COVID-19 has posed significant challenges to mobility globally. While the COVID-19 pandemic is viewed as a crisis for migration, it is important to contextualize this moment of “crisis” by thinking about past challenges to migration from the Egyptian vantage point. Migration to and from Egypt has been documented for centuries. However, current migration patterns can be traced back to post-colonial Egypt. In order to truly understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the region, and on labor migration itself, it is important to consider the historical context of labor migration in Egypt. In doing so, we can hope to understand the crisis not as a breaking point, but rather an opportunity to reshape, for better or for worse, the status quo.

A historical overview of Egyptian migration

Modern Egyptian migration to other Arab countries is embedded in the post-1952 era, but most significantly took shape in the 1970s. Prior to the 1970s, Egyptian migration was controlled by the government and composed mostly of teachers, doctors, and other high-skilled workers. In fact, during the 1960s, labor emigration, especially to North America and Europe, was actively discouraged through the enforcement of “exit visas” to minimize the perceived threat of “brain drain” to national development.

In the 1970s, Egypt initiated a shift in economic policies towards liberalization, known as Infitah. Additionally, the boom in oil production in the Gulf and Libya during the 1970s represented a major shift in Egyptian migration patterns. The ensuing development in oil producing countries opened up employment opportunities in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, as well as Iraq and Libya, for both professionals and laborers.

During this time, the destination of migrants proved to be telling of their socioeconomic background and presented a shift in the demographic. Typically low-income rural migrants used to migrate to Libya with its inexpensive costs and ease of access, making it a top destination during the early to mid-1970s. This segment of the population, however, was unable to migrate to the Gulf, which compared to Libya requires far greater migration costs. Households that were able to send migrants to the Gulf still consisted of low-income rural households, but rather ones that had better means than those migrating to Libya. The scale of this flow of migration to the Gulf caused shortages in the agricultural and construction industries. By some estimates as much as 10% and 50% of the agricultural and construction labor forces were abroad by the late 1970s. During the 1970s, Egyptian workers also started going to Jordan to replace Jordanians who had migrated to work in the Gulf, primarily in the agriculture sector, although this later extended to other sectors including construction and services.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Gulf started receiving a growing number of Asian migrant workers, which reduced the flow from Arab countries, including Egypt. At this time, Egyptian migration to Libya increased again, making it by some estimates the most popular destination for Egyptians as of 2009. Overall, between 1988 and 2006 the percentage of households with current international migrants dropped from 9.9% to 4.8%, according to the Egyptian Labor Force Survey. In 2018, 4.2% of households reported having a current international migrant.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is easy to describe the current situation as presenting a crisis to international migration. Taking a historical view of Egyptian migration points to crises as accelerators of existing issues. In 1991, the Gulf War led to the forced repatriation of Iraqi, Jordanian, and Palestinian migrant workers, along with nearly 700,000 Egyptians. After the war, the demand and flow of migrants recovered between 1992 and 1995 to pre-war volumes. Asian migrant workers had increased by this time, as well. After the 2011 and during the 2014-2015 Libyan crisis, as many as 800,000 Egyptians were estimated to have returned. However, due to the ongoing Libyan conflict, we have yet to see a recovery. Similarly, the arrival of Syrian refugees is often portrayed as a crisis. A recent study aimed to assess the impact of the influx of Syrian refugees on Egyptian migrant workers in Jordan and found that overall, Egyptians and Syrians tend to work in separate industries and have different skills to offer in the labor market.

COVID-19 as a "crisis"

In 2020, Egyptian migrants in Kuwait were detained in shelters established for those who overstayed their visas due to air travel suspension following the start of the pandemic. Nearly 6,500 workers who overstayed their visas in Kuwait were detained in shelters for weeks before being repatriated to Egypt. The detentions occurred despite the Kuwaiti government’s decision to waive visa penalties and cover repatriation airfare for those stuck in Kuwait. Egyptians have also been repatriated from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The drop in oil prices and the situation in the Gulf have had effects on the Egypt-Jordan corridor, mostly since Jordanian citizens returning from Gulf states unemployed due to the pandemic are being given employment priority in Jordan. In light of this, it remains to be seen how the pandemic will reshape the status quo and whether there will be space for incoming migrants in the future.

Nevertheless, assessing the continuities of displacement is essential to move away from viewing COVID-19 as a crisis to labor migration, but rather an accelerator of previous issues. The COVID-19 effect on remittances and investments in the Egyptian market due to these large-scale returns of migrants abroad is a possible surge. However, it is important to question to what extent this surge will be sustained in the long run and to question the effect of the drop in the labor market. The persistence of this surge will depend on the ability of these workers to be able to migrate again or the initiation of policies that allow the labor market to generate sufficient jobs for returnees as an Egyptian government campaign, ‘Nawart Baladak’ has been initiated.

Ways forward

As much as the COVID-19 effect on migration has been dominated by a discussion about crisis management, remittances, and the economic effect of these macro migration patterns, significant attention needs to be addressed to migration beyond an economic lens. More attention needs to be paid to the effects of these returns on the migrants and how their perceptions and incentives for migration have been affected. Moreover, despite migrant males being the primary migration population, greater attention needs to be given to women and children left behind, as well as the women who migrate for jobs or as migrant spouses. Therefore, the current limitations to migration provide a needed opportunity to reassess the literature gaps, moving beyond an economic and crisis-centered approach.

It is essential to view COVID-19's anticipated shifts in Egyptian labor migration patterns in light of historical migration patterns. To assess these anticipated shifts, it is evident that COVID-19 has served as an accelerator to the already existing restrictions on travel and mobility. For many Egyptian migrants in the Arab Gulf and Jordan, the story has been relatively similar to workers from other countries who need to leave their labor-destination countries.