Regional Mobility Trends: The Middle East and North Africa

Migration in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has long been dominated by regional conflicts and their attendant refugee crises — a trend that prevailed in 2018 and is set to continue into 2019. The large numbers of refugees coming from Syria, Palestine, and other countries in the region have placed economic strain on host communities — particularly because the MENA countries where the majority of refugees are hosted tend to be middle- or low-income economies.

Since the international funding that provides assistance for refugees continually falls short of requirements, host countries, forced to use their national budgets, are struggling to meet even the basic needs of the growing numbers of refugees within their borders.

The economic challenges arising from this situation include rising public debt, decreasing GDP, high unemployment rates, declining job opportunities, and increasing levels of poverty in developing refugee-hosting countries. On the other hand, the Turkish economy has generally been boosted by the influx of new businesses from Syria: 7,000 companies have been founded or co-founded by Syrians in Turkey since 2011, though this economic growth slowed in 2018.

Refugee-hosting countries generally enforce protectionist labor laws that restrict refugees from fully accessing the domestic labor market. In Lebanon and Jordan, Syrian refugees only have the right to work and acquire work permits in limited sectors (agriculture and construction). Palestinian refugees also have restricted access to the labor market in Lebanon. In Turkey, while Syrian refugees are allowed to work in any sector, employment is restricted by a quota set by the government (namely, one Syrian for every ten Turkish employees). This has meant that many refugees are under-employed or work informally, often earning less than the minimum wage in sub-standard working conditions.

The plight of refugees in the MENA region will continue to be a challenge in 2019. Greater international financial assistance, via multilateral organizations and INGOs, is needed to support refugee-hosting economies and, thereby, improve the lives of both refugee and host populations.

The global private sector has the potential to provide employment remotely to hundreds of thousands of MENA-based refugees.

The global private sector can play a key role in supporting refugees, both by mobilizing financial resources quickly and by providing a level of expertise and innovation that generally cannot be matched by humanitarian actors. The global private sector is also an important source of employment. Through its channeling of foreign direct investment to refugee-hosting countries, for example, jobs can be created locally for both refugee and host communities.

In addition, by employing responsible business practices — such as mandating that a particular proportion of jobs be allocated to refugees or that employment adhere strictly to local labor laws — the private sector could provide dignified livelihoods to refugees, as well as to members of host communities.

Because local MENA economies cannot absorb the full number of refugees who need jobs, there is an urgent need for a scalable, sustainable, and replicable model for job creation. The global private sector has the potential to provide employment remotely, via technology and the internet, and can potentially provide jobs to hundreds of thousands of MENA-based refugees.

With the appropriate level of political will, the impact that the private sector could have on the refugee crises in the MENA region is significant.

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