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1. Overview of international migration and forced displacement trends in the Arab region 2. Policy developments in migration, asylum and statelessness governance in the Arab region 3. Building forward better for migrants and refugees in the Arab region: COVID-19 consequences 4. Annexes 5. Acknowledgements, Acronyms, Endnotes
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Situation Report on International Migration 2021
Building forward better for migrants and refugees in the Arab region


Over the past two years, discussions among decision makers, experts, policymakers, the media and the public have been dominated by the COVID-19 crisis that has severely impacted people across the world. Migrants, refugees and other forcibly displaced individuals were hit particularly hard, in terms of their livelihood opportunities, mobility and health. Two years after the outbreak of COVID-19, there is mounting evidence that the pandemic’s disproportionate effect on migrants and refugees is closely linked to pre-existing structural barriers and vulnerabilities.

These findings are particularly relevant in the Arab region, which continues to be a prominent region of international migration and forced displacement. In 2020, Arab countries hosted around 41.4 million migrants and refugees, representing almost 15 per cent of international migrants and refugees worldwide. Although migrant workers make up the largest group, nearly 9.3 million refugees have also sought protection in the region, including 3.6 million refugees under the UNHCR mandate and 5.7 million Palestine refugees registered with UNRWA. At the same time, migration and forced displacement from Arab countries has continued to increase, reaching an estimated 32.8 million people in 2020, 44 per cent of whom stayed within the region. Refugees are a prominent group, with a staggering 43 per cent of all refugees under the UNHCR mandate (8.9 million people out of a global total of 20.7 million) originating from Arab countries.

Dr. Rola Dashti

Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA)

António Vitorino

Director General, International Organization for Migration

Filippo Grandi

High Commissioner UNHCR


The significant volume and complexity of migration in the Arab region, and the often protracted forced-displacement dynamics, underline the importance of policies, measures and response frameworks that reduce the vulnerabilities of migrants and refugees and that build an environment which mitigates inherent challenges and harnesses benefits. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 laid bare the extreme vulnerability of migrants and refugees to economic and public health crises, while underscoring the essential role they play in societies and communities in their countries of origin and destination.

The pandemic has reinforced the fact that countries need to accelerate their efforts to protect the human and labour rights of migrants and refugees, and to empower them as contributors to development. These efforts should be guided by the roadmaps provided in global frameworks, namely the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, and the Global Compact on Refugees.

The present report focuses on the plight of migrants and refugees in the COVID-19 crisis. It delves into how pre-existing structural barriers and historical challenges exacerbate their vulnerabilities. It presents actionable recommendations to policymakers and practitioners on protecting and empowering migrants and refugees and strengthening their resilience to adversities.

1. Overview of international migration and forced displacement trends in the Arab region

The availability and contextualisation of data on international migration and forced displacement in the Arab region is a prerequisite for carving evidence-based policies and programmes that improve the situation of migrants and refugees and, at the same time, address the potential impacts posed by the massive volume of migration and refugee populations on host countries.

Chapter 1 of the Situation Report on International Migration in the Arab Region contributes to this objective. It provides regional data on the number of international migrants, refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and stateless persons, disaggregated by sex, age, countries of origin and destination, and other socio-economic characteristics. In addition, it presents updates on relevant data and comparisons of historical trends covering the period 1990-2020. Chapter 1 also includes information related to remittances to and from Arab countries and recounts the major factors influencing people’s decisions to cross borders. Where possible, it provides insight into the estimated impact of the COVID-19 crisis on international migration and forced displacement, with particular attention given to labour migration and remittances.

Number of migrants and refugees from and in Arab countries by subregion, 2020 (Millions)

Source: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), International Migration Stock, 2020.

In reference to GCC, the data denoted mainly refers to migrants, given the migration trends to the GCC.

The Arab countries host 41.4 million international migrants and refugees, who make up almost 15 per cent of international migrants and refugees worldwide.

Information highlights: overview of key migration and forced displacement trends and patterns in the Arab region

Migration and forced displacement in Arab countries

  • 1

    In 2020, Arab countries hosted 41.4 million international migrants and refugees, who made up around 15 per cent of all migrants and refugees worldwide. Their number has almost tripled from 14.2 million in 1990.

  • 2

    The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) subregion was home to almost three quarters of all migrants and refugees in the Arab region, most of them migrant workers. Mashreq countries hosted 18 per cent, driven by both forced displacement and labour migration.

  • 3

    The Arab region had the highest proportion of migrant workers of the total workforce worldwide in 2019, at 41 per cent. The GCC subregion in particular continues to be a major labour migration hub.

  • 4

    One third of the migrant and refugee population in the Arab region were women in 2020. Women represented nearly half of all migrants and refugees in the Mashreq and the Arab least developed countries (LDCs), but only 35 per cent in the Maghreb and 28 per cent in GCC countries.

  • 5

    More than two thirds of all migrants and refugees residing in Arab countries were of working age (25-64 years old) in 2020. Children (0-14 years old) represented 18 per cent, young people (15-24 years old) comprised 11 per cent, and older persons (aged 65 years old and over) constituted only 3 per cent.

  • 6

    Around 23 per cent of all migrants and refugees in the Arab region were from India in 2020. Other prominent countries of origin included Bangladesh, Pakistan, the State of Palestine, and the Syrian Arab Republic.

  • 7

    Approximately 36 per cent of all conflict-induced IDPs globally were in Arab countries in 2020, making up around 17.1 million persons. The Syrian Arab Republic had the highest conflict-induced internal displacement in the world in 2020, reaching 6.6 million persons

  • 8

    In 2020, 3.6 million refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) resided in Arab countries. In addition, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) reported 5.7 million Palestinian refugees in the Arab region. Lebanon and Jordan hosted the largest number of refugees as a proportion of their populations globally.

Distribution of migrants and refugees in the Arab region by age, age group and sex, 2020

Source: ESCWA calculations based on DESA, 2020.

Regions of origin of migrants and refugees in the Arab region, 2020

Source: ESCWA calculations based on DESA, 2020.

Migration and forced displacement from Arab countries

  • 1

    In 2020, almost 32.8 million international migrants and refugees originated from Arab countries, 44 per cent of whom stayed within the region. Their number tripled from 10.8 million in 1990.

  • 2

    Around 61 per cent of all migrants and refugees from Arab countries originated from the Mashreq in 2020.

  • 3

    More than two out of five refugees in the world came from Arab countries in 2020. Arab countries were the origin of nearly 8.9 million refugees registered with UNHCR in 2020, three quarters of whom came from the Syrian Arab Republic.

  • 4

    Three quarters of all refugees from Arab countries were staying in neighbouring countries in 2020. Turkey was the main country of destination, hosting more than 3.6 million refugees from the Arab region, or 41 per cent.

Regions of destination for migrants and refugees from Arab countries, 2020

Source: ESCWA calculations based on DESA, 2020


  • 1

    Arab countries received $57.9 billion in remittances in 2020, representing 8 per cent of global remittance inflows. Remittance inflows exceeded the amount the Arab region received in foreign direct investment by 1.7 times, and official development assistance and official aid by 1.8 times in 2019.

  • 2

    Around 23 per cent of all global remittance outflows came from GCC countries in 2019. Total remittances sent from Arab countries reached $119 billion, with 95 per cent coming from GCC countries.

  • 3

    In 2020, the cost of sending remittances to the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) was 6.58 per cent according to the World Bank, close to the global average of 6.51 per cent but far from the target of 3 per cent by 2030 set by Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 10.c.

Remittance inflows to the Arab region by subregion, 1990-2020 (Millions of dollars)

Source: World Bank, 2021a.
Note: Data for 2020 are estimates.

2. Policy developments in migration, asylum and statelessness governance in the Arab region

Chapter 2 of the report reviews national policies and laws adopted by Arab countries between April 2019 and December 2020 to improve migration governance and refugee protection. The main policy areas addressed include labour migration; irregular migration; trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants; forced displacement and refugee protection; admissions, visas, residency permits and naturalization; and expatriate and diaspora governance. It also highlights examples of the special measures that were taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic under each of the thematic areas. Chapter 2 also reports on developments in global, interregional, regional, subregional and bilateral cooperation relating to migration in which Arab countries have been involved.

Information highlights

  • 1

    In the area of labour migration, Arab countries, especially the GCC and Mashreq subregions that host significant numbers of migrant workers, enacted an array of regulations on work permits, recruitment and access to health care for migrant workers, among others. In addition, efforts to nationalize the labour force have been particularly pronounced in GCC countries.

  • 2

    Numerous policy changes and measures in the area of labour migration were adopted as a direct response to the COVID-19 crisis. Several countries introduced new digital platforms to facilitate online access to and renewal of visas, work permits and contracts. Many countries also waived related fees and penalties and took steps to extend COVID-19 testing and health-care services to migrant workers.

  • 3

    Several countries adopted laws and strategies and updated their action plans related to refugees, asylum seekers and refugee returnees. Legal developments were mostly oriented at defining asylum seekers and the rights guaranteed to refugees. Specific measures and provisions in administration, housing and health care were also adopted for refugees, refugee returnees and IDPs.

  • 4

    Trafficking in persons, including for forced labour, has been the subject of numerous policy responses, including drafting and revising laws and action plans, establishing specialized committees, and organizing awareness campaigns, while fewer policies to address migrant smuggling have been adopted.

  • 5

    Expatriate and diaspora governance also received heightened attention, particularly in the Maghreb. In addition to institutional developments in this area, several countries made efforts to repatriate expatriates and nationals stranded abroad as a result of COVID-19-related travel restrictions.

Arab countries adopted new policies and engaged in multiple processes to better manage migration and protect migrants and refugees, particularly in light of COVID-19.

3. Building forward better for migrants and refugees in the Arab region:
COVID-19 consequences

In Chapter 3, the report illustrates how the COVID-19 crisis has magnified the adverse impacts of long-standing structural barriers on migrants and refugees and has exacerbated their vulnerabilities as a result of loss of income, increased food insecurity, difficulty accessing water and sanitation facilities, limited access to affordable health and education services, increased exploitation and gendered violence, mobility restrictions, heightened xenophobia, and limited connectivity and communication. Chapter 3 also reflects on the essential role migrants and refugees continued to play during the pandemic in their countries of origin and destination, particularly in countries that rely heavily on migrant workers. The report concludes with a set of actionable recommendations addressing selected policy areas of concern to guide the efforts of Arab Governments in building forward better for migrants and refugees in the region and enhancing their resilience during crises in line with international human rights and migration frameworks.

Information highlights

  • 1

    The COVID-19 pandemic provided an opportunity to acknowledge the vital role of migrants and refugees in the provision of essential services in their host communities but also magnified the negative impacts of pre-existing structural barriers on migrants and refugees.

  • 2

    Low-skilled migrant workers, those in irregular situations, women migrants and those living in humanitarian contexts are among the most vulnerable.

  • 3

    The challenges posed by the pandemic include, but are not limited to, economic hardship, food insecurity, health barriers, education challenges, gender consequences, mobility restrictions, and limited access to communication and connectivity.

  • 4

    The region witnessed increased returns of migrants owing to job losses, changing working modalities, and repatriation efforts by States.

  • 5

    Building forward better for migrants and refugees requires addressing structural barriers, including non-inclusive social protection and health-care systems, limited regular migration pathways, labour governance frameworks that fail to protect their rights, social exclusion and xenophobia.

(Habib, Syrian male, 50 years, working as a janitor in Lebanon, personal communication, May 2021).

My family and I thought that the conflict would last a few months. I worked as a driver picking up and dropping off passengers between here (Lebanon) and Syria. We were happy but the war destroyed everything, and we had to leave. The current economic difficulties in Lebanon that were worsened by the Beirut Port blast have impoverished me and my family

(Haroon, Indian male, 29 years, working in the construction sector in the GCC subregion, personal communication, December 2020).

I came from India looking for better opportunities in the region because we hear about the good pay and better work opportunities... but what I did not anticipate was that my sponsor would take away my passport and all of my documentation papers and would have control of my movements and travel arrangements...this makes it very hard and stressful to not be able to travel back home to visit my wife, kids and family. Most of the time I feel helpless and demoralized here

(Matias, a 24-year old male, Colombian expatriate working in the GCC subregion, May 2021).

I have been lucky during the pandemic. I am surrounded by a great support network that has helped me find a job and helped me when needed

(Diwa, female, 30 years, working as domestic worker in the GCC subregion, personal communication, March 2021).

Many of the domestic workers here experience aggression from family member and also sometimes from the kids we care for, but this kind of violence against us is rarely addressed or taken seriously. A lot of the workers I know are afraid to speak about these incidences

(Bisrat, an Eritrean migrant selling food products in Morocco, personal communication, March 2021).

Before I could make a little profit of 400 dirhams ($45) per month, now nothing. I have finished all my savings

Migrants and refugees have been among the population groups most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis also highlighted the distinct and critical contributions that migrants and refugees bring to their countries of origin and host societies. Addressing the barriers that migrants and refugees face and protecting them during crises is more important than ever.

4. Annexes

Glossary of terms
Country data
Data on migrant and refugee populations
Arab States’ ratification status of international legal instruments related to international migration
Recruitment of health workers in the GCC subregion
Chapter 3 methodology note

Acknowledgements, Acronyms, Endnotes