Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Migration and mobility

One of the most common stories you encounter in the Middle East is that of migration.

Yesterday I met a guy named Boulous, who is originally from Akkar, a city in the north of Lebanon. Like Jean and Mahmoud from yesterday’s post, he lives in Beirut because there is no work in the north. On the road to Jouneih today we also encountered a number of Syrians wading through traffic selling pirated CDs, cologne, perfume and assorted knick-knacks. You see this kind of thing everywhere in the Arab world.

It’s hard to believe that a Syrian can make more selling pirated CDs on the street in Beirut than he can doing something in his own country. But clearly he, like Mahmoud, leaves his home and family in search of a better life somewhere else, or, more likely, in search of a means of survival.

I heard a figure that every day nearly one million Syrians travel to Lebanon to work. This figure was from before the Syrian withdrawal, and may or may not be accurate, but clearly the number is large. This figure was for day workers, people who commute to Lebanon and then return to their homes in Syria at the end of the day. Some Lebanese complain that these Syrians don’t give anything back to Lebanon, that they even pack their lunches to avoid spending money in Lebanon.

Like everywhere else, immigrants are blamed for the problems by their host communities. This happens a lot in Jordan too, where a lot of people complain about the large number of Iraqis who have taken refuge in the desert kingdom. In the US the immigration issue is coming to a head, where there are currently major demonstrations for and against stricter controls on immigration and tougher penalties on illegal immigrants.

Back to the Middle East, labor migration and mobility are huge issues in the region, and show both the impact of colonialism as well as misrule by local governments in the development in the region.

For colonialism, the region is still suffering from the random borders that Britain and France drew in the 1920’s. For example, many Lebanese in the south had relatives and close relations with Palestinians in what is now northern Israel. With the creation of Israel this normal traffic was cut. Aleppo, the second largest city in Syria and historically a rival city to the current capital Damascus, lost a large part of it’s economic hinterland by the creation of the modern states of Turkey and Syria. Aleppo has had a hard time recovering from the lost markets in what is now Turkey.

In terms of mismanagement and poor governance of local leaders, it is shameful the restrictions and difficulties Arab states sometimes place on the travel of citizens of neighboring Arab countries and the poor job most have done in managing their economies. More than 50 years after the creation of the Arab League, many Arabs still have trouble traveling between Arab states. It is often easier for me with my American passport to travel between Arab countries than it is for Arabs to do so. Once in their “brotherly” Arab countries, many of these migrant workers face the same random and occasionally poor treatment that Arab governments often met out on their own citizens. Among the worst affected are Palestinians for political reasons. In close second are probably now Egyptians for economic reasons, with Iraqis possibly soon to follow suit for “security” reasons as they flee the violence and chaos of post-Saddam Iraq.

At some point Arab states will have to address the issue of migration and mobility in order to better address the challenge of economic development in the region. They have made improvements over the past 15 years, but they can do more. And like everywhere else, and here you can point to America first, a good first step is to stop blaming and punishing immigrant workers who come and do the tough jobs that locals find either uneconomical or unworthy.


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