The Arab world’s new wave of migrants

With their perception of old value systems and hierarchical orders collapsing, senior cadres do not see themselves fitting in anymore or receiving the respect they deserve.
Sunday 10/02/2019
Tunisian doctors and residents demonstrate against new government regulations.    (Reuters)
Growing malaise. Tunisian doctors and residents demonstrate against new government regulations. (Reuters)

Beyond its politically charged fear of Arab and Muslim migration, the West is, ironically, welcoming of competent cadres who are, in increasing numbers, leaving the Middle East and North Africa.

Faced with ageing populations and pressed to meet shortfalls in certain professions, European countries and the United States are adjusting regulations and legislative texts to accommodate mid-career professionals and young talents looking for greener pastures away from home.

Like other ageing European countries, Germany grapples with a projected manpower deficit. A recent report stated that it could face a shortfall of 1.8 million skilled workers by 2020.

This new generation of skilled migrants is joining the ranks of large segments of Arab populations, including a sizeable bulk of young and ill-educated masses, that yearn to emigrate.

A recent Gallup poll said the migration option is perceived as the way out for 21% of the population of the region. The percentage is even higher in the ranks of young people. Among all aspirants to emigration, 42% of respondents said they would like to go to Europe and 18% to North America. There are those, in smaller numbers, who would resettle in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, if they had a choice.

Unemployment coupled with the ardour or youth used to be the main driver of emigration, whatever the means — makeshift boats, tourism visa overstays, arranged marriages and even religious conversions.

For young would-be migrants, leaving home was motivated by the search for a job, any job. There were not — and still are not — enough opportunities, considering the high level of unemployment generated by the population bulge and slow economic growth at home.

Today, the search is more and more for better jobs, not any jobs. The reason is the high percentage of graduate unemployment. The problem is estimated at no less than 30% in North Africa. This rate, the highest in the world, is due, international financial institutions say, to the mismatch between educational training and the job market. All too often, the diploma is no indicator of skill and no guarantor of professional abilities sought by employers.

War and displacement in strife-stricken countries, especially Syria and Iraq, force doctors, teachers, engineers and businessmen to seek new lives abroad. Some with more success than others.

Even where there is no war raging, a growing number of professionals and skilled workers across the Arab world are seeking to leave their home countries. Surveys indicate their percentage ranges between 20%-40%, which is a sizeable number by any stretch of the imagination.

This trend is more and more visible in most parts of the Arab world, except for the Arabian Gulf.

In North Africa, surveys show, age is not a determining factor in seeking migration. Gallup said: “The similarities in the migration desires of younger and older adults in MENA suggest there are multiple factors beyond age that affect the desire to move.”

The higher the level of academic training and professional experience, the less pertinent is the age factor.

Real-life migration trends confirm the relatively new tendency among mid-career professionals in the region to leave. The trend seems to be more pronounced in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.

“Salaries, working conditions are bad and, above all, there is no appreciation of doctors,” Mohamed Yousfi, head of the Algerian specialised doctors’ union told Agence France-Presse.

In other countries of North Africa and the Middle East, things are not that different.

In Tunisia, published statistics show that an average of 200-300 specialised doctors and more than 1,000 engineers leave the country each year. This is fuelling concern among Tunisians that the country could suffer a serious deficit in medical doctors and engineers in certain specialisations, such as computer engineering. A recent Pew survey showed 81% of Tunisians said they consider outmigration as a “big problem.”

Considering the time and cost of training a senior cadre or skilled worker, there is reason for concern for a struggling Arab country such as Tunisia and many others.

Even richer nations show unease. Germany, for instance, is unhappy these days about Switzerland attracting hundreds of its doctors. The cost of training a medical doctor in Germany amounts to $325,584 on average; 3,300 German doctors are said to have gone to Switzerland during the last five years, which means an aggregate cost of more than $1 billion.

What specifically drives university-trained cadres and mid-career professionals in the Arab world to seek the departure gates of international airports? Why aren’t people with relatively promising careers not held back anymore by emotional attachment to family and country or by the prospect of social stability?

Some Arab professionals are attracted by better pay and working conditions abroad. Other incentives offered by Europe and the United States as part of “targeted migration” programmes, such as “talent visas” and “fast-track naturalisation” processes, are a draw.

With economic, social and political uncertainties at home, especially in countries facing instability and stalled growth, the exit option is seen by many cadres as a safe alternative for them and their children.

Unstructured social transformations come with their share of uncertainties. With their perception of old value systems and hierarchical orders collapsing, senior cadres do not see themselves fitting in anymore or receiving the respect they deserve.

With chronic budget deficits, cash-strapped MENA countries find it hard to allocate the needed budgets that public hospitals, research labs and universities require. Unsatisfactory working conditions add to the grievances of disgruntled professionals.

Leaving home brings relief from the daily grind and offers a respite from the deep wariness about what the future holds.

Underneath it all, there is a crisis of confidence and hope. When majorities in the Arab world believe their countries are “going in the wrong direction,” the rest is details.

All of this contains a risk of double jeopardy for women. Under the effects of the conservative mores of the region’s societies, women are less motivated to emigrate. The Gallup survey shows that 16% of the women against 25% of the men share the desire of leaving their home countries.

Women seem less prone to leaving despite the fact that female university graduates outnumber male graduates but are less likely to find a job at home than their male colleagues.

The women staying behind might be the guarantors of continued life as we know it at home. They could be the next generation to emigrate.