulating to hand out brochures for a new massage parlor. It was an unusual sight indeed for Egyptian public space — both the women’s attire and the presence of so many Chinese. Besides a small number of Chinese Muslim students at al-Azhar University, Chinese immigration to Egypt is a very new phenomenon.
In 2013, Mohamed, a 22-year old Somali, was making a living washing cars in Saudi Arabia. Late that year, due to increasing government pressure on employers of undocumented workers, he was fired. In December, after several weeks without a job, Mohamed handed himself over to the police. He spent the next 57 days detained in appalling conditions. “In the first detention center in Riyadh, there was so little food, we fought over it,” he said. “So the strongest ate the most. Guards told us to face the wall and then beat our backs with metal rods. In the second place, there were two toilets for 1,200 people, including dozens of children.” Mohamed is now in Mogadishu, the Somali capital.
The United States is a nation of common people from marginal environments. In spite of contemporary America’s preoccupation with coats of arms, few of our ancestors were the children of privilege. Nor did they come from lush plains or fecund valleys. More often it was the mountains and hill country they left behind, where stony soils, forests, or harsh weather made farming difficult and made them willing to tear themselves away and take their chances in far-off America. They were Irish from Kerry and Donegal, Italians from Sicily and Abruzzo, Romanians from the mountains of Transylvania and Swedes from the forests of Smaland and Dalarna.
The full moon over Mecca marked the end of the holy month of pilgrimage. Ten thousand miles away in California, a Yemeni work crew gathered around a pickup truck with its precious cargo of sheep destined for sacrifice. A group of cowboys looked on, bewildered. These farmworkers are part of a two-decade old migration of tens of thousands of workers from Yemen to oil-rich Persian Gulf countries and, in smaller numbers, to Europe and the United States.
A man walks into a library and asks the librarian for a book on human rights in Saudi Arabia. The librarian hands him a blank notebook.
A woman walks into a bookstore and asks for a tourist guide to Saudi Arabia. The bookseller hands her a blank notebook.
A reporter walks into the Saudi embassy and asks for a visa.
Americans follow events in Saudi Arabia by reading the New York Times and Washington Post.
These are all laugh lines. The first one pops up when you Google “jokes about Saudi Arabia.” The next one sort of suggests itself. The other two are equally funny to those in the know.
Amanda Ufheil-Somers has ably described how refugee flows from the uprisings in North Africa to the Italian island of Lampedusa have pushed the strained infrastructure and the residents’ hospitality to the breaking point. The islanders aren’t the only ones at wit’s end: In protest, refugees burned the holding facilities in September 2011 and again just the other day.
More than 52,000 would-be migrants have landed on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa in 2011. Roughly half of the arrivals are young Tunisian men looking for job opportunities in Europe. Most of the others are Sahelians, sub-Saharan Africans or South Asians fleeing the violence in Libya. In many cases, they were forced onto boats by Libyan soldiers, as part of the “invasion” Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi promised should his rule come under NATO attack.  The staggering number of arrivals does not include the estimated 1,500 who starved, suffocated or drowned in the central Mediterranean trying to reach Europe’s nearest shore.
About 78 nautical miles separate the Tunisian town of al-Huwariyya at the head of the Cap Bon peninsula from Capo Feto at the southwestern tip of Sicily. An Italy-bound voyage between the two points, on the straight line headed roughly northeast-east, takes about 13 hours at an average speed of six knots under sail. A speedboat moving at 30-45 knots would traverse the same distance in about two hours.
A large, sinister pair of eyes stares out from the cover of the February 2011 Wired magazine, above the heading “The Underworld Exposed.” The rest of the face is darkened, melding with the shadows. At the top of the shadows reside the words “Counterfeit Ferraris, Sex Syndicates, Darknets, Secret Societies and More!” At the bottom, between “The Nine All-Time Greatest Cons” and “What’s Inside Heroin”: “How to Buy a Kidney, p. 112.”
Reasonable, principled people can disagree about whether, in an ideal world, Western military intervention in Libya’s internal war would be a moral imperative. With Saddam Hussein dead and gone, there is arguably no more capricious and overbearing dictator in the Arab world than Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi. The uprising of the Libyan people against him, beginning on February 17, was courageous beyond measure. It seems certain that, absent outside help, the subsequent armed insurrection would have been doomed to sputter amidst the colonel’s bloody reprisals.
Nearly 50 years after independence, the North African states of Algeria and Morocco face challenges to their national unity and territorial integrity. In Algeria, a
“Angela” came to Jordan to work as a housekeeper because she is a single mother and needs to save for her children’s schooling. She paid a recruiter in the Philippines 11,000 pesos, about $234, “for the processing of my papers.” An hour before she went to the airport, she says, she signed a contract written in Arabic, a language she does not read. She did not see an English-language copy. Her recruiter told her she would receive $150 per month.
Dubai, according to the conventional wisdom, is a bust. The International Monetary Fund predicts that economic growth in the United Arab Emirates as a whole will be lower in 2009 than in the last five years; the Dubai government has borrowed billions of dollars from Abu Dhabi to bail out its banks; the government of the Indian state of Kerala reports over 500,000 return migrants from Dubai due to the crisis; property prices have dropped faster than anywhere else in the world; and hotel rates have been slashed in order to lure tourists.
The Middle East and North Africa have been hit hard by the global recession. Several of the oil-rich Gulf states are in the midst of an economic contraction, with their famed sovereign wealth funds having lost 27 percent of their value in 2008. The Gulf states, along with the European Union, buy most of the non-oil exports of the Middle East and North Africa, so recessions in the importing countries mean depressed trade throughout the region. According to the World Bank, the average growth rate for the middle-income states of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia, which have little or no oil, is projected to fall to 3.9 percent in 2009, far below the levels of the 2001-2008 boom.
"’Black locusts’ are taking over Morocco!" So ran the September 12, 2005 headline of al-Shamal, an Arabic-language Tangier newspaper, describing the forays of masses of in-transit sub-Saharan Africans trying to scale the security fences separating Morocco from the Spanish-ruled enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Moroccan authorities immediately banned al-Shamal for employing this racist language, but the press on both sides of the Mediterranean continued to use terms like “massive invasion” and “plague” to denote the sub-Saharan migrants’ repeated attempts in September and early October to escape from Africa into the territory of the European Union.
Labor practices in Iraq are under scrutiny, as contractors hire poor non-Iraqis to work low-wage jobs in a deadly environment. Migrant workers are employed through complex layers of companies working in Iraq. At the top of the pyramid is the US government, which assigned over $24 billion in contracts over 2004–2005. Laborers are often deceived with false promises of lucrative, safe jobs in nations such as Jordan and Kuwait, only to find themselves working in unsafe jobs across the border. Some source countries have banned workers from going to Iraq, but, with little regulation, labor brokers are finding loopholes.