The Middle East and Migration

This is a write-up from Hugo Richardon’s Runner-Up Presentation for the Pepys-Cockerell Prize 2021

The Middle East is an area that spans the vast majority of Egypt and western Asia however there is no agreed-upon definition of which countries actually make up the Middle East; it is undefined. As a result, different sources often list different nations. The Middle East makes up a rough area of 7,200,000km2 and is populated by around 371 million people. The region used to be divided into three areas: the Near East (the region nearest Europe), the Middle East (the area between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf), and the Far East (everything past the Persian Gulf), but the whole area started to become known as the Middle East prior to World War 2.

The climate in the Middle East is a hot and arid, however there is great variety within the region. High temperatures and low rainfall (an average of 4 inches per year) exist in desert areas but there are more moderate microclimates along the coast of the Mediterranean, Black, and Caspian Seas due to the temperature regulating effect of the water owing to its high thermal heat capacity. There is also distinct variability shown by the physical geography in the area. There are several vast deserts in the Middle East including the Sahara Desert and the Desert of the Arabian Peninsula. The Sahara runs across North Africa limiting settlement on the Mediterranean coastline and the Desert of the Arabian Peninsular is so inhospitable that the region in which it lies has become known as ‘The Empty Quarter’. Some areas, however, have plentiful supplies of water due to rainfall as well as the presence of rivers such as the Nile, the Jordan, the Euphrates, and the Tigris. This provides irrigation to support rich agriculture. Mountain ranges exist in the area too with peaks reaching as high as 19,000 feet. Snow is not uncommon in these areas. The Middle East contains a large number of narrow waterways as well as many much larger water channels that allow ease of movement within the area as well as movement in and out of it. These are important for migration in the area. Examples include the Mediterranean leading out into the Atlantic Ocean, the Bosporus and the Dardanelles linking the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, the Suez Canal linking the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, the Bab el Mandeb which is a straight separating the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and the Strait of Hormuz linking the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean.

The fastest growing international migrant and forcibly displaced population is located in the Middle East. From 1990 to 2017 the estimated number of international migrants and refugees in the  region grew from 13.8 million to 43.2 million (this accounted for around 17% of the global total of 275 million refugees and migrants worldwide in 2017). However, this figure is uncertain and consequently other sources say the number of international migrants and refugees more than doubled from 25 to 54 million between 2005 and 2015. The main reasons for migration in the area are the search for economic opportunities as well as the existence of regional conflict. Despite the drop in oil prices during Global Financial Crisis of 2008-9, the economies of the Persian Gulf expanded considerably between 2005 and 2015.Economic expansion in countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Bahrain has encouraged millions of migrants to move to the Middle East in search of economic opportunity. Around 40% of the growth in the Middle East’s migrant population during this period has been due to individuals and families seeking economic opportunities. Recent slowing of job growth in the Gulf States, however, has resulted in a growing number of unemployed migrant workers. Israel is another significant destination for migrants in the Middle East, in part because of job opportunities there as a result of the repatriation of Jews. Regional conflict has displaced millions of people in the Middle East. Examples include conflict in Syria which resulted in 2 million internally displaced Syrians by the end of 2012. This number grew to 6.6 million by end of 2015 because of the increase of opposition to President al-Assad’s regime and the presence of ISIS sweeping across Syria. Sectarian violence in Iraq left behind 2.6 million internally displaced people by the end of 2008. This number then fell to under a million as civil strife declined but it then rose again to 4.4 million by the end of 2015 due to the prevalence of ISIS. Conflict in Yemen displaced hundreds of thousands of people in 2014 but a surge in violence boosted the number up to over 2.5 million by the end of the year.

Armed conflict has caused the majority of the migratory surge in the Middle East especially since 2011. In 2015, Syria (7.1 million) and Iraq (4.7 million) were home to the largest displaced migrant populations in the Middle East. Large numbers were also present in Jordan (2.9 million), Yemen (2.8 million) and Turkey (2.8 million). Around 14% of these migrants spill over into Europe, usually through illegal and dangerous flows, resulting in the loss of human life. Refugee populations in the Middle East consist of more women and children than normal (over half are under 18). The number of internally displaced persons in the Middle East has grown rapidly over the past decade. In 2005, slightly more than a million people living in the Middle East had been displaced from their homes but were living in their countries of birth. This number had risen to 13 million by 2015, nearly all of whom were located in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. A total of 9.6 million refugees or asylum seekers lived in the Middle East as of the end of 2015, up from 4.2 million in 2005 – a nearly 130% increase. In 2015, 85% of refugees and asylum seekers in the Middle East lived in just four countries: Jordan (nearly 2.9 million), Turkey (about 2.8 million), Lebanon (about 1.5 million) and Iran (about 1 million). The majority of refugees and asylum seekers in the Middle East in 2015 can be traced to three points of origin: Syria (4.6 million), the Palestinian territories (3.2 million) and Afghanistan (1.0 million).

In conclusion, there are huge numbers of migrants, internally displaced persons, and refugees in the Middle East. The population in the Middle East is expected to double by 2050 so this problem will only grow. This highlights the importance of finding a solution. Managing regional and transnational conflict is crucial for domestic security and stability in the Middle East.


(Featured Image: © MaxPixel)