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Migration by the numbers: COVID-19 Impacts on MENA Migration

Migration by the numbers: COVID-19 Impacts on MENA Migration

Politics Arab Migrants Basic Rights

Wednesday 17 May 202311:47 am
إقرأ باللغة العربية:

الهجرة بالأرقام: تأثيرات كوفيد19 على الهجرة في منطقة الشرق الأوسط وشمال إفريقيا


In addition to killing nearly 7 million people around the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily transformed the global migration landscape in and after 2020, including within the Middle East and North Africa. At the time, according to the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), there were 281,000,000 migrants worldwide, representing 3.6% of the world’s population.

As countries around the globe began researching and rolling out vaccines, they also began implementing various non-pharmaceutical interventions to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 infections, restricting millions of people’s freedom of movement. Most countries instituted restrictions on international travel and internal movement, putting in place border movement restrictions, quarantine requirements, school and workplace closings, stay-at-home orders, and bans on travel from some or all regions. According to the University of Oxford Government Response Tracker, although countries were more likely to implement international travel restrictions early in the pandemic than rules on internal movement, most states eventually lifted travel restrictions by July 2021. While 134 countries banned some or all forms of travel in April 2020, by July 2021, only 25 countries had similar policies in place. The IOM highlights that this rapid change in policy occurred as health-related measures began being rolled out in late 2020, effectively replacing non-pharmaceutical interventions (e.g. stay-at-home orders). As quickly as the pandemic radically changed how people navigate the world, it seemed that countries began rolling back restrictions on internal and international movement.

Of the top ten countries with respect to the share of migrants in their populations, 8 are within the Middle East, and the top 5 are in the Gulf. Moreover, refugee population numbers immigrating to and emigrating from Arab countries soared over the past two decades.

At the height of the pandemic in 2020 in the Middle East and North Africa, there were over 27 million refugees or refugee-adjacent people in or from the Middle East and North Africa. Of the top ten countries with respect to the share of migrants in their populations, eight are within the Middle East, and the top five are all in the Gulf. Moreover, refugee population numbers immigrating to and emigrating from Arab countries have soared over the past two decades. In the same time period, refugee populations in Arab countries have also become major recipients of assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), the UN’s refugee agency, with refugee populations in the region taking up nearly a quarter of the UNHCR’s entire 2023 budget.

By April 2020, nearly every Arab country had implemented internal and external movement restrictions. However, by March 2022, all Arab countries had lifted internal movement restrictions and most rules on international travel. Such movement restrictions necessarily represented a major obstacle to refugees and asylum-seekers, as many countries disallowed any kind of normally legal border crossing. More concerning, migrants faced newfound health crises, a need to rethink traditional paths of migration, evolving migrant detention policies, and exacerbated pre-existing economic inequalities. As Arab countries navigated the pandemic, did their responses affect regional migration patterns?

Overall Migration Increases despite a decline in net migration

Despite implementing movement restrictions during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Arab states did not see major decreases in gross migration values, nor has regional migration appeared to decrease dramatically since the onset of the pandemic.

When granularly analyzing migration flows and patterns, it is useful to analyze data collected by the UNHCR, which tracks thirteen types of refugee populations. This includes refugees and people in refugee-like situations, or those recognized under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol; asylum seekers, or those who are actively applying for asylum somewhere; internally displaced persons (IDPs), or those forcibly displaced who have not crossed internationally recognized borders; and other migrants of concern, such as stateless persons. Collectively, these individuals can be referred to as refugees and refugee-adjacent populations.

In the Middle East and North Africa, the overall number of refugees and refugee-adjacent populations increased between 2019 and 2022. In 2019, there were approximately 27 million refugees in the region, whereas there were over 28 million in 2022. As movement restrictions spread throughout the region during the pandemic, though, the rate of refugee population growth appears to have decreased over time, with refugee and refugee-adjacent population numbers decreasing year on year from 2019 to 2022. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of refugee and refugee-adjacent populations grew about 6.4%. Between 2021 and 2020, the same number grew at a slightly lower rate of approximately 4%. Between 2021 and 2022, the number of refugees and refugee-adjacent populations decreased by around 0.4%.



These changes may very well be direct results of the pandemic and associated restrictions on internal and international movement. However, without more up-to-date data, it is difficult to make claims on any potential longer-term effects of the pandemic on total migration numbers in the region.

In Egypt, Iraq, Mauritania, Morocco, Palestine, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, and various other Arab states, refugee numbers grew after 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic and associated movement restrictions

When breaking the numbers down and looking at the number of refugees in each Arab country, the overall trend of refugee numbers is also skewed upward. In Egypt, Iraq, Mauritania, Morocco, Palestine, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, and various other Arab states, refugee numbers grew after 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic and associated movement restrictions.




The number of internally displaced persons also rose considerably despite any cooling effect of the pandemic on migration. Across most major conflict zones in the Middle East, the number of internally displaced persons has risen dramatically. For example, although the number of IDPs decreased or mostly remained stagnant in Libya and Iraq after 2020, IDPs increased by millions in Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen during and after the pandemic. In addition, after heavy fighting broke out between the Sudanese Army and the Rapid Support Forces in Sudan in April 2023, over 100,000 people have fled Sudan, with more than 300,000 becoming internally displaced. The UN projects that over 800,000 Sudanese may leave the country throughout 2023, catalyzing the country’s already growing rate of IDPs.




One salient change the pandemic elicited was its effect on net migration throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Net migration, the total immigration to a region minus the total emigration from a region, can offer insight into regional migration flows. A positive net migration value indicates that more people are moving to a region than leaving, whereas a negative value indicates more people are leaving a region. Before the COVID-19 pandemic in 2018 and 2019, net migration values were positive in the MENA region, suggesting that despite overall high numbers of migration outside of the Middle East, more people were immigrating therein. However, after the pandemic took the world by storm, net migration in the Middle East and North Africa plummeted, indicating that much more people in the region were leaving despite movement restrictions aiming to stop the spread of COVID-19.




Long-term impacts

In hindsight, although the COVID-19 pandemic was one the most economically, socially, and politically disruptive events in modern human history, it did not completely curb the flow of migrants leaving the MENA region, nor did it appear to majorly affect migration flows in the short term. Conversely, the number of refugee and refugee-adjacent populations in many Arab states continued to increase over the past two and a half years even though virtually every Arab state implemented mobility restrictions. It is also important to note that the total number of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa began to slightly decrease in 2022, the rate of refugee number growth decreased year on year between 2019 and 2022, and net migration began to decrease after the pandemic. Without additional data, however, it is difficult to prove whether that trend will continue and whether a correlation between the pandemic and changing migration flows exists and is causal in nature.

It may take years to fully understand the longer-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Arab migrants and migration patterns, though it is unambiguous that it uplifted the lives of millions in the region, particularly in regard to mental and physical health, geographic migration patterns, and already worsening inequalities.


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