Originally posted March 2010
Egypt is a sending, receiving, and transit country for both migrants and refugees. In the early part of the 20th century, nationals were required to apply for exit visas and only a limited number of highly skilled Egyptian professionals were allowed abroad under strict emigration controls, such as the state-sponsored transfer of school teachers to Iraq in the 1930s. From the 1970s to the present, however, there has been large scale internal rural-urban migration, as well as international emigration, primarily to the oil rich Gulf states and other Arab countries, such as Jordan, but also to Europe, North America, and Australia, including permanent, temporary, and irregular migration. Egypt is also a destination country for many thousands of asylum seekers from Palestine, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and more recently, Iraq.
According to the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the total number of Egyptians living abroad in 2006 was approximately 6.5 million — 74% in other Arab states, 12.2% in North America, 12.1% in Europe, and 1.6% in Australia.Saudi Arabia is by far the main destination for Egyptian labor (receiving around half of the total), followed by Jordan, Libya, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Based upon the type of destination countries of emigrants, about two-thirds of Egyptian migrants are assumed to be temporary, while the other third are permanent.For example, most Arab countries accept migrant labor under the kefala system, where permanent residency and citizenship possibilities are closed to foreign nationals.
In domestic legislation, the key instrument related to the emigration of Egyptians is the Emigration and Sponsoring Egyptians Abroad Law no. 111 of 1983, which covers both permanent and temporary emigration, the rules and procedures to be followed before emigration, rights of migrants, and privileges afforded to migrants and returnees. While there are no other formal domestic policy documents dealing with labor emigration, it has been argued that a de facto policy exists that can be gleaned from the informal statements of officials. It has a number of general aims: to ease the pressure on the domestic labor market by encouraging legal emigration, to increase the economic rewards of remittances, to safeguard the welfare of Egyptian migrants abroad, and to meet the demand for immigrant labor in destination countries, while at the same time to combat irregular migration.
Although Egypt does not have a comprehensive migration strategy, a number of legal and policy measures are in place that include international, regional, and national provisions for the regulation of migration, including forced migration. For example, Egypt is a party to the 1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families that came into force in 2003; the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees; and the 1969 Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa.
In January 2009, there were some 112,000 refugees and asylum seekers from 38 countries (mainly African) registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), although it is widely recognized that many more (up to 500,000+) actually reside in the country. More than half of the registered refugees and asylum seekers were Sudanese, followed by Iraqis (24%) and Somalis (12%).The government has never assumed full responsibility for refugees and asylum seekers in Egypt, but delegated the role to UNHCR and, despite a government decree in 1984 that sought to establish a permanent standing committee for refugee affairs in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, no local legislation has been enacted covering the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. Egypt’s reservations to the 1951 Convention on Articles 22 (primary education) and 24 (labor legislation) have been generally understood as not granting rights of refugees to schooling and employment, resulting in refugees being forced to be self-reliant in informal sectors. Although refugees are treated as any other foreigners (requiring work permits that are rarely granted), irregular work in the informal sectors, such as domestic work, cleaning, construction, and other unskilled laboring employment is tolerated, perhaps the main and most lucrative sector being domestic work, where there is evidence of many Sudanese, Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Somali women.
Egypt has also ratified the 2000 United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, its supplementing Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Person, Especially Women and Children, and the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air. There have been considerable efforts in the last few years to publicize the issue of human trafficking with the cooperation of the National Council for Human Rights and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Although local anti-trafficking legislation has been drafted, there is no formal victim of trafficking identification procedure in place — and thus not much in the way of concrete evidence of human trafficking.
At the regional level, Egypt is a party to the 1965 Agreement of the Council of Arab Economic Unity that sought development with regional economic and social integration through freedom of movement, employment, and residence. Complementing this, the Arab Declaration of Principles on the Movement of Manpower was adopted in 1984 that called for intra-regional cooperation to give migrant labor preferences to Arab nationals. Historically, the only Arab states that remained faithful to this agreement were Iraq and Libya in the face of the Asian migrant replacement programs of the Gulf states from the mid-1980s.
On the bilateral level, Egypt has signed a number of memoranda of understanding aiming at regularizing the stay and work of Egyptians abroad. For example, Jordanian authorities and the Egyptian government signed a Memorandum of Understanding in March 2007 that established basic operating procedures for temporary Egyptian laborers to enter Jordan (primarily in the agricultural Jordan Valley) with labor contracts, medical screening, and entry visa fees. Another bilateral agreement was the Cooperation Protocol between Egypt and Saudi Arabia signed in 2007, which established employment procedures for up to 120,000 Egyptian women to work in Saudi Arabia as hairdressers and housemaids. Under severe criticism by local human rights organizations and some members of Parliament, the arrangement did not proceed. Lastly, although no details were publicly available at the time of writing, in December 2009, Libyan and Egyptian officials signed a Memorandum of Understanding concerning Egyptian workers in the Libyan labor market.
Prompted by the need to stem the flow of many thousands of young Egyptians traversing the Mediterranean to reach Italy, often with tragic outcomes, an example of a practical step towards the implementation of a regulatory policy is the project entitled The Integrated Migration Information System (IMIS). The project, carried out from 2001 through 2005, was financed by the Italian government and jointly implemented by the Emigration Sector of the Ministry of Manpower and Emigration and the International Organization for Migration. The second phase of the project, involving the same stakeholders and donor, is being implemented in 2010. The objective is to aid the management of regular migration flows from Egypt, improve the social status of Egyptian migrants in receiving countries (specifically Italy), and encourage the contribution of migrants to development in Egypt by channeling human and financial resources generated by migrants abroad. The practical output of the project has been a website which aims to connect Egyptian job seekers with employers abroad through an automated matchmaking system, a data-bank called “Misriat,” which provides potential Egyptian migrants with information about a number of destination countries, and an info-portal for Egyptian migrants abroad. Since its inception, the website matchmaking system has received 170,000 applications from potential Egyptian migrants. Of these, 1,500 applicants were selected for interviews for positions of machine operators, assistant cooks, cooks, engineers, system developers, and construction workers. Out of the interviewed candidates, 200 passed a practical test and only 178 were selected to work in Italy. The available results of the IMIS matchmaking system of facilitating and regulating labor migration are not optimistic.
Migration policies that target specific labor demand abroad are not evident, although there are relatively ad hoc arrangements being attempted, reducing Egypt’s ability to react flexibly and maximize the returns of international migration. Furthermore, elements of migration management, such as pre-departure training and orientation or skills training for prospective migrants, are also missing. Lack of these mobility management tools points towards a policy and planning deficiency rather than the lack of legal basis.
A number of government ministries and instrumentalities are involved with migration issues. The most influential in developing migration policy and mobility management tools is the Egyptian Ministry of Manpower and Emigration, which has a specially designated Emigration Sector. It attempts to encourage and facilitate regular migration as well as establish and enhance cultural and social ties with the Egyptian diaspora. The Minister of Manpower and Emigration is also the head of the Higher Committee for Migration, established in 1977. The task of ensuring policy development, coherence, and coordination of all bodies involved in mobility management was delegated to the Higher Committee for Migration, but has been largely moribund. The Ministry of Interior facilitates administrative steps related to regular migration, in particular visa issuance, registration of documents of foreign origin, registering international marriages and divorces of Egyptians, registering educational certificates and issuing labor certificates for the purpose of travelling abroad. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs provides the Egyptian citizens abroad with an array of assistance and services including emergency repatriation, renewal of passports, or authorization of personal documents. The Ministry of Defense plays a role in situations involving the military service duties of Egyptians abroad.
Migrant remittances to Egypt have been increasing since 2000, reaching $5.9 billion in 2007, representing 5% of GDP. The rules and regulations dealing with migrant remittances have been experimented with over time. In the 1960s the government asked emigrants to repatriate part of their earnings through personal accounts at the government owned bank (single migrant households were required to transfer 25% of their income and family households 10%), a measure that was unsuccessful. To draw more remittances, exchange rates were altered at the end of 1960s and early 1970s and special government bonds for emigrants were issued. Again, this did not prove attractive. The government changed its policy in the 1980s and encouraged migrants to remit into a foreign currency account in Egypt by offering favorable exchange rates. Bonds for Egyptian migrants also were introduced. None of the measures had the expected result of an increase of remittance flows through formal channels. Part of the reluctance, of course, was the lack of trust in governmental activities and fears of bureaucratic delays. None of these policies led to the significant growth of access to remittances by official sources, and no special facilities remain for investing the savings of emigrants while abroad or when they return home. In 2004, however, one bank sought to enhance its remittance business by eliminating remittance transfer fees. The project failed with the realization that the migrants were not leaving their money in the bank.
The entry of foreign migrant labor to Egypt is best characterized as cautious and restrictive. In 2005, there were almost 250,000 voluntary migrants in Egypt, half from other Arab countries and a quarter from Europe, mainly skilled professionals, technicians, managers, craftsmen, and some in agriculture. In Egypt, it seems that there was never specific legislation to facilitate the entry of migrant workers into the country. A law passed in 1952 following the Nasser revolution, prohibited foreigners from obtaining work permits as long as the labor market had Egyptians to fill the positions. The principle remains the same today. An organization cannot exceed 10% of its workforce with unskilled or semi-skilled non-Egyptian labor, or 25% in the case for skilled workers. In 2006, the Egyptian government placed a strict control on the formal entry of foreign domestic workers, prohibiting any “request for a work permit for a house manager or a similar position such as a nanny, cook, maid, etc. of any nationality.”The rights and entitlements of non-Egyptian labor in the country are the same as those of Egyptians under the Egyptian Labor Code, but “subject to the condition of reciprocity,” where Egypt has labor agreements with other countries that host Egyptian migrants.
With increasing recognition of the importance of migration, Egypt is gradually attempting to develop more systematic facilitation of its nationals into international labor markets, but more specifically within the Arab region, where most of its recent migration history is based. Migration and development is the key to its most recent deliberations in association with the League of Arab States. Because of the levels of poverty and unemployment within the country, however, restrictions on migrant labor entry into Egypt will remain restrictive.
. Heba Nassar (forthcoming), “Egyptian Migration,” Center for Migration and Refugee Studies, American University in Cairo, Egypt.
. Leila Simona Talani, “Why Do Migrants Leave Their Countries? Motivations at the Point of Departure: The Case of Egypt”, Monograph, Egyptian Ministry of Manpower and Migration and the British Academy (2003); Jackline Wahba, “An Overview of Internal and International Migration in Egypt,” Working paper 0703, Economic Research Forum, Cairo (2007); Heba Nassar, “Temporary and Circular Migration: The Egyptian Case,” CARIM Analytic and Synthetic Notes 2008/2009.
. Ayman Zohry, “The Migratory Patterns of Egyptians in Italy and France,” CARIM, Research Reports 2009/17, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, San Domenico di Fiesole, European University Institute (2009).
. UNHCR 2010 Country Operations Profile, Egypt, http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/page?page=49e486356.
. Egyptian Ministry of Manpower and Emigration, http://www.manpower.gov.eg/; Christine Fandrich (forthcoming), “Facilitated International Egyptian Labour Migration and Development” Center for Migration and Refugee Studies, American University in Cairo.
. Ahmed Ghoneim (forthcoming), “Rules, Regulations and Policies Governing Doing Business, with Special Focus on SMEs,” in Ray Jureidini, Iveta Bartunkova, Ahmed Ghoneim, Nadia Ilahi, and Erin Ayjin, A Study on Egyptian Migrants Abroad and Remittances to Egypt, International Organisation for Migration, Geneva.
. Ali Sawi, “Migration-Related Institutions and Policies in Egypt,” Analytical and Synthetic Notes 2005/08, Political and Social Module, CARIM, European University Institute, Florence, Italy (2008).
. Ray Jureidini, “Irregular Workers in the Labour Market: migrants and refugees working as domestic workers in Egypt,” International Journal on Multicultural Societies (IJMS) Vol. 11, No. 1 (2009), pp. 75-90.
The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.