The Middle East: A Brief Analysis

Published by the RIGHTS Collective, 31 January, 2018.

This article examines migration and trafficking patterns in the Middle East, and acted as an opening to the third edition at RIGHTS collective. Taking a critical turn to the often accepted push and pull factor-analysis of trafficking issues, it also introduces the main dynamics that affect migration patterns in the Middle East, dividing the region into different categories: The Maghreb countries, the GCC states, Israel, and the Mashrek countries to examine these patterns.

The Middle East: A Brief Analysis 

 The United Nations 2015 International Migration Report claimed in 2015 the total number of refugees worldwide had reached 244 million. The Palermo Protocol defines international trafficking as: “… the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation” (Reisen & Rijken 2015, 118).

In 2011 a wave of protests against human rights violations and oppressive regimes, known as the Arab Spring(s), blossomed across the Arab world. Many factors within the region have led to deep instability in the region. This includes the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, which resulted in 700,000 Palestinian refugees and gave birth to the on-going Arab-Israeli conflict (Morris 1990). The Iran-Iraq War and the Kuwait Crisis that followed let to more shifting political and socio-economic dynamics. As the regimes of the Arab world continue to combat each other, not just as regional powers but also as proxy-states for external superpowers, the region is a hot-spot for human rights violations.

These are some of the main events that have led to the creation of multiple vacuums in political power for rebels and insurgent groups like the Islamic State, Hezbollah, Hamas, etc., to fill in. The reality of the Middle East experiencing failed-states tends to be common as corruption among the military and politicians can be widespread and many countries suffer from high rates of poverty and inequality. This calls for an urgent acknowledgment and examination of human rights abuses in the region, as vulnerable populations suffer from poverty and corruption, one of which is the phenomenon of human trafficking.

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court has stated trafficking to be considered a crime against humanity since 2002, listing “enslavement”, “forcible transfer of population”, “imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law”, “torture”, and more under Article 7: Crimes against humanity (Rome Statute 1998, 3). A lack of data and literature on trafficking in the Middle East is due to many reasons, such as the instability and shifting dynamics of the region. Therefore, the “sheer complexity and flux of migration routes and mechanisms used by migrants, smugglers and traffickers makes this a very difficult area of analysis” (Baldwin-Edwards 2005, 17).

A flexible, wide margin for error should always be factored in when dealing with data for an inherently covert subject matter such as human trafficking. When analysing prior literature and data which attempts to reflect the reality of the situation, it is important to take into account the human nuance across cultures. This report will give a brief outline of general migration patterns in the Middle East, showing how they fit into the larger socio-economic context and looking at push and pull factors.

Migration: Passive or Active?

 Migration may refer to both the passive or active act of moving geographically. Sometimes it is passive, such as African slaves being transported to the New World, or in instances of human trafficking, prostitution, child marriage, etc., while to actively migrate can be for better job prospects or as a way of life for nomadic peoples. The push-pull theory, in this case, refers to the widely used framework used to analyse migration patterns, whereby push factors attract people into migrating while pull factors are the factors of the destination that attracted migrants. However, as William Peterson (1958) wrote in A General Typology of Migration, this theory is an inherently problematic way of examining the scope of human trafficking in relation to migration, as “few attempts are made to distinguish among underlying causes, facilitative environment, precipitants, and motives” (258). By this he refers to the lack of examination in the migrator’s aspiration, as “our analysis lacks logical clarity” (258).

The Middle East is mostly dominated by totalitarian regimes, which is reason enough for the infringement of one’s freedom and civil liberty, thus prompting migration to countries in Europe and the United States with the promise of the Western world’s “American Dream”. In this sense, it is not a passive migration but an active one, a voluntary choice made – one that may, however, result in an infringement of one’s freedom, if one ends up a victim of human trafficking. The migration patterns in the Middle East cannot be generalized and must be examined with regards to the historical and geographical contexts.

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Migration Patterns in the Middle East

It is greatly contested as to what countries are considered to be part of the Middle East, and this influences how migration patterns are examined in the region and therefore how to critically and accurately assess the trafficking phenomenon in the Middle East. The Middle East here refers to the lands between Morocco and Iran, namely: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Palestine, Israel, and the Arabian Peninsula, also known as the GCC (Gulf Corporation Council) states. The Global Commission on International Migration (GCIM) produced a report in 2005 for Policy Analysis focusing on Migration in the Middle East and Mediterranean using the following categories, with some of the main points highlighted below.

The Maghreb countries, the countries of North-Western Africa- Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Algeria:

  • Due to their positionality north of sub-Saharan Africa and south of Europe, these regions act as gateways and transit routes to Europe from sub-Saharan Africa.

The GCC states, the oil-rich countries of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates:

  • A common destination that is dependent largely on foreign workers due to the small population size, and increasing dependence on the Khafeel or “Kafala” system, meaning: “sponsorship system” whereby migrant labour workers are monitored in the GCC states.
  • These states experience an economic dependence on immigrant labour and are therefore major recipients of trafficked persons.
  • Feminisation in trafficking patterns is unique to this region in terms of the world dynamics of trafficking. The GCC states here may act as a case-study for this phenomenon, as there is an increasing trend of maids being recruited from areas such as Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Bangladesh, as well as the forced prostitution of women from the former USSR to these states.

The Mashrek countries, namely, the regions east of Egypt (which is debatable as to whether it is a Mashrek country itself or a Maghreb country but here will be included as a Mashrek country)- Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen:

  • The 1936-39 Arab Revolt, the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the 1967 Six-Day war primarily between Israel and Egypt, the 1973 Yom Kippur war, are a few of the host of events relating to Israel of which the many consequences include 700,000 Palestinian refugees and an incomprehensibly complicated and intertwining patterns of migration in these regions.
  • Egypt’s strategic location allows it to have unique trafficking patterns in its large amounts of transit-trafficking: transporting many Chinese and Eritrean job seekers to neighbouring countries such as Israel via the Sinai Desert, coined “Sinai Trafficking”, originating in around 2009. Human Rights Watch stated that Sudanese and Egyptian police were facilitated “by collusion”, such as turning a blind eye at checkpoints, returning escaped victims to traffickers, who are subject to forced labour, rape, torture, sexual violence, and gang rape (Reisen & Rijken 2015, 117). Many are Eritreans fleeing the totalitarian regime after 2001, with an estimated 5000 people fleeing monthly, some trying to get to Israel and paying guides to take them, who then abduct them. An estimated 4000 people have died attempting to flee from Sinai between 2008-2012 (Berhe 2014).


Israel, a nation of immigrants since its declaration as a state in 1948, received a large exodus of Jews over the past few hundred years that greatly increased during both World Wars.

  • Thought to resemble the “Kafala” system but to an even greater extent than the GCC countries. There is a strong criticism of Israeli law and how it is then implemented into reality. A chasm between practice and theory is seen in the large masses of illegal immigrant workers hired to replace Palestinian workers.
  • Israel is another major recipient of trafficked persons.

PikiWiki_Israel_20841_The_Palmach blue cropped

Migration patterns vary within the MENA regions. For the Maghreb region, the biggest push factor for migration was a lack of labour supply growth and economic development, while the Mashrek regions experience a pull factor of the oil-producing countries of the Gulf states. The GCC countries experience a pull factor of needing the resources for labour which attracted large amounts of foreign workforces.

Some Middle Eastern countries are likely destinations for trafficked of children and women due to abundant work opportunities. They are brought there under legitimate means, such as under the guise of legitimate employment, and are later forced into prostitution, becoming victims of human trafficking. Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria, and the UAE typically are destinations for women who have been trafficked. Egypt in particular, as mentioned earlier, acts as a transit point for women from countries in Eastern Europe such as Moldova, Ukraine and Russia, who are then taken to Israel (Baldwin-Edwards 2005, 14). Due to the largely implemented Khafeel system there is a large population of vulnerable migrants in the Middle East.

The MENA region as a whole is experiencing high open unemployment (a phenomenon in which there is a lack of work available for people), an increasing labour supply and a feminisation in their trafficking patterns. The link between forced and unforced migration and trafficking in the Middle East region is patterned, with a prevalence of sexual exploitation originating from Eastern Europe, Russia and South-Eastern Asia and largely with destinations of the Gulf countries and Lebanon. Migration to Europe, with the advent of the Syrian refugee crisis, seems to be an increasing answer to flee the economic and political pressures throughout the MENA region, as well as the pull factor of the EU’s dwindling labour force (Baldwin-Edwards 2005, 28). In terms of looking to the future, skills and training will determine how the patterns of trafficking in relation to migration might change in the years to come. One should keep in mind of the increased roboticization leading to the replacement of uneducated workers with machines and robots, and how this then may be impacting and, indeed, revolutionise the work force. This will inevitably have a large impact on population movements as labour demands evolve accordingly.


 This report attempts to portray general migration patterns in the Middle East, affected by high current unemployment, widespread poverty and political instability, and the main characteristics of each region- Mashrek, GCC, Maghreb and Israel. Although there are multiple extensive reports published by UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime), the overall research that has been done on Middle Eastern trafficking is sorely lacking in comparison to research done on trafficking in other areas of the world, comprising only 1% compared to the 35% on trafficking in the Asia-Pacific and 44% focusing on Europe (Gozdziak & Laczko 2005, 8). This report may be treated as an introductory analysis of migration and trafficking in the Middle East and a way to provide direction for where future research can be expanded upon on areas of interest and urgency, a few of which include the issue of Sinai trafficking, feminisation of trafficking in GCC countries, and the impact of the flow of Palestinian refugees on general migration and trafficking patterns in the region.





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Crisis, the Current Situation and Possible Future solutions. Endslaverynow. Retrieved from


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Morris, Benny. (1990). 1948 and After: Israel and the Palestinians. Oxford: Clarendon Press.


 Human Rights Watch. (2014). Egypt/Sudan: Traffickers Who Torture. Human Rights Watch,

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