The Arab World: Receiving and Sending Migrants

Migration patterns in the Arab world vary greatly according to sub-regions. While the GCC hosts a large number of immigrants, countries in North Africa (such as Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco) have large number of emigrant population. The Mashreq countries (Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Palestine) send out a large proportion of their population as migrants and also receive large number of immigrants and refugees mainly from other Arab countries.

The Arab world as a whole acts as both a source and destination of international migration. This pattern however differs among the various sub-regions: the Mashreq and Egypt, the Maghreb and the GCC.

The Mashreq: Sending and Receiving Migrants

Countries in the Mashreq region (Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Syria) have very large emigrant communities. These include labor migrants who move for the purpose of employment and refugees who are forced to flee their countries due to dangers and fears for their lives. Almost 20% of the Lebanese population and 10% of Jordanians live abroad. While many of these emigrants travel to the GCC countries, a huge proportion also travel to Europe and North America.

Figure 1 – Mashreq countries have the highest emirgant populations in the Arab World

Figure 2 – Which countries have the highest number of Lebanese immigrants?

Historically, Syria had one of the smallest emigrant population in the Mashreq region. Between 1990 and 2010, less than 5% of the Syrian population lived abroad. However, with the start of Syrian crisis in 2011, the number of people leaving Syria (either as labor migrants or refugees) has increased five-fold. In 2015, there were more than 5 million Syrian living outside of Syria, accounting for 23% of the Syrian population.      

In addition, with almost 80% of Palestinians living out of the country, Palestine has the highest proportion of emigrants in the Arab world. 60% of those emigrants reside in Jordan while another 15% live in Lebanon. As a result, Jordan and Lebanon also act as major migrant receiving countries, mainly of those from other Arab countries (including Syria, Iraq and Egypt). In 2015, 1 in 3 of those living in Jordan and Lebanon were either labor migrants or refugees.

Figure 3 – Palestine has the highest immigrant population in the Arab World

Egypt: A Majority Sending Country

Being the most populous Arab country, Egypt is also the largest sender of migrant workers in the region. Between 1990 and 2015, the number of migrants from Egypt increased rapidly. The highest rate of increase happened between 2005 and 2010, when the emigrant population increased by almost 40% from 1.9 million to 2.6 million (according to UN estimates). The high oil prices during between 2003 and 2008 that increased development and growth in the GCC is a possible explanation for this increase.

The UN estimates that by 2015, the total emigrant Egyptian population was more than 3 million accounting for 4% of the Egyptian population. However, the Egyptian government estimates that there are approximately 8 million Egyptians living abroad. This discrepancy is due to the fact while UN estimates depend on the data in the destination countries while the Egyptian government uses a variety of sources. These sources include consulate registries, records of cross-border flows from the Ministry of Interior, emigration permits from the Ministry of Manpower. As a result, the number may include Egyptians who have been naturalized in other countries as well as illegal migrants who do not have official permits.

The majority of Egyptian migrants (73%) choose to reside in the GCC, with the UAE and Saudi Arabia attracting the most Egyptians. 29% and 23% of Egyptian emigrants live in the UAE and KSA respectively. The remaining emigrants are scattered between other Arab countries (such as Jordan, Lebanon or Libya), Europe and North America.

The Maghreb: Migrants heading to Europe

Countries of the Maghreb region are also major migrant sending countries. An average of 6% of the population of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia live abroad. However, in contrast to Egypt and the Mashreq, the majority of migrants from the Maghreb choose to reside in Europe. In 2015, 90% of the emigrants from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia lived in Europe.

The GCC: Highest Immigrant Population Globally

Figure 4 – 50% of those living in the GCC are immigrants

Being high income economies, the GCC attract migrants from all over the world. In 2015, the six countries together hosted 25.4 million immigrants. The region is unique for its high proportion of immigrants compared to the population: 50% of those living in the GCC are immigrants. This is the highest proportion of immigrants in the world. In comparison, the immigrant population is 28% in Australia, 22% in Canada, 15% in the USA and Germany and 13% in the UK. The UAE hosts the highest proportion of immigrants both in the GCC and worldwide– 85% of those living in the country are non-Emirati. Immigrants also make up the majority of the population in Kuwait (80%), Qatar (72%) and Bahrain (52%).

Figure 5 – The UAE has the highest proportion of immigrants in the world

So Where Do These Immigrants Come From?

While a large proportion of Arabs from the Mashreq and Egypt migrate to the GCC, the majority of immigrants in the region are actually non-Arabs. The main countries of origin for migrants to the GCC are India (32%), Bangladesh (11%) and Pakistan (11%).

Meanwhile, Arab nationals comprise only 22% of the total migrant population. With 2.4 million Egyptians residing in the region, Egypt is the highest Arab country of origin for GCC migrants. Other Arab nationalities that are present but in smaller numbers include Yemenis, Syrians, Jordanians, Lebanese and Sudanese.


Migration is the movement of a person or a group of persons, either across an international border, or within a State. It includes migration of refugees, displaced persons, economic migrants, and persons moving for other purposes, including family reunification.

An emigrant is a person who leaves his/her home country to settle in another. An immigrant is a person who comes to live and settle in another country.


1 United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 2015. Trends in International Migrant Stock: Migrants by Destination and Origin (United Nations database, POP/DB/MIG/Stock/Rev.2015).

2 United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 2017. World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision.

3 IOM and ESCWA. 2015. 2015 Situation Report on International Migration: Migration, Displacement and Development in a Changing Arab Region.

4 Migration Policy Centre. 2016. Migration Profile: Egypt.

5 Ahram Online. 2016. Number of Egyptians worldwide to reach 100 million on Thursday

6 IOM. 2015. World Migration.